Sociology. African American Nonfiction. Nonfiction. Seldom does a book have the impact of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Since it was first published in 2010, it has been cited in judicial decisions and has been adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads; it helped inspire the creation of the Marshall Project and the new $100 million Art for Justice Fund; it has been the winner of numerous prizes, including the prestigious NAACP Image Award; and it has spent nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Most important of all, it has spawned a whole generation of criminal justice reform activists and organizations motivated by Michelle Alexander's unforgettable argument that "we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it." As the Birmingham News proclaimed, it is "undoubtedly the most important book published in this century about the U.S." Now, ten years after it was first published, The New Press is proud to issue a tenth-anniversary edition with a new preface by Michelle Alexander that discusses the impact the book has had and the state of the criminal justice reform movement today.
Alexander starts the book by giving a short summary of the two previous systems used to control blacks – slavery and Jim Crow, the set of laws and customs that developed after the Civil War and Reconstruction that kept minorities as a second-class citizen. Her biggest claim is that the War on Drugs and the prison system is the new Jim Crow, a highly emotional charge that is given strong support here. Whatever one thinks of that comparison, though, the author’s case-by-case depiction of the loss of any meaningful constraint on police actions and the long list of extremely harsh and unfair restrictions on not only those convicted of drug charges but those either charged but not convicted or just arrested for drug crimes is staggering. The beginnings of the current drug war are traced – a War on Drugs was actually declared before the spread of crack, long seen as the scary boogyman of drugs. Ronald Reagan is given much of the blame but Alexander is highly critical of Bill Clinton’s reforms and is doubtful of some of Obama’s actions. Being “tough on crime” became an easily coded way to appeal to the rightmost elements as well as poor whites and Republicans and Democrats would both use it – no one wanted to be seen as having sympathy for criminals. Alexander shows how government money was used to incentivize the arrest of large groups of drug criminals – almost all black or brown, she notes – and led to the militarization of police tactics. To point out some of the worst abuses – police are allowed to seize the property of drug criminals, giving them another incentive for arrests. Even those only arrested and not charged can have their property seized and a cumbersome process must be undertaken to try to get it back, leading to the idea of a piece of property having “guilt”. Laws were only reformed (and not by that much) when some especially corrupt police departments targeted white millionaires, hoping to seize a large estate if even a small amount of drugs was found and actually taking a helicopter. Out-of-proportion mandatory sentencing and punitive three-strikes laws are often discussed but Alexander gives the disparities of the crimes and sentences in detail.
Alexander covers a list of Supreme Court cases and all result in giving police and prosecutors almost unlimited discretion in who to arrest and charge. Any limits in stopping and searching people are almost never used in fact – the issue with obtaining “consent” to search, for example. Police can stop someone for pretty much any reason – looking too nervous to too calm are acceptable reasons cited. They can also use race, as long as it’s not the sole reasons. Prosecutors regular overcharge drug criminals to force plea bargains and it’s well-known that public defenders are spread too thin. In choosing a jury, prosecutors can cite almost any reasons for rejecting a potential juror – the one given in the Supreme Court case was that the guy’s hair was too long. In fact, many of the decisions state that a racial bias cannot be charged unless there is clear evidence of someone doing something solely based on race which is unlikely. Statistics were not acceptable as evidence of bias. Attempts to obtain evidence showing racial bias couldn’t be pursued as in one case where the court decided that the evidence necessary to decide the case (a list of white defendants who weren’t transferred to the harsher federal system) was the evidence being sought in a Catch-22.
Restrictions placed on felons after release make a person more likely to engage in further crimes. For example, a number of court and imprisonment costs can be billed to felons and their wages can be garnished 100% - making it not unlikely that former convicts would turn to illegal methods to make a living. Housing and unemployment issues will come as no surprise but Alexander also discusses costs associated with transportation or a lack of it and the outflow of potential service jobs from the cities to the suburbs. In several harsh regulations pushed by the Clinton administration, people can be barred from public housing if drugs are used on their premises, even if they didn’t know about it, or if people living with them use drugs outside of their residence. Despite the fact that extremely high percentages of young black men are incarcerated, there is still a stigma and shame attached. In the next section, Alexander compares the current prison system to Jim Crow though not focusing on what might be obvious. Her final chapter is not so much suggestions as critiques of some of the current ways of dealing with the problems (admonishing black men, using lawsuits as a primary way to effect change, making affirmative action the centerpiece of current civil rights pushes, promoting colorblindness as a solution) and a call for a new grassroots movement akin to the Civil Rights Movement. Alexander ends on a hopeful, fiery quote by James Baldwin but this book will make all but the most hardened feel dispirited.
Here are just a couple of quotes - it was really hard to pick.
In less than thirty years, the US penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran.
Studies show that people of all color 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. That is not what one would guess, however, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.
. . . for drug felons, there is little hope of escape. Barred from public housing by law, discriminated against by private landlords, ineligible for food stamps, forced to “check the box” indicating a felony conviction on employment applications for nearly every job, and denied licenses for a wide range of professions, people whose only crime is drug addiction or possession of a small amount of drugs for recreational use find themselves locked out of the mainstream society and economy – permanently.
SWAT teams could have rappelled from helicopters in gated suburban communities and raided the homes of high school lacrosse players known for hosting coke and ecstasy parties after their games . . . Suburban homemakers could have been placed under surveillance and subjected to undercover operations designed to catch them violating laws regulating the use and sale of prescription “uppers”. All of this could have happened as a matter of routine in white communities, but it did not. Instead, when police go looking for drugs, they look in the ‘hood.
To put the crisis in even sharper focus, consider this: just 992 black men received a bachelor’s degree from Illinois state universities in 1999, while roughly 7000 black men were released from the state prison system the following year just for drug offenses.
Edit | More
The justice system itself is skewed against low-income African American defendants. Until recently, possession of crack cocaine was sentenced at 100 time the length of sentences for powder cocaine, which is seen as the drug of choice for white people. It's now sentenced at an 18-to-1 ratio. Harsh drug laws require judges to give first time offenders who were caught with a small amount of drugs, including marijuana, to custodial sentences of five years, longer than that received by those convicted of violent assault or drunk driving. Police department funding depends on drug arrests for both financing and equipment, and has led to a 2000% increase in the number of people imprisoned as compared to the 1970s.
And the problem isn't solved when people leave prison. Felons are ineligible for public housing. They can't vote or serve on juries. It's almost impossible for them to find a job. We've created an underclass barred from participating in society, from supporting their families, from being a useful member of society. And that underclass is overwhelmingly composed of African American men.
This is a largely invisible problem, hidden from all but the family members of the incarcerated. The focus is on the War on Drugs, which isn't racist in and of itself, it's just that it's more efficient to scoop up people from high density urban ghettos. And if middle-class white Americans were subject to the same tactics, there would be an outcry. Alexander makes a solid case, but also presents the beginnings of a solution. While The New Jim Crow is a difficult book to read, it does start a conversation that we need to have.
How did this happen? Racial prejudice through law is not new, of course. After the end of slavery, southern Democrats enforced racist laws, effectively cutting off the newly freed populations from voting rights, jury duty, and so forth. This was the first Jim Crow.
There was a brief refuge with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations of the 1960s, and the civil rights movement. The Voting Rights Act killed the first Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Bill and desegregation did too. However, after the assassinations of the late 1960s, when JFK and RFK and the Reverend King and Malcolm X all fell, bloodied martyrs, war riots and a fear of the loss of public order choked the American public.
In 1968, Richard Nixon promised them law and order, to be 'tough on crime'. He used covertly racist advertising, setting the 'inner city' and the 'peacenik' against the 'silent majority'. He began the War on Drugs. Then came Ronald Reagan, who described welfare fraud, and whipped up racist panic about crack babies, crack heads, gangbangers. His stories were lies. Drug usage was on the decline among black communities when he made his first self-righteous crusades in 1982. But here, the laws were biased, punishing crack over powder cocaine. Crack was cheap, favored by blacks, and cocaine, used by whites, was not as heavily prosecuted. The majority of drug users are white (being the majority of the population) but the majority of those imprisoned are black.
What is the state of drugs today? Drug abuse/dependence among white and black youth is roughly equal, ~8% as of 2013. However, blacks are ten times more likely to be apprehended by whites It has remained at this point since the beginning of the drug war, and even after the exponential increase in police spending in the drug war.
How is the new Jim Crow implemented beyond drugs? First, through searches and seizures, and the dismantling of the 4th amendment. Second, through the pressures of the judicial system. Third, through the extremely harsh treatment which these prisoners now receive.
The legal protections of the fourth amendment have been largely curtailed in the drug war. Property can be confiscated and homes invaded on unproven allegations. 'Material self-interest' allows law enforcement to target anyone, anywhere, for any reason.
The judicial system has been complicit in this new aggressive policy. Mandatory minimum sentencing has led to disproportionately long sentences for even minor counts of personal possession. Heavy mandatory penalties against non-violent offenders - e.g., fifty years prison for minor amounts of personal possession, are now upheld by the Supreme Court. So there goes the Eighth amendment as well.
Government privatization of the prison system, with market incentives gone perversely wrong. When prisons are privatized, what is their means of making a profit? Tacit support of 'tough-on-crime' laws, increasing prisoner intake, earning a profit by cutting out amenities, keeping their 'guests' there as long as possible. Imagine a hotel with mandatory attendance, how else would they make money?
Twenty years ago, former prisoners could at least earn a living with manufacturing jobs. They'd stay out of the customers' eyes. Now, these jobs have vanished. What's left are those jobs at the very bottom, or nothing at all.
This is the Gulag Archipelago of our age. It is a hidden state within a state, where we dump our poor, our tired, our huddled masses. This book is essential reading, not just for the activist or the politician, or the social worker, not even only for those in poverty who know this already, but the average American voter. It is time to stand up against the George Wallaces and Jan Brewers and Joe Arpaios of the world. Time for the Freedom Riders of history to march again against bigotry, and this time to fight for a more lasting place in the sun.
Alexander's points and arguments here are carefully thought-out, well-stated, and relentlessly rational. She is, I think, especially good at addressing, in a clear and non-judgmental fashion, that naive little voice that kept popping up somewhere in the back of my head whispering, "Well, yes, but, still, if they would just not do the crime, it wouldn't be a problem, right?" And I appreciated that, the way she gave me exactly the points I needed to hear, when I needed to hear them.
I feel a little bad that it took me this long to get around to reading this, after having it on my shelf for many years. And the fact that it was written during the Obama administration does make some aspects of it feel a little strange and dated right now. But I think I'm actually glad that I finally picked it up at this particular moment, when it begins to feel like perhaps there might be the possibility of a spark of hope that things might change in the realm of law enforcement. Because otherwise it would be impossible to feel anything but thoroughly depressed and infuriated after reading it.
Stunning. Shocking. Disturbing. The author very convincingly lays out a disturbing picture of our incarceration system. Some of the questions she asks are:
Why has the prison population increased four-fold
Why is our current incarceration rate 6-9 times that of other developed countries
Why do three out of four young African-American men end up in jail or prison at some point in their lives?
Why was the “War on Drugs” ramped up at a time when drug-related crime was actually decreasing?
Why has the “War on Drugs” been primarily waged in poor communities of color, when studies have shown that all races use and sell drugs at similar rates?
Why is sentencing for crack cocaine so disproportionate with sentencing for powder cocaine?
Why are local police departments given extra financial incentives to pursue drug crimes?
Why were local police departments given military equipment so that they could pursue drug crimes with military policing rather than community policing, even for the most minor of drug crimes?
When drug crime prisoners complete their sentences, they come out as second class citizens, no longer having the right to vote, serve on juries, and being able to be legally discriminated against in employment, housing, educations, benefits, virtually guaranteeing that their only income option would be drugs, if they come from the ghetto and return to the ghetto. Why, then are we shocked by recidivism?
Since the drug problem in the ghettos of inner cities did not begin until the factories closed and jobs left, why wasn’t the drug problem attacked by bringing jobs back to these places?
Why are non-violent drug issues/addictions, treated as crimes rather than health issues?
The questions go on and Michelle Alexander, an attorney, demonstrates through a look at history, court cases, including Supreme Court decisions, crime statistics, etc. that the targeting of communities of color is no accident but part of an intentional plan to create a new caste system aimed at creating, without using racialized language, a system of new “Jim Crow”-like restrictions, making poor communities of color second class and restricted to a “parallel” universe that allows very few options in life.
I highly recommend reading The New Jim Crow especially with the current events going on. This needs to be talked about and brought to light. It makes me upset that our country can ignore this problem.
In the beginning, I found it troublesome to read because of my ignorance. At the end, I found it repetitive. Alright! I get it! But even the ending had factual matter that I wasn't aware of.
This IS a book that
Even when released these felons are denied any benefit that might allow them to productive reintegrate into society: they are permanently denied food stamps, public housing, as well as the right to vote. They cannot find employment. The cumulative effects on the individual and the group is devastation on a massive scale. But because this is tauted as colorblind and individual responsibility, these massive incarceration works escape censure for their racist foundations and effects.
It is an appalling situation. The author is light on how the problem might be solved, but one hopes that, perhaps eventually, enough social will can be mustered to effect the fundamental changes that will be required to truly correct this injustice.
This was an incredibly insightful book, however, I did have some issues with it. She presented many problems but fell short on how to exactly fix them, start a movement, etc. The last chapter didn't do a great job at expanding on how to move
Filled with stunning statistics, this book is one of the most important I've read lately.
Did you know that the War on Drugs is actually a lightly-veiled update on the age-old institutions of slavery and Jim Crow? Did you
And if the blatant racism of this system isn't compelling enough for you, then consider that there is nothing about the laws themselves that are racist, and they can actually be used to oppress any demographic. For example, Trump could use the supposed "criminal justice system" to wage a war on activists, and it would be entirely legal.
The one place where this book falls shorts: in questioning the foundation of criminal justice. What if punishment doesn't improve people? What if jails don't help society? Followed to the logical conclusion, that is where our author's rhetoric would end up, but she isn't that dogged.
This is one of the most important books I've ever read. In my opinion, it should be required reading for all Americans.
America's prison system is incredibly racist in its implementation, that I knew. But what this book illuminates so well are the facts that (a) the system was transformed along racial lines in a discrete, systematic way and (2) the worst iniquities of our criminal justice system might actually be the lives we force felons into after prison. The concept of "civil death" underlies so many of our laws that pertain to convicted people, and it's all out of proportion to the petty crimes that most of them committed. Beyond which, it has broader implications for the black community that do, indeed, recall Jim Crow.
Finally, while the final chapter seemed a bit rushed, I did accept a lot of her prescription for where to go from here. It might seem contradictory to say that, on one hand, we can't pretend that the current system is equally harsh to all races, and on the other, that we have to address this in a manner that helps both racial minorities and whites. Her appeal to King's sense that it's time to move beyond civil rights and toward human rights is, I think, dead on.
However eventually she did get to the point about how much racism there is even in folks that don't think they are racists, including blacks
It is very evident that Micheele Alexander is a black Democrat writing for black Democrats. As such I'm not sure how to judge her end use. If what she missed was based on her target audience, or actually failures of her writing.
She did make the correlation between poverty and incarceration, beyond race. She did note that in the "age of colorblindness" the only way the overtly racists can act is via the state. That individual racism is not tolerated. She did not make the conclusion that a free market would solve these problems, heck she didn't even go as far as to ask for a legalization of drugs.
All in all I think Alexander has a ways to go with her personal development of political philosophy. To an extent it challenged some of my preconceived notions, but not enough to truly make a difference. It’s still politicians looking for a way to exert power.
Yes, more blacks are in jail than other races, especially considering the
But that doesn't change the fact that it is the abject poverty and lack of hope or opportunities that is the source of the problem. Born poor and inner city, raised on the streets, attending sub-standard schools, not having any realistic hope of ever pulling yourself or your family out of it... that is the problem. If people had hope and opportunity, they would not turn to drugs or crime, and they would not get a criminal record which further condemns them to a life of poverty.
Changing post-prison reception or perception is not the solution. Crushing the process that impoverishes entire segments of the popluation is the solution. End the abject poverty, show some light at the end of the tunnel, and millions of boys turning to men will not be committing crimes simply to survive. We have to catch them before they get on the road to prison...