"The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander


TITLE: The New Jim Crow

AUTHOR: Michelle Alexander

PUBLISHER: The New Press

PUBLISHED DATE: January 16, 2012

ISBN: 978-1595586438

PAGES: 336

Overview

This book. This book should be required reading for every American. I've had this book on my "To Read" list for years, and this, in and of itself is an injustice. This book was Cory Booker's Book Club pick, and I've seen it on quite a few book club lists, and now that I've read it, it has proved suspicions I've long held about the justice system and how it works. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Karen Chilton, who did a fantastic job reading such a heavy book. If you've managed to get along in your life without reading this book, I suggest you stop whatever you're reading, and pick up this book. Seriously. It's urgent.

Synopsis

Alexander fearlessly takes up the cause of advocating for underclass, underprivileged, and underrepresented people - mostly people of color - mostly African Americans, who face similar discrimination to that of the Jim Crow era South. Alexander calls out everybody...history, lawmakers, the Black political elite, our criminal justice system, law enforcement, President Obama, Vice-President Biden, former Attorney General Eric Holder...I mean, this woman left no stone un-turned. Tracing the history of Jim Crow and defining the ways African Americans were discriminated against, and then linking it to current discrimination of felons, and those deemed criminal and unworthy - Alexander shows how this is a fundamental flaw in our criminal justice system and how millions of people are barred out of society and left lacking the ability to rehabilitate and reenter society. Discrimination includes voter disenfranchisement, housing discrimination, job discrimination, barred from financial aid in order to advance educational pursuits, among other things. This discrimination exists to all people regardless of race, yet African Americans are the most susceptible to this label to to over-zealous tactics of an increasingly militarized police. Though studies dating back to the Nixon era concluded that prisons and lack of support for people released from prison exacerbates the problem of prison recidivism, the government under the Reagan Administration launched a War on Drugs, even as drug use was at an all time low. Alexander shows how drug laws in the United States are among the toughest in the world, with more people incarcerated in American prisons than at any time during human history for small amounts of drug possession. Alexander notes that people found guilty of violent crimes do not face harsh prison sentences comparable to drug offenses, which disproportionately target African American communities. Alexander showed the history of injected race in politics using coded language that further perpetuated racial stereotypes all the while using race neutral language. Contrasting real-word police tactics with the false propaganda from television police procedural shows, Alexander shows how law enforcement and the legal system bends the constitution in order to give police absolute power. Alexander also writes about how the federal government helped to militarize local police departments in what we call SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics), and how these tactics which initially were used for emergency and unique circumstances have now become an industry norm causing routine erroneous and senseless fatalities which disproportionately effect African Americans. Alexander also uncovers how the federal government provided cash incentives for local precincts that made the drug war a priority over violent crimes, and the disastrous effect this has had in our society. All of this has been happening, and due to respectability politics, the black political establishment have not wanted to speak on behalf of African Americans on the wrong side of the law - instead focusing on Affirmative Action and desegregation laws. Alexander navigates the complexity of class discrimination within the African American community and how this debilitates African Americans who hold prominent positions from fighting racial inequalities within our criminal justice system - even with a black president, a black attorney general, and blacks holding leadership positions in communities and police departments.

Accuracy

This book was written in 2012, and we are increasingly seeing what Alexander outlined years ago in this book. The local police department in Ferguson met community members who were mourning the killing of Michael Brown with tanks, tear gas, rifles, and riot gear. We saw that in real time on multiple social media platforms - as the mainstream media refused to report what was happening. Everyday a new hashtag, and a new video show police killing unarmed Americans, and just as Michelle Alexander wrote about in 2012 - we are still seeing it. We are still seeing people use the same justifications that Alexander notes, people have been using since the Slavery era to justify to killing and exploitation of black bodies. Alexander lists the primary reason for writing this book is to provide people with the hard facts to back up what people are living and experiencing.

Theme

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system and how the prison, and criminal justice system do little to rehabilitate individuals, and instead exists to push large number of people out of the political process and American society.

Book Jacket Design/Illustrations

The book jacket s fairly simple. Black hands holding onto prison bars. There's something eerie and chilling about the cover. It would either compel you to pick it up or avoid it. Judgement of this cover definitely depends upon the political ideology of the viewer.

Organization

Spanning the slavery era to the present day, Alexander's book packs a LOT into 336 pages. The book is organized in a way to tie the major themes together so that the reader would have a greater understanding of the history of the criminal justice system, the definition of Jim Crow, and how these discriminatory practices are being perpetuated in our supposedly modern and free society.

Notable Quotes

“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that's why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”

“The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.”

“The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.”

“Parents and schoolteachers counsel black children that, if they ever hope to escape this system and avoid prison time, they must be on their best behavior, raise their arms and spread their legs for the police without complaint, stay in failing schools, pull up their pants, and refuse all forms of illegal work and moneymaking activity, even if jobs in the legal economy are impossible to find. Girls are told not to have children until they are married to a "good" black man who can help provide for a family with a legal job. They are told to wait and wait for Mr. Right even if that means, in a jobless ghetto, never having children at all.”

“... as recently as the mid-1970s, the most well-respected criminologists were predicting that the prison system would soon fade away. Prison did not deter crime significantly, many experts concluded. Those who had meaningful economic and social opportunities were unlikely to commit crimes regardless of the penalty, while those who went to prison were far more likely to commit crimes again in the future.”

“African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct.”

“The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.”

“Many offenders are tracked for prison at early ages, labeled as criminals in their teen years, and then shuttled from their decrepit, underfunded inner city schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons.”

“So herein lies the paradox and predicament of young black men labeled criminals. A war has been declared on them, and they have been rounded up for engaging in precisely the same crimes that go largely ignored in middle-and upper-class white communities—possession”

Recommendation: Required

Audience: Young Adults and Beyond (This book is not labeled for young adults. But I think the nature and subject matter of the book greatly effects African American young adults, and that they should be required to read it)

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