Michelle Alexander’s hugely influential book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was published in 2010, just two years after Barack Obama was elected president for the first time. That’s seven years ago now, and as I read it, I wondered what she would write in an updated edition, should she create one in, say, 2020. A lot has happened since her book was written to open the eyes of the nation to the truth of what she said: Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, dozens of widely-publicized police-involved shootings, evidence of police bias, Charlottesville. But not much has changed in our nation’s criminal justice system as a result. Or not yet.
Alexander’s premise is that once Jim Crow crumbled as a result of the Civil Rights movement and the federal laws that abolished segregation and other civil rights abuses, white leaders used the rhetoric of “law and order” and being “tough on crime” to exert control over the black population. This changed over a couple of decades into the War on Drugs, a “war” that, for many reasons, hugely disproportionately affected black and brown people and put them under the control of the penal system. Jim Crow disappeared, but a new way of controlling minorities was put in place — and this time it was supposedly “colorblind,” even though every piece of evidence suggests that it affects minorities far, far more than white people.
Alexander discusses the way the federal government gives police departments incentives to wage the War on Drugs: they get to keep the money and property they seize; they get grant money for the people they arrest; they get military-grade weapons in return for participating. Who would, or could, turn that down? What politician wants to be soft on crime? Not Hillary Clinton. Not Barack Obama.
She also discusses the long-term after-effects of being swept up in the prison system. Let’s say you get arrested for felony possession of a small amount of marijuana when you’re 19. Maybe you don’t even go to jail; lots of people don’t for that kind of crime. Or maybe harsh mandatory sentencing sends to you prison for several years. After that, though, you can’t get help with housing, you can’t get food stamps, you can’t get government loans for education, your right as a citizen to vote is taken away, you have trouble finding a job because no one will hire a felon. Thirty years later, you’re still only 50 years old, but that’s still following you. You still have to keep checking that box. You’re still in control of the penal system. You’re part of what she calls the “undercaste.” And she is very, very clear that in the United States, this undercaste is deliberately racialized.
I learned so much from this book. Did you know, for instance, that jails in the United States are mostly in rural areas? This means that when a census is taken, these rural areas get a boost in population (and therefore representation) because they have a jail, even though those people can’t vote, and the inner-city areas those people often come from have a corresponding decline in population (and therefore representation.) Did you know that there are nearly a million jobs related to prisons in the US? Did you know that the US Supreme Court says racial profiling is okay? Did you know that white people use, and deal, drugs, at the same rates minorities do? Though this book was not a list of trivia. It was a compelling argument that the War on Drugs has been used as a tool to incarcerate millions of African Americans and decimate communities.
This book was hard to read. Don’t misunderstand — it is very clearly written, extensively resourced, and utterly convincing. But it is devastating. It took me a long time to read, even though it’s only about 250 pages long, partly because I wanted to absorb all of the information, and partly because it hurt to read it. Towards the end of the book, Alexander says that this system of mass incarceration that holds millions of people in its grip isn’t the result of race hatred. It’s the result of race indifference. In the words of Martin Luther King, “One of the great tragedies of man’s long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class, or nation.” We just don’t care very much about what happens to poor black and brown people, especially if they “did something wrong” or “made poor choices.” We have to care, says Alexander. If we fail to care, really care, across racial divides, another system of racial control will be reborn.
I couldn’t recommend this book more highly. It’s extremely relevant to current events, and eye-opening even if you already know a lot about this topic. Let it sit with you a while.