The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

 

As part of my ongoing education on “Black Lives Matter,” revisiting the tenth-anniversary edition of this iconic best seller, which the Chronicle of Higher Education deemed “one of the most influential books of the past 20 years” seemed timely. I recently learned that Blacks comprise 47% of people in prison in Florida, and yet make up only 17% of the population, and also that Florida was one of four remaining states where felons are banned for life from voting. That changed when 65% of the population voted to restore ballot access to people with prior felony convictions, so what do state legislators do?  Pass a law that requires people who served time to pay any remaining court fees before voting—harkening back to the poll tax of the Jim Crow era. This has been going on in the country for too long and this book was one of the most effective in focusing light and energy on the inadequacies of our criminal justice system.

This edition starts with a new preface, which provides updates on some of the limitations of the criminal justice system the author raised ten years ago.  Drug crimes remain the largest category of arrests and eight out of ten people on probation and two-thirds of the people on parole have been convicted of nonviolent crimes. And the “War on Drugs,” more than any other government program, gave rise to mass incarcerations. Although this political dynamic, which gave birth to this system, dates back to slavery, according to the author, the drug war marked an important turning point in American history. It marked a moment in history when a group of people defined by race and class were viewed and treated as the “enemy.” Today 2.3 million people are in prison—the highest incarceration rate in the world and another 4.5 million people are under state control outside of prisons, on probation and/or parole. “More than 70 million Americans—over 20 percent of the entire U.S. population, overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately people of color—now have criminal records that authorize legal discrimination for life.

The long term impact of those caught up in this system are graphically described, “Once a person is labeled a felon, he or she is ushered into a parallel universe in which discrimination, stigma and exclusion are perfectly legal and privileges of citizenship such as voting and jury service are off limits. It does not matter whether you have actually spent time in prison; your second-class citizenship begins the moment you are branded a felon. Most people branded felons, in fact, are not sentenced to prison. As of 2008, there were approximately 2.3 million people in prisons and jails and a staggering 5.1 million people under “community correctional supervision.”

This massive growth in the prison population would soon become an enormous economic boon as well. President Clinton approved a $3 billion crime bill in 1994 and authorized $16 billion for state prison grants and expansion of state and local police forces.

The author deals with some of the “myths” around the “War on Drugs,” such as its principal focus is dangerous drugs. And yet, arrests for marijuana possession accounted for nearly 80% of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s. The author also explains why police action is focused on the poorer communities, as opposed to the suburbs was opioids have been prevalent, “…when police go looking for drugs, they look in the ‘hood. Tactics that would be political suicide in an upscale white suburb are not even newsworthy in poor black and brown communities. So long as mass drug arrests are concentrated in impoverished urban areas, police chiefs have little reason to fear a political backlash…”

The author goes on to say, “…About 90 percent of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense in Illinois are African American. White drug users and dealers are rarely arrested, and when they are, they are treated more favorably at every stage of the criminal justice process, including plea bargaining and sentencing.”

The author explains the relationship between the Jim Crow system and today’s criminal justice system as, “…The nature of criminal justice has changed. It is no longer concerned primarily with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed. Prior drug wars were ancillary to the prevailing caste system. This time the drug war is the system of control.”  

I had to ask myself why so few Americans seem aware of this system and ignore the fact that many whites during the Jim Crow era sincerely believed that African Americans were inferior, and that segregation was a sensible system for managing a society comprised of fundamentally different and unequal people, making Martin Luther King’s words resonate, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

 

“It is in no small part, thanks to Alexander’s account, that civil rights organizations such as Black Lives Matter have focused so much of their energy on the criminal justice system.”
—Adam Shatz, London Review of Books

Other resources on the same theme include: https://lithub.com/literature-for-justice-seven-books-that-rethink-mass-incarceration/

 

Contents:

Preface to the Tenth Anniversary Edition

Foreword/Cornel West

The Rebirth of Caste

The Lockdown

The Color of Justice

The Cruel Hand

The New Jim Crow

The Fire This Time

About the Author

Michelle Alexander is a highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar. She served as an associate professor of law at Stanford Law School and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. She is a former Ford Foundation Senior Fellow and Soros Justice Fellow, has clerked for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, and has run the ACLU of Northern California’s Racial Justice Project. The New Jim Crow is that rare first book that has received rave reviews and won many awards and prizes. It and Alexander have been featured in countless national radio and television media outlets. Alexander is a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary and an opinion columnist for the New York Times. She lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Product details

4.8 out of 5 stars    6,315 ratings

 

The Reviewer

Mark Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world. He came to Phoenix as a Senior Director for Food for the Hungry, worked with other groups like Make-A-Wish International and was the CEO of Hagar USA, a Christian-based organization that supports survivors of human trafficking. He’s presently the producer of a documentary film, “Guatemala: Trouble in the Highlands.”

 
His book, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, was recognized by the Arizona Literary Association for Non-Fiction and, according to the Midwest Review, “…is more than just another travel memoir. It is an engaged and engaging story of one man’s physical and spiritual journey of self-discovery…”

 

Several of his articles have been published in Ragazine and WorldView Magazines, Literary Yard, Literary Travelers and Quail BELL.  His reviews have been published in the Midwest Book Review, by Revue Magazine, as well as Peace Corps Worldwide, and he has his own column in the “Arizona Authors Association” newsletter, “The Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading and Why.” One of his essays was a winner in the Arizona Authors Association literary competition 2020 and was reissued in “Revue Magazine.” Another article was recognized in the “Solas Literary Awards for Best Travel Writing.” 

 

His honors include the “Service Above Self” award from Rotary International. He is a board member of “Advance Guatemala” and the membership chair for “Partnering for Peace.”  His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. You can learn more at www.MillionMileWalker.com and www.Guatemalastory.net or follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/millionmilewalker/

 

Posted in All, Book Reviews: Non-fiction and tagged , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *