Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The New Jim Crow

Article first published as Book Review: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander on Blogcritics.

I thought that I understood racism. After reading Michelle Alexander's, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness I realize that I had no idea what I'm up against. Reading this book was a trip down the rabbit hole into an alternate universe where things many of us believe no longer happen in America are the new normal.

This alternative universe, far removed from an imagined post-racial America is what she refers to the as "New Jim Crow". Simply stated, the New Jim Crow is a system which by law and custom perpetuates a largely African American racial caste locked at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. What the book does incredibly well is explain how we got here and how this system operates.

Alexander begins by reminding us that racial caste is nothing new in America. Both slavery and the original Jim Crow were racial caste systems. What is most significant in the early portion of the book is how she describes the way that these systems evolve as historical circumstances change. In each era, the racial caste system is challenged, loses it equilibrium and creates a kind of existential crisis for the white elites that it serves. In order to regain equilibrium the system has to adapt, generally through manipulation of the fears and resentments of poor and working-class whites. Alexander argues for example that the original Jim Crow was an adaptation to the emancipation of enslaved Africans and the progress made during the era of Reconstruction.

The New Jim Crow is presented in the book as an adaptation to the gains of the Civil Rights revolution. The difference this time was that regaining the equilibrium of the racial caste system could not be accomplished through explicit references to white supremacy. Conservative politicians of that era seized upon the rhetoric of "law and order", conflating civil disobedience, urban rebellions (so-called riots) and street crime. Declaration and prosecution of the so-called War on Drugs emerged as the favored "race neutral" tactic of the post-Civil Rights era.

Trained as a civil rights lawyer, Alexander lays out a searing indictment of the War on Drugs as the central engine of the emergence of the New Jim Crow. Through page after page of data and the narratives of the victims of this "war", she reveals how it perpetuates racial caste. The process works in three phases. The first phase involves vast numbers of people being rounded up by the police who conduct this war primarily in communities of color with near unlimited discretion to stop, interrogate and search whomever they choose. The second phase is the conviction, where many lack effective legal representation and are pressured to plead guilty through the threat of lengthy sentences if they don't. Like the police, prosecutors have near unlimited discretion during this process. Due to the harshness of drug laws, once convicted people spend long periods of their lives under the formal control of the criminal justice system. The final phase begins after people are no longer under formal control, but now are locked out of mainstream society, some for the rest of their lives due to laws that allow discrimination in housing, employment, public assistance, education and so on. Alexander argues that these "invisible punishments" are in some ways worse than the original sentence. The most disconcerting part of the book however, may be her description of the ways in which the Supreme Court has aided and abetted this machinery of the Drug War. Not only has the court legitimized these procedures and laws but it has made it virtually impossible to fight them through arguing they are racially discriminatory.

Alexander not only indicts the War on Drugs, but also traditional civil rights organizations for failing to fight as hard for its abolition as they have for other issues such as affirmative action. Many may find this portion of the book hard to read as it exposes how so many of us have been complacent and complicit as this human rights nightmare has unfolded over the past three decades.

One of the weaknesses of the book is that Alexander calls out civil rights organizations but does not provide a similar critique of faith communities. In fairness, Alexander is a lawyer and not a preacher and this is primarily a secular text. However, given how often she evokes the words and wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King, this omission seems odd. She is surely aware that people of faith have long played significant roles in challenging the previous systems of racial caste. Can this new struggle really succeed without prophetic voices, prophetic vision and what Ghandi referred to as "soul force". Regarding the motivational power of faith, the Universal House of Justice, the International Governing Council and Head of the Baha'i Faith put it this way:

"Religion, as we are all aware, reaches to the roots of motivation. When it has been faithful to the spirit and example of the transcendent Figures who gave the world its great belief systems, it has awakened in whole populations capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good and to discipline the impulses of animal instinct. Unquestionably, the seminal force in the civilizing of human nature has been the influence of the succession of these Manifestations of the Divine that extends back to the dawn of recorded history."

However, letting the faith community off the hook is a sin that can be easily forgiven in light of what Alexander has achieved. She has shown us just how deep the rabbit hole goes. She has exposed for all to see that racial caste is alive and well in America. If you care even a little about racial justice, The New Jim Crow should be on your bookshelf. It is the most important book you will read this year.


  1. thanks for the recommendation, I will look into this book.

  2. Hi Phillipe,
    I just bought this book.
    I already started skimming the content, and it's very powerful.
    Can you point to any suggestions about what individuals can do, or are some problems just impossible to solve at the level of individuals and require institutions to change? Is there anything we can do to help society move in that direction? I know this isn't something that can be answered in a paragraph or two, but can you give some initial thoughts and direction?

  3. Grace and Ann, nice to see you are reading the book. It really is the most important thing that you will read this year. I would start by encouraging others to read it and perhaps even reading it with your friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. One thing we can immediately do is pull back the veil on what is happening and let other people know, raise their consciousness. I also encourage you to write to Alexander directly with this question. I know of at least one person who wrote to her and they have corresponded a bit. I know that is what I'm going to do.

  4. Hi, Phillipe, your post is a salutary reminder that racism is far from dead and that forms of discrimination are supported by the power structures of society. I am shocked at how difficult it is to eradicate this appalling injustice.

  5. I have not read the book yet; however, I am looking for it and this might force me to buy a kindle or other similar device to enter the 21st century... And on a similar note my concern with this "war on drugs" is the egregious hypocrisy in the attitude between Alcohol & tobacco and your "street drugs" such as cannabis Hashish Cocaine and opium and if you review the The Kitáb-i-Aqdas (The Most Holy Book) Bahá'u'lláh forbade all of them [except tobacco]and all you need to do is review the headlines of all the newspapers you'll not the status of a declining civilization....

  6. I don't have the direct quote on me, but I recall Malcolm X saying something to the effect that "even if a black man was raised to the highest political office of the country (the President)", racism would still be an issue if the root cause was not dealt with.