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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by: Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander is a highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar. In recent years, she has taught at a number of universities, including Stanford Law School, where she was an associate professor of law and directed the Civil Rights Clinics. For more on The New Jim Crow and Michelle Alexander, please visit: http://newjimcrow.com/
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness marks the creation, funding, and enforcement of structural racism. In this book, author Michelle Alexander discusses the irrefutability of structural racism by way of the mass incarceration of men of color. Overall, this book is a powerful reminder of the social movement needed to intervene in the current racial order in the US.
This book is crucial to understanding the current racial order in the U.S. as many praise this time as race-neutral or post-race. Alexander presents the historical shift in power and policy following the civil rights movement when the War on Drugs (the “New Jim Crow”) emerged. This shift destroyed the alliance built between white and black poor organizing against economic inequality, and made crime synonymous with black.
The War on Drugs was strategically formed to disproportionately target and punish poor men of color. Alexander identifies elements of this war and several of them are highlighted here. One of the earliest shifts came from President Nixon’s racially charged tactic to create a negative representation of the black community in public discourse. This shift in thought was followed by a shift in practice and policy regarding drug related offenses. During a time of increased unemployment and poverty, especially among black men, budgets for federal and local law enforcement increased as budgets for social services decreased. During this time of socioeconomic struggle, law enforcement was allowed a high level of discretion that largely contributed to the overrepresentation of men of color in the criminal justice system. Alexander notes that the Supreme Court authorized racial discrimination in policing and the discretion regarding who to target (black men) and where to target (communities of color). Political figures and the media responded by making crime synonymous with black. Bias in police tactics was coupled with bias in sentencing. Until recently, there was a 100 to one sentencing disparity for cocaine: 100 times harsher sentence for crack cocaine (found among black communities) than for powder cocaine (found among white communities) under federal law. This is an area of recent progress given the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 signed by Obama. The original bill would have eliminated the disparity in sentencing but the final act changed it to a ratio of 18:1.
In the courtroom, Alexander notes the poor investment in public defenders compared to prosecutors and the prison industrial complex. Bias is police tactics was coupled with bias in sentencing. These cases had little to no success given that explicit racism could not be proven in the age of colorblindness. Lastly, the community re-entry experience is one of social stigma and exile. Men of color experience increased marginalization and few employment opportunities. In response, Alexander calls for an investment in opportunities and restorative justice measures.
Can we imagine a different reality? Alexander challenges readers to think about structural racism by posing questions like: what would the incarceration rates be if the war on drugs had been waged on poor white communities? Alexander notes our inability to imagine this reality points to our internalization of political and media representations of this effort.
Communities of color have responded in different ways, but Alexander highlights the culture of fear, complicity, self-hatred and silence that have largely defined the response. My critique of Alexander’s argument is that she makes no mention of key movements of resistance during the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Black Panther Party (which formed as a response to police brutality and was violently dismantled by the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of the FBI).
“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” –Martin Luther King, Jr.
The phenomenon of the New Jim Crow is particularly difficult to address in what many people want to believe is the modern ‘post-race’ era. While civil rights activists have made important strides since this new racial caste system was formed, more needs to be done by activists and society as a whole. Citing reports, reflections, and influential words of Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin, this book is a call to action- a call for a movement that addresses structural racism and poverty as human rights issues across racial lines.
I give thanks to Eva Paterson of the Equal Justice Society for mentioning this book during her speech at the ACBA’s Board Installation and Distinguished Awards luncheon earlier this year and motivating me to bring it to the top of my reading list!
–Elizabeth J. Pimentel, VLSC Clinics Coordinator