Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is already a national bestseller, so it certainly doesn’t need another positive review. But here’s one anyway!
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was first released in 2010, but came to my attention over the past couple of years as the Black Lives Matter movement really got going. I had been on my “must read” list for a while, and so I finally got around to reading it. My conclusion? As someone who was previously knowledgeable about issues of race and mass incarceration, I still found it insightful and eye-opening. If you’re just beginning to investigate contemporary racial issues in America, this is a great place to start. The book is accessible, well-researched, and paced very comfortably.
The New Jim Crow traces the history of the United States’ systems of racial control. The story goes like this: Southern slaveowners, fearful of poor white people and black slaves eventually banding together, developed anti-black racism in order to give poor whites a stake in upholding the status quo. While poor whites had little, they were given just enough power over black slaves–such as the chance to participate in slave-capture patrols (one of our earliest examples of policing, in fact)–that they, too, became active facilitators of racial oppression.
When chattel slavery was outlawed via the Emancipation Proclamation, de facto slavery continued nonetheless. On top of that, slavery remained legal and Constitutional as punishment for criminal behavior. So while black people were technically freed from bondage, systems recognizable as slavery in all but name persisted. Though these practices diminished over time, they eventually transformed into the Jim Crow system of the early-to-mid 20th century. These included segregation, poll taxes, and various forms of legal discrimination. They served to keep black people as a perpetual underclass.
As the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s chipped away at Jim Crow, the stage was set for a white backlash. It did not happen in the ‘70s, though. Crime rates and incarceration rates were low enough in that decade that there was serious talk of dismantling prisons altogether. Prison populations were falling and it was widely believed that we’d soon not need prisons at all. But then a few things happened that enabled the rise of mass incarceration, which Alexander deigns the New Jim Crow: white flight from the inner cities reinforced segregation and made racially-biased policing easier; the economic transition away from industrial production to a service economy disproportionately took jobs out of black communities, impoverishing them; the administration of President Ronald Reagan, in the culmination of racialized rhetoric that began in the Nixon era, was able to seize on rising inner city crime rates to push an agenda of intense police militarization and crackdowns.
At the same time, efforts to address racial injustices through the court system gradually became fruitless. Despite legislative victories like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and crucial decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, the court system itself hardened against efforts to curb law enforcement abuses on the basis of racism. One by one, avenues of redress via the judicial process were closed off. Precedents were set such that police need virtually no excuse at all to stop any vehicle they desire, ask to conduct searches of any person or property they like (knowing that few will refuse the request of a police officer for fear of reprisal), and the only basis on which charges of racial discrimination or bias have any merit is if there is obvious, documented evidence of explicit rather than implicit or systemic racism.
The convergence of these factors has produced a law enforcement and criminal justice apparatus that is racially neutral on paper while creating deeply racist outcomes. Alexander points out with statistical evidence that white people and black people don’t commit crimes at dramatically different rates, and yet black people bear the brunt of arrests, prosecutions, convictions, and prison sentences. This has come about through a feedback cycle in which black people are believed to be inherently criminal, so their communities are policed more, so the media reports more often on black crime (and black criminals), black people go to jail more, and now everyone has absorbed the notion that “black” equals “criminal” equals “dangerous,” which ultimately reinforces the idea that we need to police black people even more aggressively. It’s unacceptable, even illegal to discriminate against black people, but it’s perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals.
As cited by Alexander, Kathryn Russell-Brown describes this as the stereotype of the “criminalblackman.” To be a black man is to be viewed as criminal by default. This generates and reinforces an implicit bias not just in police, but across the justice system and in wider society, as well. In many cases, people don’t want to be racist–and yet this bias is so pervasive it is very difficult to correct.
Alexander argues that colorblindness–essentially, a form of indifference to race–will never serve to dismantle a system that is fundamentally racist in its effects. Only active anti-racism that works to eliminate these biases and their effects can result in better outcomes. Alexander is quick to admit that she doesn’t know what the ultimate solutions will look like. Instead, she points out that, at the time he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was attempting to transition from a legalistic, race-focused philosophy of change to a broad-based social movement focused on dignity and basic humanity to encompass all people. But after his death, the movement surrounding him retreated mainly into the law, producing civil rights lawyers like Alexander herself. This had the downside of separating one-time activists from the communities they meant to serve, and in some ways generated a crop of black elites whose experiences don’t align with those of the black working class. In short: it’s time for a change, for a new generation to step up and attack these problems from a different direction.
Alexander surely didn’t know a movement like Black Lives Matter would arise a scant few years after her book was published, but the timing has been nonetheless serendipitous. The New Jim Crow describes in clear, understandable language how we got from slavery to mass incarceration, demonstrates through statistics and personal stories the depth and breadth of the injustices the current system of racial control has produced, and offers a number of thoughts on ways it might be addressed in the future. It certainly helped improve my understanding of the issues involved, and made quite clear why we were due for a resurgence in racial justice activism. There are too many people suffering, too many being hurt or killed by a system that, while made race-neutral through what were probably good intentions, nevertheless has sustained and exacerbated racist outcomes, leading to generations of real and persistent harm.
What we have built is a system of law enforcement and criminal justice that has set black people up to fail, rather than a society committed to helping them succeed. And then, when they do fail, we–white people–blame them for it and act as though we’re completely uninvolved in the situation. But we are deeply involved whether we’re willing to admit it or not, and we must do our part to take down this new system, to ensure that the New Jim Crow shares the fate of the old.