Book Review – The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The U.S. prison population has increased hundreds of times over in the past 30 years. In that time, since the end of the Civil Rights era, most Americans have continued to live and go to school in racially homogeneous neighborhood, and Africans Americans, as a group, continue to have worse health outcomes, lower educational achievement, higher unemployment, and less wealth than their white counterparts. And the vast majority of U.S. prisoners and ex-prisoners are people of color. What do we make of these facts?

As legal scholar Michelle Alexander lays out in this book, mass incarceration in the U.S. has maintained a racial caste system, replacing Jim Crow segregation, which in its turn replaced slavery. The “colorblind” system we have today allows hundreds of thousands of African Americans (as well as people of other races) to be legally discriminated against in the ways Jim Crow once allowed explicit racial discrimination: in housing, employment, and voting. In other words, you aren’t a racist if you discriminate against “felons”–even when “felon” de facto means a black man.

As chapters 2-4 lay out, the criminal “justice” system allows law enforcement and prosecutors the power to decide who is targeted for questioning, searches, arrests, stiffer charges, longer sentences, and harsher penalties almost entirely at their own discretion. This might be fine if police and prosecutors had no preconditioned racial stereotypes, and weren’t susceptible to the same coded messages in political speeches and mass media as all of us. Try this thought experiment: picture a drug dealer. What race is the person in your head? If you are like most Americans, you picture a black person. Yet public health studies show that white and black Americans use and sell illegal drugs the same amount. But white Americans are several times less likely to be searched and arrested, and even if they are, at every step of the legal process, whites fare better than blacks facing prosecution: they are more likely to receive bail, face fewer and lesser charges, and receive less severe penalties. Yet racial bias is virtually un-proveable and un-challengeable in an individual’s particular case. Racial profiling is legal, and as long as an officer or prosecutor isn’t stupid enough to say out loud that they hate black people, no legal challenge is possible on the grounds of race. At the same time, the federal drug policy — less a response to a truly rising epidemic than a tactical political move — makes drug sweeps a profitable for law enforcement, by tying federal funding to numbers of drug arrests and allowing the seizure of property involved in drug trafficking. Chapter 4 describes in detail the daily struggles this system creates for the individuals caught up in it, even after formal release. The label “felon” legally locks a person out of social assistance programs like public housing, welfare, and food stamps, and saddles them with debts associated with their own arrest, trial, and incarceration–not to mention experiencing the shame and social exclusion that comes along with the stigma of criminality.

Despite the insistence of prime-time TV, mainstream news, and the sincere belief of cops and friends of cops I know, I stopped believing that the legal system existed to stop crime and protect ordinary people a long time ago. I could cobble together some statistics and studies to support my cynicism, but with this book, Alexander has made the argument more cogently and comprehensively than I ever could. What the system is about is preserving a status quo, tamping down rebellion, and keeping working class people divided along racial lines so we don’t unite along class lines. As Alexander lays out, the three systems of racial control in the U.S. — slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration — in their inception were ruling class reactions to multiracial threats: colonial rebellions of indentured servants, white and black; working class Populists in late 1800s who attracted both poor white farmers and black Americans to their platform; and popular social movements that emerged through the 1960s and ’70s to challenge the prevailing order. In each period, liberal leaders betrayed the movements that initially gave them power, by eventually siding with the conservatives who used race to drive a wedge through a class-based challenge to their authority: racism was written in the Constitution through states rights and the 3/5 compromise; Populists accepted segregation and made the poor white southerner their sole constituent; and Democrats embraced the War on Drugs and tough-on-crime approaches with as much gusto as Republicans.

Alexander makes the critical point that none of these systems was solely the product of racial hostility. Slavery and Jim Crow were primarily systems of managing black laborers; mass incarceration manages the black unemployed, whose labor is no longer critical to profits in a service economy where manufacture has become global. These systems were and are able to exist not because the majority of Americans are KKK-card-carriers, but because of profound and widespread racial indifference — i.e., not hostility to people who are different, but simply unconcern. In describing the breakdown of multiracial alliances and the rise of each racial caste system, she echoes W.E.B. Du Bois in describing the psychological wage of whiteness; with the beginnings of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, working-class whites, without winning any radical change in their social standing or additional material security, accepted the “racial bribe”: you may still be poor, you may still have to work for a boss, you may still have no control over your own life, but at least you aren’t a n**.

The last chapter is the most important, in my view, wherein Alexander points the way forward. She is realistic that dismantling mass incarceration will take a massive, grassroots movement; it cannot be litigated or legislated away. It has be explicitly talked of as a social justice issue: activists cannot simply speak of the economic cost of imprisoning millions of people, for instance, or the latent racism in the system will simply mutate into another form. It has to involve people of all races and become consciously class-based–all of us or none of us, with the us encompassing white, black, Asian, Latin, and others. She includes a particular call to racial justice activists and organizations to rethink civil suits and affirmative action as the frontiers of advocacy. Affirmative action, she argues, has in fact allowed the system of mass incarceration to flourish: so long as individual African Americans attend Ivy League schools, head corporations, and even get elected President, Americans at large can believe that racism is no longer an issue, while the system on the whole continues to lock most African American families into a permanent undercaste. Heady and controversial stuff, and I challenge any and every American read and contemplate that analysis and the facts assembled in this book.

View all my reviews

1 Comment »

  1. […] Malerich has a new review of the book, notable primarily because it was completed so long after the book was published.  […]

{ RSS feed for comments on this post} · { TrackBack URI }

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: