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.