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Book Review: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

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I thought that I understood racism. After reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, I realize that I had no idea what I’m up against. Reading this book was a trip down the rabbit hole into an alternate universe where things many of us believe no longer happen in America are the new normal.

This alternative universe, far removed from an imagined post-racial America is what she refers to the as “New Jim Crow.” Simply stated, the New Jim Crow is a system which by law and custom perpetuates a largely African American racial caste locked at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. What the book does incredibly well is explain how we got here and how this system operates.

Alexander begins by reminding us that racial caste is nothing new in America. Both slavery and the original Jim Crow were racial caste systems. What is most significant in the early portion of the book is how she describes the way these systems evolve as historical circumstances change. In each era, the racial caste system is challenged, loses its equilibrium and creates a kind of existential crisis for the white elites it serves. In order to regain equilibrium the system has to adapt, generally through manipulation of the fears and resentments of poor and working-class whites. Alexander argues for example that the original Jim Crow was an adaptation to the emancipation of enslaved Africans and the progress made during the era of Reconstruction.

The New Jim Crow is presented in the book as an adaptation to the gains of the Civil Rights revolution. The difference this time was that regaining the equilibrium of the racial caste system could not be accomplished through explicit references to white supremacy. Conservative politicians of that era seized upon the rhetoric of “law and order,” conflating civil disobedience, urban rebellions (so-called riots) and street crime. Declaration and prosecution of the so-called War on Drugs emerged as the favored “race neutral” tactic of the post-Civil Rights era.

Trained as a civil rights lawyer, Alexander lays out a searing indictment of the War on Drugs as the central engine of the New Jim Crow. Through page after page of data and the narratives of the victims of this “war,” she reveals how it perpetuates racial caste. The process works in three phases. The first phase involves vast numbers of people being rounded up by the police who conduct this war primarily in communities of color with near unlimited discretion to stop, interrogate and search whomever they choose. The second phase is the conviction, where many lack effective legal representation and are pressured to plead guilty through the threat of lengthy sentences if they don’t. Like the police, prosecutors have near unlimited discretion during this process. Due to the harshness of drug laws, once convicted people spend long periods of their lives under the formal control of the criminal justice system.

The final phase begins after people are no longer under formal control, but now are locked out of mainstream society, some for the rest of their lives due to laws that allow discrimination in housing, employment, public assistance, education and so on. Alexander argues that these “invisible punishments” are in some ways worse than the original sentence. The most disconcerting part of the book however, may be her description of the ways in which the Supreme Court has aided and abetted this machinery of the Drug War. Not only has the court legitimized these procedures and laws, but it has made it virtually impossible to fight them through arguing they are racially discriminatory.

Alexander not only indicts the War on Drugs, but also traditional civil rights organizations for failing to fight as hard for its abolition as they have for other issues such as affirmative action. Some may find this portion of the book hard to read as it exposes how so many of us have been complacent and complicit as this human rights nightmare has unfolded over the past three decades.

One of the weaknesses of the book is that Alexander calls out civil rights organizations but does not provide a similar critique of faith communities. In fairness, Alexander is a lawyer and not a preacher and this is primarily a secular text. However, given how often she evokes the words and wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King, this omission seems odd. She is surely aware that people of faith have long played significant roles in challenging the previous systems of racial caste. Can this new struggle really succeed without prophetic voices, prophetic vision and what Ghandi referred to as “soul force”? Regarding the motivational power of faith, the Universal House of Justice, the International Governing Council and Head of the Baha’i Faith put it this way:

“Religion, as we are all aware, reaches to the roots of motivation. When it has been faithful to the spirit and example of the transcendent Figures who gave the world its great belief systems, it has awakened in whole populations capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good and to discipline the impulses of animal instinct. Unquestionably, the seminal force in the civilizing of human nature has been the influence of the succession of these Manifestations of the Divine that extends back to the dawn of recorded history.”

However, letting the faith community off the hook is a sin that can be easily forgiven in light of what Alexander has achieved. She has shown us just how deep the rabbit hole goes. She has exposed for all to see that racial caste is alive and well in America. If you care even a little about racial justice, The New Jim Crow should be on your bookshelf. It is the most important book you will read this year.

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About Phillipe Copeland

  • Karen Patrice Anderson

    Thank you. Beautiful review. I pray that your words encourage others to go out and purchase the book and then find a way to engage in righting this wrong.

  • Trey Bowen

    I just finished reading this book this morning. I picked it up while at BWI airport in Baltimore and began reading it and could not put it down. As a late 30s white male I found it very interesting and had to buy it. I found that this is the “victim mentality” point of view. This view of the writer is proof that unfortunately the mentality of the African American society is not taking accountability and admitting that the reason their stereotype of crime and drugs is because unfortunately they DO indeed deal drugs on the streets, they DO indeed run down communities, the DO indeed ruin schools systems and suck our tax paid judicial and support systems DRY. If they would take accountability and not have a ENTITLEMENT syndrome or mentality they would INDEED be able to flourish and move on. The fact of the matter is that the affirmative action law and also the Democrats keep the oppressed. When will they wake up and see that INDEED the Democrats USE them just for votes. They actually keep them oppressed by allowing them to get jobs for not having to be as qualified. They basically are saying that blacks are not as smart so let’s squeak them in. The Democrat “Plantation” is alive and well and African Americans NEED to start being INDIVIDUAL THINKERS and not just following their crowd. It is very sad and depressing. Hip Hop culture is a major down fall for their young and now morphing into 2nd generations that are ruining families. PLEASE look at Alan West, Colin Powell, RICE, Bill Cosby!!!! They all have figured it out that you should EARN you own path inn life. Anything in life worth having is EARNED!!!

  • Dillon Mawler

    Mr. Bowen:

    You did not read this book, which is a 300-page refutation of literally everything you just wrote.

  • Trey, it is ironic that you urge African-Americans to start thinking as individuals while at the same time lumping them as a group into a monolithic stereotype.

  • Jerry

    Here are two reviews which are more critical than this one:
    1. The New Jim Crow reviewed
    2. Why Some Like the New Jim Crow So Much

    I Hope this helps in thinking about the topic.

  • Igor

    This is bunkum: “Unquestionably, the seminal force in the civilizing of human nature has been the influence of the succession of these Manifestations of the Divine that extends back to the dawn of recorded history.”

    Religions have legitimised discrimination throughout history.

    That Martin Luther King could use religion to fight against discrimination is evidence of Kings brilliance, not religions virtue.

  • Angel

    Trey Bowen’s comments would make me sad if I did not realize the power of deliberate creation and the role my emotions play in that. It seems that even if there is overwhelming evidence that the system is stacked up against so-called African Americans, if there is a demand for equality, they will still be seen as having an entitlement issue. That goes to show that once you stick a label or buzz word on anyone/thing, the sheep/masses will have it ingrained in their mental paradigm and argue it as fact. True there are “African Americans” who commit crimes as there are criminals in every group. If you are only following around the “black” criminals then guess who you are going to catch? Are we as a society ever going to wake up and realize that race is an illusion? It’s not even real and yet look at the damage it has caused; such division amongst the human race (who most likely all started out looking like Africans as research is pointing to that as being the birthplace of humanity. Apparently there is no significant genetic differences between us and the surface differences we can see can most likely be attributed to geography and adaptation)! Check out the documentary ‘Race, the Power of an Illusion’.

  • Trey, you used interest in the book as a platform to conduct a monologue, asserting ideas that Alexander addressed and refuted in the book. If you were interested in dialogue you would have picked out her arguments and explained your disagreements. Instead, the manner of your assertions indicates that you didn’t read or think about the book at all.

    My reaction to the book was similar to Copeland’s. Mass action must even be imminent I thought, until I discovered Alexander’s promotional appearance on C-SPAN on February 20, 2010, recorded OVER THREE YEARS AGO! Critics say that other voices have cried out and been ignored for even longer. That may be, but Alexander and The New Press have broken through.

    To see that her speaking schedule stretches into 2014 underlines that we have a long way to go, but go we must. I felt compelled to build a website (see link) and engage in some kind of action each day. It may not be much, but I’m part of a movement, and it’s collectively that we will make a difference.

  • Igor

    James Crow Jr. Esq. is alive and well and lives in the cesspool south.