Several weeks ago I finished reading a book which won’t leave my mind. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander is an important and disturbing book which ultimately leads to much soul-searching on the part of the reader. It first came out in 2010 and has been on my bookshelf for a while, but I only picked it up at the tail end of the presidential election campaign. That was timely.
Alexander – a civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar – has written a well-researched and devastating work. In The New Jim Crow, Alexander shows we have not moved into a colorblind society, but have – in fact – simply replaced one racial caste system (Jim Crow) for another (mass incarceration). The book is thorough in its analysis and gut-wrenching in its conclusions.
Alexander writes in the introduction,
“What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is not longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind…We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
As Cornel West alludes to in the foreword, Alexander’s work harkens back to the work and beliefs of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King, as quoted by West,
“Called for us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable.”
In six thoughtful chapters full of stories, statistics, and urgency, Alexander makes a strong case that the huge racial disparity of punishment in America is designed, not merely chance. What passes for “rite of passage” antics in the privileged white community will land young men of color in a criminal justice system that strips away their rights and marginalizes them for the rest of their lives. No politician or class of citizens is free from Alexander’s gaze. The “War of Drugs” and mass incarceration began in the 1970s and grew to new heights in Ronald Reagan’s America, but Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – and their justice departments – have doubled down and strengthened this system as a way of being “tough on crime.” Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, according to Alexander, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980 – an increase of 1,100 percent. Alexander makes the strong case that the War on Drugs is not pointed toward the drug kingpins, but the people of color who posses small amounts and have no history of violence or significant dealing.
And once a person of color (usually young males) enter the prison system, they are labeled, discriminated against, and marginalized for life. Just look at all the ways one of our political parties in the U.S. is working to block voting rights and understand that felony convictions are one of the easiest ways to keep people of color from voting to have some control over their lives.
For those who would push back and say that criminals should not have rights, I urge you to first read Alexander’s book and reflect upon your own experiences of how people of color are treated differently in the U.S. from whites and those of privilege.
“Today, no less than fifty years ago, a flawed public consensus lies at the core of the prevailing caste system. When people think about crime, especially drug crime, they do not think about suburban housewives violating laws regulating prescription drugs or white frat boys using ecstasy. Drug crime in this country is understood to be black and brown, and it is because drug crime is racially defined in the public consciousness that the electorate has not cared much what happens to drug criminals – at least not the way they would have cared if the criminals were understood to be white. It is this failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world.” (Underlined emphasis in the original; bold emphasis mine)
Alexander’s powerful last chapter is inspired by the writing of James Baldwin. And coincidentally, the Washington Post just featured an article about a new lynching memorial – from the first era of Jim Crow – that includes these powerful lines from an unfinished book by James Baldwin:
“You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And, furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage. You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (Emphasis mine)
Alexander hits the nail on the head of how we must address the new era of Jim Crow – by treating the problem of mass incarceration as a racial caste system and not as a system of crime control.
“Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream – a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.” (Emphasis mine)
Read this very important book, if you haven’t already. I suspect you will begin – as I have – working through how to address this new system of Jim Crow in your own life.
More to come…
Image: Cover of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander