Book Review: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

This book had been on my to-read list for a few years, which is not an unusually long time for me. I knew, though, that I had to prioritize this one when I saw Angela Davis speak in Hyde Park last month. She spoke about feminism and race and Assata Shakur (if you haven’t heard her story go look it up!) – and the issue of abolition. I had never heard of this movement, though I knew theoretically that the so-called war on drugs fell disproportionately heavily on black and brown men – and growing numbers of women. This book was one of the ones that she recommended for those of us that didn’t already have an intimate knowledge of what she was talking about already to pick up and read.

And wow. This book confirms a lot of my deepest worries about the state of the U.S. and its government. The statistics were mindboggling. I had a hard time reading this at first, thanks to a weird online copy with more than 900 pages and perhaps the largest type I’ve ever seen. Once I got my hands on a physical copy, my reading went much more quickly – and much more dishearteningly.

Cover of The New JIm Crow by Michelle AlexanderMichelle Alexander argues that our current system of incarceration is the newest permutation of race control, creating a caste system. Her argument is compelling. She begins with a brief history of the Jim Crow era that we are already familiar with – terrorist Klan members, limited access to voting booths and water fountains and jobs and paved roads. She then argues that the War on Drugs, coming so closely after the fall of the last form of Jim Crow, was President Nixon’s response to a changing world. The War on Drugs was, Alexander argues, perhaps unnecessary; it has been costly and had little impact on drug use rates, which really aren’t that contributory to a lot of the other issues we maybe should be focusing on instead like poverty and crime rates, but instead had a massive effect on incarceration rates of low-level drug users (not kingpin types, who could perhaps have an actual impact on the way that drugs are trafficked through this country and others – as well as those previously mentioned crime rates). The imprisonment rates in this country have skyrocketed, primarily due to these low-level drug convictions, and have outpaced every other country in the world. The sentencing length is disproportionate, too; a crime that would receive six months’ imprisonment in other countries receives ten years here. And arrest rates are totally out of whack. African Americans represent 80 – 90% of arrests in the U.S. Since 1983, when the War on Drugs really took off, until 2000, the arrest rates for Black men have increased by a factor of twenty three; the arrests of white men have gone up only by eight. And all of this despite the fact that white youth are the most likely group to deal and possess drugs!

Other statistics that really shocked me included the fact that 1/14 Black men are in prison, while only 1/106 white men languish there. I don’t believe this statistic is in Alexander’s work, but I read elsewhere recently that the U.S. has imprisoned more African Americans than there are residents in some African countries.

Alexander doesn’t only use statistics. She also uses anecdotal evidence, to great impact. One of the most interesting stories that she told from the sentencing side of the gavel was that there are judges who had before been known for their toughness on crime – who, after mandatory sentencing laws really went into effect, resigned their positions in protest. This included even Reagan appointees!

She also points out that the rise of colorblind rhetoric is contributory to this issue of uneven punishment. Local law enforcement are given total discretion over who to stop and who to arrest. They can deny the racism of individuals, which prevents challenges to the system, because internalized bias is too insidious to “prove.” This, despite the fact that numerous unconscious bias studies have shown that U.S. residents are far more likely to identify an image of a Black man as armed (whether he’s holding a wallet or Skittles or what have you) than a White man – and, other studies have shown, there is a massive dissociation between conscious and unconscious bias, including in Black respondents. So between colorblind rhetoric and the undeniable existence of hypersegregation, law enforcement can come down much more harshly on places that are “crime-ridden” – read, largely people of color.

The problem doesn’t only lie at the feet of biased local law enforcers. The courts, too, have contributed to these issues. Supreme Court decisions like 1996’s Whren v. US have chipped away at the Fourth Amendment. The Court ruled in Whren that stopping motorists for minor traffic violations in order to search for drugs does not constitute “unreasonable search and seizure.” Local law enforcement can stop almost any driver for minor traffic violations when it’s really to check for drugs – studies have shown that it’s nearly impossible to drive without committing some sort of infraction! Another case that contributes to the power of the new Jim Crow is McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), where the Court ruled that racial bias would be tolerated – basically to any degree – so long as no one admitted that it had an overt “racially discriminatory purpose.” Thanks to McCleskey, we’ve opened the door to strategies like the NYPD’s Stop & Frisk program (featured in a recent New Yorker), averaging 1,393 stops per day, with African American folks stopped six times more than white ones. Other cases, like U.S. v. Brignoni-Ponce (1975), which upholds racial profiling in searches for undocumented immigrants, doublespeak that Alexander notes basically says “we do not engage in racial profiling; we just stop people based on race.” All of this is nearly impossible to challenge in the courts thanks to Alexander v. Sandoval, a 2001 case that determined that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act doesn’t provide a “private right of action” to citizens or civil rights groups; basically, that governmental (whether it be state or federal) bias must be challenged by the government itself. Like I said: mindboggling.

The Supreme Court isn’t the only problem in the judicial system. Alexander points out that prosecutors have far and away the most power in the judicial system, as they have the power to choose charges.. She calls them “totally discretionary and virtually unreviewable,” and laments that this has been upheld by the Court, creating a total lack of accountability. Another issue comes in the form of juries – in part due to the rates of incarceration, because almost 30% of Black men are banned from jury duty for life. And, in part, due to prosecutor bias. “Any race-neutral reason,” Alexander explains, “no matter how silly, ridiculous, or superstitious, is enough” to bar anyone from jury duty.

And lest you think this is just a problem of imprisonment, the stigma of a felony follows these men and women for the rest of their lives – from work to the welfare rolls to housing aid access to the voting booths. One of the things that shocked me the most was Alexander’s explanation of how imprisonment impacts district voting. Many new prisons (many of them private, an entirely different but similarly alarming trend) are built in rural, mainly white areas. The prisoners are mainly urban folks of color. They are counted as residents of the voting districts rather than their home districts – but not allowed to vote. This lends more weight to the votes of the rural white folks, leading to more representation in state legislatures in these rural areas and less in the urban ones. Alexander notes that this practice is eerily reminiscent of the framers’ 3/5ths compromise, where slaves were counted for residential purposes but, of course, not allowed to vote”¦ and counted as 3/5ths of a human being.

This book was remarkable. I only had a few quibbles with it. The first was Alexander’s use of the phrase “by a one-vote margin” to prove that a Supreme Court decision was close. Anyone who’s reviewed recent controversial Court decisions will know that almost all decisions are within a one-vote margin, because the Court is extremely polarized (like the rest of our government) and there really aren’t that many justices. The other quibble was Alexander’s point that criminals are the only group of people that U.S. citizens are permitted (even encouraged) universally to hate. I would disagree – I think that there are other groups we are encouraged to hate, to the extent of removing their rights – legislation regarding fat people in planes or treatment in restaurants comes to mind, as does legislation regarding undocumented immigrants’ rights.

I’ll end with Alexander’s own words:

Lynch mobs may be long gone, but the threat of police violence is ever present. A wrong move or a sudden gesture could mean massive retaliation by the police. A wallet could be mistaken for a gun. The “whites only” signs may be gone, but new signs have gone up – notices placed in job applications, rental agreements, loan applications, forms for welfare benefits, school applications, and petitions for licenses, informing the general public that “felons” are not wanted here. A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind.

This book was remarkable. I highly recommend picking it up on your next trip to the library, your local bookstore, or Amazon shopping spree.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander”

  1. With the buttery disaster of Paula Deen and with this information it’s once again clear how the term “post-racial society” is utter ninconpoo. I really really don’t understand how thousands and thousands not only can blindingly support prejudices but also actively live by them. To say “Black people live in jails pretty much!” and not continue to think about why that happens. And so on.

    1. Yes…I am in Europe for the first time & it’s fascinating to see how different countries deal with race. The US certainly has problems and won’t talk about them. Immigration here is a totally different situation, and similarly complicated. I have a lot to think about.

  2. I heard an interview with the author on Fresh Air and this has been on my list for a while. I’m currently in the middle of Disciplining the Poor, and one of the points made in that book is that the incarceration system is tied to training “Good workers,” so all of this plays into each other in really, really sick ways.

    1. Yeah, the way that it interacts with corporations (the rise of private prisons) & treatment of undocumented immigrants is also really frightening. The deeper you go, the scarier it gets. Is “Disciplining the Poor” also worth a read, then?

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