Return of Santitas #CBR4#Review No. 11: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
When I started CBR, my natural psychotic competitiveness kicked in, and I was on a mission to win the (sadly fictional) Most Books Read Validation Prize. I was reading the most utter garbage, most of which I never ended up reviewing because it was just so forgettable and also embarrassing. So I decided to chill a little bit and just read things I actually wanted to read, and if I finish the full Cannonball so be it. This book has been on my list for a while now, and it was so compelling that I paid full price for it, a shocking act from someone as broke as I.
The book’s author, Michelle Alexander, is a civil rights lawyer and legal scholar who is the former director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in California. While working for the ACLU, Alexander understood her job to be resisting attacks and pushback on remedial policies like affirmative action, and also tackling the vestiges of Jim Crow segregation–for example, the issue of separate but equal schooling. One morning she saw a flier for a community group meeting with the title THE DRUG WAR IS THE NEW JIM CROW. While agreeing that the criminal justice system can be racist, Alexander dismissed this particular comparison as over the top and self-defeating.
However, by the end of her time at the ACLU, Alexander had come to see the justice system differently. In this book, she sets out her case for why the War on Drugs constitutes a new system of racial control. The blurb on the back cover puts it succinctly:
By targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the US criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control-relegating millions to a permanent second-class status-even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.
The main strength of her argument, in my opinion, is in her description of the way that systems and policies interact to form a life-long prison for many offenders. For example, prosecutors can throw multiple charges at a person, who is then faced with the choice between fighting the charges in court or taking a plea bargain for a lesser prison sentence. And we are talking about very,very minor drug offenses here, another key part of the argument. These are not kingpins. These are not even necessarily dealers.
Given the choice between a guilty verdict with extended prison time, or a guilty plea with reduced sentence, many people accept the plea bargain. BOOM. You’re a felon. You might never be able to vote again. You can’t serve on a jury. And most importantly, you’re likely to be excluded from employment and from public housing because you have to tick that box that says you have a criminal record. You are royally fucked. And guess what? Depending on what state you live in, you might have to pay processing fees for your time in prison, and a “supervision fee” for your time on parole, and hey, you can’t get a job because you’re a low-level felon? You get taken to collections and your debt spirals. If you do manage to get a job, your wages will be garnished, or you may be locked up again in a halfway house until you can pay back your debts.
Oh, yeah, and if you were thinking “well, those black kids should just stop dealing drugs and get a job at McDonald’s for Chrissake”, Alexander has got news for you. White people commit just as many if not more drug crimes (using and dealing) as do the kids from The Wire. But as a general rule the law is enforced completely differently for whites.
I could go on forever about this book, but you should just read the damn thing. It’s challenging in that it demands a major shift in thinking but it is a very accessible read. You will probably cry at some point while reading, but just read it anyway. Then talk about it, a lot.
Good luck out there, everyone.