Book Review: The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (New Press, $19.95)

Michelle Alexander shines a light on the underbelly of the criminal justice system in her book The New Jim Crow (2012).

She is bringing to our attention the fact that there is now, as there has been for the past two decades, an evolving system in play that is placing young, poor people of color into a permanent under-caste. This subtle process of disenfranchising people based on their race and class strips its victims of their Fifteenth Amendment rights and eerily resembles the Jim Crow era. Her book has been called “the Bible of a social movement” and has been praised by socially aware peers and civil rights advocates such as Cornel West and Marian Wright Edelman.

Michelle Alexander graduated from Stafford Law School and Vanderbilt University. Presently, she holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State. She has previously served as law clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun at the U.S. Supreme Court and for Chief Judge Abner Mikva on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Also, she served for several years as the director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of California. The project spearheaded a national campaign against racial profiling via law enforcement.

The New Jim Crow is highly equipped with daunting facts and statistics all cited in the notes section of the book. Here are just a few:

• “There are more blacks under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”
• “As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.”
• “A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.”
• “In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, not trafficking, and 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests in the 1990s was for marijuana.”
• “Even though blacks and whites have similar levels of drug use, blacks are ten times as likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes.” (Some studies show white youth is significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug activity; white youths visit the emergency room for drug-related incidents nearly three times more than African American youth).
• “If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80 percent.) These men are part of a growing under-caste—not class, caste—permanently relegated by law to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.”

How is it that now, with the crime rate at historical lows, we have soaring imprisonment rates? The answer is drug forfeiture laws and cheap labor. Prisons make products and assemble goods for Microsoft, Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret, and Boeing.

In 2007, taxpayers spent $74 billion on prisons, particularly on for-profit prison companies. These for-profit prisons donate money to think tanks, lobbyists and political candidates. The Justice Policy Institute says the for-profit prisons “have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts.”

One think tank, for example, that receives these donations, is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a “corporate front group” that promotes harsh immigration laws, drug laws, and prison privatization laws to state-level politicians around the country. The cycle is incestuous and purely evil, all starting with the War on Drugs. First, SWAT teams raid poor communities of color with tanks, bazookas and grenade launchers; the kind of force that would never remain nationally tolerable had it entered suburban ground. Next, the people, with wives and daughters and mothers and fathers, are swept into the criminal justice system and into the racial second-class caste that Michelle Alexander has pointed out. Once people become felons, they are unable to vote and are vulnerable to discrimination in the workforce and deprived of social help. Finally, while in prison, these same people work for companies that are taking taxpayer money and utilizing cheap prison labor. These companies then send money to people who want to further advocate drug laws and more private prison infrastructure—lobbying, continuing the Drug War, continuing cheap labor. And here we are.

In her final chapter, the fire this time, a homage to the great James Baldwin, Michele Alexander is not simply calling for immediate action; she is advocating a national conversation about this insidious process, so that it can no longer remain hidden. The New Jim Crow is bringing light to the age of colorblindness and offering that instead of being colorblind, we be compassionate, and informed.

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