The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
By Michelle Alexander, The New Press, 2010, Hardcover, 279 pages, $27.95
"The New Jim Crow" will stress you out and outrage you. Everyone who cares about America should read it.
Author Michelle Alexander's principal argument is this: Although the Civil War ended slavery and the Civil Rights movement ended the Jim Crow era that replaced slavery, we have a new mechanism for marginalizing African Americans and, indeed, all the "have-nots" of our country. That new mechanism of control is what President Nixon first termed the "war on drugs" and what President Reagan officially declared the "War on Drugs" in 1982. At that time, less than two percent of Americans perceived drugs as the most important issue facing the nation. In fact, Alexander points out, "Illegal drug use was on the decline."
Still, incredibly, federal funding for a crackdown on illegal drug use was multiplied while funding for drug prevention was slashed. Guerilla armies in Nicaragua were allowed to smuggle drugs across the border into California, fueling what would become a societal drug problem. And in 1985 (three years after the War on Drugs was declared) the first headlines appeared about a crack cocaine epidemic.
Although studies show that people of all races use and sell illegal drugs at about the same rate (with young white males possibly leading the pack), the War on Drugs has affected African-American communities almost exclusively. In Washington, D.C., for example, three out of four young black men serve prison time, mostly for drug offenses; in Chicago, 55 percent of the total black male population has a felony record.
Since 1980, the number of people in prison or jail for drug offenses in our country has risen 1,100 percent--from 41,100 to approximately 500,000, and most of this growth is the result of arrests not for the sale of hard drugs but for marijuana possession only. Our total prison population has risen from 300,000 people nationwide in 1980 to over 2 million today. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and we imprison more of our African-American population than apartheid South Africa imprisoned its black population. Something is desperately wrong.
Many of us on the outside looking in have heard about the sensationally unjust disparity between sentencing of people caught with crack, the "black" version of cocaine, versus people caught with coke, the "white" version. But Alexander makes us aware of some crucial other facts as well:
* Felons lose their right to vote or to serve on juries for many years after their release from prison, in some states for the rest of their lives.
* Felons -- even those whose only crime is possession or selling of marijuana -- are automatically excluded from many professions.
* Felons are excluded from public housing and, thanks to President Clinton's embracing of the "get tough on crime" approach, even people who aren't "criminals" can be evicted from public housing if someone living with them is convicted of a crime, even possessing marijuana.
* Felons must identify themselves as such on housing and job applications, even for non-violent drug offenses, making it likely those applications will be denied.
The effect on an entire generation of African-American families has been devastating: what began in the early 1980s with the disappearance of employment for unskilled workers turned into a massive funneling of unemployed African-American men into the criminal justice system. As Alexander argues, this has placed them in an "undercaste."
"The New Jim Crow" places blame for this massive scale marginalization on many parties: conservatives, liberals and even civil rights organizations. We may think we have entered an era of "colorblindness" with the election of Barack Obama, but Alexander questions both the possibility of colorblindness and whether we should desire it. She poses instead the idea of "color consciousness:" "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," so that once we dismantle this latest manifestation of racism and control, we do not replace it with a new one.
"The New Jim Crow" is not a beautifully written book. Alexander repeats her main points more than she needs to, leaving less space for developing important discussions. What, for example, would our prisons and communities look like if we decriminalized marijuana, which Alexander advocates? How would African-American communities, and all American communities, change if we ceased the "War on Drugs" and replaced it with drug treatment programs and jobs? We need someone to paint that picture.
But this is a beautiful book nonetheless. It explains the criminal justice process, from stop and search, to plea bargaining and sentencing, to release and parole. Step by step, it discusses relevant Supreme Court decisions. It tells many moving stories about people entrapped by the War on Drugs, like Clinton Drake, a Vietnam War vet arrested twice, in 1988 and 1993, for possession of marijuana. After accepting a plea bargain and spending five years in prison, he was released owing $900 in court costs and forbidden from voting until he paid the fine. In 2000 he said, "I know a lot of friends got the same case like I got, not able to vote. A lot of guys doing the same things like I was doing. Just marijuana. They treat marijuana in Alabama like you committed treason or something. I was on the 1965 voting rights march from Selma. I was fifteen years old. At eighteen, I was in Vietnam fighting for my country. And now? Unemployed and they won't allow me to vote."
I read "The New Jim Crow" as an expos