Our 2012 December Selection:
The New Jim Crow
By Michelle Alexander
According to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the “War on Drugs,” was not waged in an effort to dispense justice to dangerous criminals, but rather to control black men by putting them behind bars and relegating them to permanent second class status upon their release. Her book is damning accusation that the execution of the drug laws has effectively continued the marginalization of black men that began with slavery, proceeded to the Jim Crow laws. The difference today is that, since many presume we have reached the colorblind nirvana dreamed of by Dr. King, this is carried out through procedures masquerading as law and race is never mentioned. Alexander’s book reads less like a typical account of current affairs than a passionate case argument, a form that will come as no surprise considering her career as a civil rights lawyer and legal scholar.
Since passage of mandatory sentencing, the prison population of the US has ballooned from 300,000 to more than 2 million people, primarily due to drug crimes. The US has the largest percentage of prisoners relative to our population of any country in the world and
The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid…These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.
The majority of the imprisoned are not dealers, they have no history of violence, and the drug that accounted for 80 percent of the growth in arrests throughout the 1990s was arguably the least dangerous available: marijuana.
Thirty years ago, fewer than 350,000 people were held in prisons and jails in the United States. Today, the number of inmates in the United States exceeds 2,000,000. In this book, Alexander argues that this system of mass incarceration “operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.” The War on Drugs, the book contends, has created “a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society.” Mass incarceration, and the disabilities that come with the label “felon,” serves, metaphorically, as the new Jim Crow.
The book develops this argument with systematic care. The first chapter provides context with a brief history of the rise, fall and interrelation of the first two racial caste systems in the United States, slavery and Jim Crow. Subsequent chapters provide close scrutiny of the system of mass incarceration that has arisen over the past thirty years, examining each stage of the process (e.g., criminalization, investigation, prosecution, sentencing) and the many collateral consequences of a felony conviction (entirely apart from any prison time) and how and why each of these has operated to the detriment of African-Americans. The book also explores how the caste system Alexander identifies is different and not-so-different from Jim Crow, the many political and economic forces now invested in sustaining it, and how it has been rendered virtually immune to challenge through litigation. The book concludes with an argument that while many particular reforms will be needed to change this system, nothing short of a social movement that changes public acceptance of the current system can solve this problem and offers critiques and proposals for the civil rights movement based on this analysis. Everyone who reads this book will come away seeing the War on Drugs and mass incarceration in a new light.