Wednesday, March 30, 2011

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

Michelle Alexander is a civil rights lawyer who has dedicated her career to fighting racial injustice in the U.S. criminal justice system. In The New Jim Crow, she illuminates the racism that infects every stage of that system in an effort to influence public understanding about the War on Drugs and its devastating consequences for the entire nation. Ultimately, Alexander calls for an end to the War on Drugs because “there is no path to liberation for communities of color that includes this ongoing war” (220). She establishes the high stakes of this crises by defining contemporary mass incarceration as a form of racialized social control that creates an undercaste—“a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society” (13).

That definition is strengthened by her argument that mass incarceration is an echo of previous, vile forms of racialized social control in the United States: slavery and Jim Crow (the network of laws and social restrictions that enforced segregation). The book opens with a brief account of Jarvious Cotton, an African American who cannot vote. “Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy” (1). Disenfranchisement has taken different forms for different generations: Jarvious’s great-great-grandfather was enslaved, his great-grandfather and grandfather were intimidated and abused by the Ku Klux Klan, and his father was subjected to poll taxes and literacy tests. Jarvious himself was convicted of a felony and is on parole. Despite the different means used to exclude these men from democracy and society, the oppressive ends are the same.

Alexander is sensitive to the risks of making this argument by analogy; she reveals that she was skeptical of the similarities between Jim Crow and mass incarceration even as she worked as the Director of the Racial Justice Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California (3-4). However, she carefully illuminates the broad influence that the criminal justice has over the lives of impoverished people of color. These populations are subjected to surveillance, supervision, and restrictions on their freedoms in the shape of police procedures, prosecutorial discretion, mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, conditions of parole, and laws limiting access to employment, public housing, and welfare for convicted felons. Prison time is only one dimension in which the U.S. criminal justice system exerts control over African Americans.

Alexander presents statistics and narratives to reveal the racial inequality of arrest rates, prosecution, sentencing, and incarceration for drug offenses; she reports, “In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men” (96). She warns against a reform strategy that targets legal decisions by insightfully critiquing the precedents established by the United States Supreme Court that make it nearly impossible to stage a legal challenge against systemic racism in the War on Drugs. Past rulings have barred people from alleging claims of racial bias in policing under the Fourth Amendment (Whren v. United States), severely limited grounds for challenging racial bias in prosecution (Armstrong v. United States),or sentencing under the Fourteenth Amendment (McCleskey v. Kemp). Alexander advocates for a holistic reform movement that fights against institutionalized racism and racist public perceptions of criminality. In her words, “all of the needed reforms have less to do with failed policies than a deeply flawed public consensus, one that is indifferent, at best, to the experience of poor people of color” (221).

Alexander spotlights two particularly provocative issues: the tendency for colorblindness to act as a veil over racist practices, and the presumption that a person must be innocent to deserve advocacy.

Alexander showcases the dark side of colorblindness by pointing out that overt symbols of racism like derogatory slurs, nooses , or Ku Klux Klan imagery are “widely condemned by people across the political spectrum; they are understood to be remnants of the past, no longer reflective of the public consensus about race” (211). Slavery and Jim Crow were overtly racist forms of social control, but criminalization allows mass incarceration to masquerade as a set of colorblind practices aimed at securing public safety. Alexander forcefully argues that the criminal justice system, and the War on Drugs that keeps it humming, are not at all colorblind in practice. The many cases of police officers exercising individual discretion to identify drug dealers by making traffic stops and conducting searches without any evidence beyond a targeted person’s race exposes the falsity of racial blindness (64-68, 129). “Throughout the criminal justice system, as well as in our schools and public spaces, young + black + male is equated with reasonable suspicion, justifying the arrest, interrogation, search, and detention of thousands of African Americans every year” (194). Drawing attention to the racial inequality evident in incarceration statistics and mandatory minimum sentencing laws is an important rhetorical move for undermining the myth of a “post-racial” America.

Alexander also warns about the propensity of civil rights advocates to believe that a person’s purity and innocence are prerequisites for advocacy. She notes, “Challenging mass incarceration requires something civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to do: advocacy on behalf of criminals. Even at the height of Jim Crow segregation—when black men were more likely to be lynched than to receive a fair trial in the South—NAACP lawyers were reluctant to advocate on behalf of blacks accused of crimes unless the lawyers were convinced of the men’s innocence” (214). Alexander rightly argues that if this bias in advocacy is allowed to persist, the injustices and oppression that are perpetuated in the name of “fighting crime” cannot be resisted in a meaningful way. “Criminals, it turns out, are the one social group in America we have permission to hate. In ‘colorblind’ America, criminals are the new whipping boys. They are entitled to no respect and little moral concern” (138). Advocates who would fight against mass incarceration must be willing to openly show respect and concern for the folks who have been caged, literally and metaphorically, as criminals.

The New Jim Crow also introduces a number of other topics relevant to concerns about racism and the U.S. criminal justice system, including the privatization and profitability of prisons, and public perceptions of affirmative action and black exceptionalism. The book would be appropriate for inclusion in an undergraduate or graduate course, and the chapters contain sufficient reiteration of major themes that excerpts are intellectually and argumentatively complete. The book is tightly argued and Alexander has a very powerful writing style that is well adapted to a general, public audience.

Please read and share The New Jim Crow: this book can fuel the conversations that we must have about prisons, race, and justice.

-Megan G. Bernard
Rhetoric and Public Culture
Northwestern University

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Tyler Champine said...

This is a crucially important topic, and as such, deserves careful scholarship. For a more critical reading of Alexander's New Jim Crow, see, Greg Thomas' response here: http://imixwhatilike.org/2012/04/26/whysomelikethenewjimcrowsomuch/

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