Julie Christine's Reviews > The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
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it was amazing
bookshelves: social-political-commentary, best-of-2015, read-2015

1988. English 201. I was a college freshman, required to write a paper about fads vs. trends. For reasons I cannot recall, I chose to write about the War on Drugs. I can’t recall anything about the paper, either, though I can still see the “This Is Your Brain On Drugs” commercial that was rolled out in 1987 by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Washington D. C. was embroiled in the Iran-Contra Affair. It was an election year. Perestroika had just begun rolling off western tongues. Benazir Bhutto was named Prime Minister of Pakistan. I was eighteen and although I knew all about apartheid in South Africa, and stood in line to see Mississippi Burning when it was released late that year, I had been raised in nearly all-white communities in rural Washington state. The notion that the War on Drugs was at the heart of a “stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow” (p 4) would have been beyond my limited understanding of race in these United States.

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is stunning. The racialized social control she writes of in the introduction is quite simple to state, but devastating in complexity: the United States, since the dismantling of Jim Crow began in the mid-1940s, has sought to maintain the social dominance of its white population by the systematic mass incarceration of people of color, primarily young black men.

You can’t believe that so radical a policy, carried out on a massive scale that requires the collusion of each branch of government, not to mention the FBI, CIA, and local law enforcement, is possible? Don’t take my word for it. Read Alexander’s painstakingly documented book. Follow up her statements with research of your own; sadly, it’s very easy to connect the dots, all the way back to the start of slavery in the Colonies, long before the Federation was formed, long before the Constitution of the United States declared that slaves were defined as three-fifths of a man.

I could provide you the litany of statistical evidence Alexander lays out, but it’s hard to know where to start or where to stop. The data are here; the numbers are real, and they are soul-crushing. I challenge you to read this and learn for yourself. What makes this book so compelling, however, is Alexander’s ability to put human faces in front of the statistics, to show us that our shared history has neither a shared interpretation nor shared consequences.

Alexander effectively repeats and summarizes the concepts on a regular basis, which is a welcome relief, because so much of this information is hard to process. I expended much energy in rage and frustration of how this system came to be and is allowed to continue that I needed the frequent re-focus. About two-thirds of the way in, she offers this summation:
This, in brief, is how the system works: The War on Drugs is the vehicle through which extraordinary numbers of black men are forced into the cage. The entrapment occurs in three distinct phases . . . The first stage is the roundup. Vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color. … The conviction marks the beginning of the second phase: the period of formal control. Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty whether they are or not. …The final stage has been dubbed by some advocates as the period of invisible punishment. … a form of punishment that operates largely outside of public view and takes effect outside the traditional sentencing framework. . . and collectively ensures that the offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society.
One of the most thought-provoking issues raised in The New Jim Crow is the concept of colorblindness, and how Martin Luther King’s call to create a society where people are not "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" has been badly distorted by politicians in their attempts to dismantle affirmative action and anti-poverty programs. Recognition of this distortion is not new, of course, but it’s been skillfully employed in the mass incarceration movement by those who don’t want to appear racist. As Alexander states:
“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Martin Luther King, Jr fought for a society where people were not judged by the color of their skin. He never called for the color of their skin to be ignored.

Michelle Alexander states in the opening sentence that
This book is not for everyone. I have a specific audience in mind—people who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not yet appreciate the magnitude faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration…(and) those who have been struggling to persuade their friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers, co-workers, or political representatives . . . but who have lacked the facts and data to back up their claims. Last, but definitely not least, I am writing this book for all those trapped within America’s latest caste system. You may be locked up our lock out of mainstream society, but you are not forgotten.
So it’s natural to end such a bleak assessment of race in America with the question, what can be done? Michelle Alexander addresses this extensively, including taking the traditional civil rights organizations to task for turning their backs on the long-standing issue of mass incarceration of black and brown Americans.

As a white woman living again in predominantly white, rural Washington state, I despair at my ability to contribute anything useful to the dialogue, much less to be an agent of change. I accept I’ll be branded an SJW (fine by me) and shout mostly to a choir of my own peers. But I know, after reading what Michelle Alexander wrote in her preface, that this book is for me; I am the audience she had in mind. She also states in the introduction that:
A new social consensus must be forged about race and the role of race in defining the basic structure of our society, if we ever hope to abolish the New Jim Crow. The new consensus must begin with dialogue, a conversation that fosters critical consciousness, a key prerequisite to effective social action.
After Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO last August, and the Black Lives Matter campaign spread across social media, I vowed to listen, read, and better educate myself about racial injustices, as well as hold myself accountable for on my own assumptions and prejudices. The New Jim Crow makes me uncomfortable; it makes me angry, ashamed, fearful, and determined. Determined never to be so blind again.
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Quotes Julie Christine Liked

Michelle Alexander
“racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago.”
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow


Reading Progress

February 13, 2015 – Started Reading
February 13, 2015 – Shelved
February 13, 2015 – Shelved as: social-political-commentary
February 14, 2015 –
page 56
19.31% "This is one of those books I'm constantly setting aside to do my own research. In looking at how the Constitution & Federalism were structured to "protect the institution of slavery and the political power of slaveholding states" (p 26), I came across this 1992 article by journalist Juan Williams in the William and Mary Law Review http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/vie..."
February 15, 2015 –
page 104
35.86% "http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/6680412 wherein Bill Clinton apologizes to Mexico for the drug war, but who will apologize to the millions-mostly young men of color-rounded up and incarcerated under abusive mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenses, in direct violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, at the cost of billions to the American taxpayer?"
February 16, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015
February 16, 2015 – Shelved as: read-2015
February 16, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-33 of 33 (33 new)

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message 1: by Julie Christine (last edited Feb 16, 2015 05:27PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Julie Christine Copying and pasting my status here: this is one of those books I'm constantly setting aside to do my own research. In looking at how the Constitution & Federalism were structured to "protect the institution of slavery and the political power of slaveholding states" (p 26), I came across this 1992 article by journalist Juan Williams in the William and Mary Law Review http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/vie...


Julie Christine This American Life has aired a two-part segment on policing and race that dovetails into this book's theme http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio. Here's a link to this week's episode. archives/episode/548/cops-see-it-differently-part-two


Julie Christine http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/6680412 wherein Bill Clinton apologizes to Mexico for the drug war, but who will apologize to the millions-mostly young men of color-rounded up and incarcerated under abusive mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenses, in direct violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, at the cost of billions to the American taxpayer?


Julie Christine It's going to take me a few days to sort through all the pages I bookmarked and continue with outside research, but people. Like Half the Sky a few years ago, this is one I will be shoving into hands, insisting it be read.


message 5: by Debbie "DJ" (new)

Debbie "DJ" Another really good read is Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. I read due to another members (snotchocheeze) review. He had an amazing story of running into a former death rower in his local store. So bought Execution's Doorstep: True Stories of the Innocent and Near Damned, as the man said his story was in there!!


message 6: by Margitte (new)

Margitte This book is creating quite a stir and judging from the different opinions on the book, should be read by many many people. Hopefully it can happen. Just the tidbits of quotes from the book that I have read, I find it disturbing and upsetting.


Leslie Reese Thank you for this important review, Julie! The New Jim Crow has been on my to-read list way too long. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates treated this as a title for book discussion on his blog I few years ago.


message 8: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Poignant, heartfelt, and evocative, your review. All of these things, coupled with the excerpted commentary, glued me to this review, Julie. Wow! Kudos to Alexander for continuing this discussion on race. I found myself nodding to a few things you mentioned here. I'm adding this book asap, thanks to you!


message 9: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth this line from tupac song popped in my head while reading your review::

...instead of a war on poverty they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me...
(well hey, that's just the way it is)

great review, julie. plan on adding this to my TBR.


Julie Christine Oh everyone. Thank you for the amazing comments. I stopped in a local business on my way to return this book to the library and when a woman saw the book I was holding, an amazing discussion ensued. She's black--originally from the U.K, her husband is white American, and they have a 13-year old son, trying now to tap into his developing moral compass and sociopolitical awareness as a young man of color in this lily-white, uber-liberal community. I was just so excited to have someone to listen to. And to tell about this book. The learning, and the discussion, continue!


message 11: by Julie Christine (last edited Feb 24, 2015 06:17AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Julie Christine Leslie wrote: "Thank you for this important review, Julie! The New Jim Crow has been on my to-read list way too long. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates treated this as a title for book discussion on his blog I few years..."

I am so glad you mentioned this, Leslie. I looked up Ta-Nehisi's blog and found the start of the discussion. He really digs in and counters some of her arguments with other historical viewpoints. Just fascinating. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/a...


Iris P What an amazing review Julie, thanks! I look forward to reading this soon. I just recently finished "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson, as Debbie mentioned before, that one is also an important book that tackles the issue of racial biases and injustices that seems so deeply embedded in our Justice system. Although I myself I am person of color, I grew up in Latin America and come from a completely different background, but I am deeply committed to learn and understand more why this country is still so divided along racial lines and that education includes reading books like this one.
Thanks for the link to the This American Life episodes, as a side note, I live in Miramar, Florida, just a few minutes away from Miami Gardens, the city discussed on Part two of the series. As the mother of an 18-year old boy, the killing of Trayvon Martin was so sad and deeply disturbing and brought the issue of racial tensions in Florida to the forefront in a stark way.


Julie Christine Iris wrote: "What an amazing review Julie, thanks! I look forward to reading this soon. I just recently finished "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson, as Debbie mentioned before, that one is also an important book t..."

Thank you both- Debbie and Iris- I'm adding Stevenson's book to the list!

Iris, I'm so grateful to know more about your experiences and background. I see, sadly even in my own family, the fear and assumptions brought by ignorance and isolation. There is so much that is simple about the process of breaking down barriers- listening, asking questions, and listening more-but it's so hard to do. Peace to you, friend.


Julie Christine Debbie "DJ" wrote: "Another really good read is Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. I read due to another members (snotchocheeze) review. He had an amazing story of running into a former dea..."
Debbie - thank you for these!


Julie Christine Today's "To The Point", a syndicated public radio show from KCRW, aired a vital, fascinating segment on issues tied directly to those in The New Jim Crow: Debtor's Prisons and Criminal Justice Reform http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/show...


Iris P Julie wrote: "Today's "To The Point", a syndicated public radio show from KCRW, aired a vital, fascinating segment on issues tied directly to those in The New Jim Crow: Debtor's Prisons and Criminal Justice Refo..."

I just finished listening to the podcast of the show Julie, truly fascinating and outrageous at the same time.
A few thoughts on the discussion:

* Kudos to Koch & Soros and their “unholy alliance”. Hopefully their resolution to push for reforms within our legal system will soon show positive results.

* This type of issues underscores the importance of having a strong and diverse local media sources.

* The concept of “Debtors prison” was supposed to be outlawed in the US a long time ago, but apparently as it frequently happens, the wording of the law is ambiguous an leaves too much room for interpretation.

* Finally this phrase by Nikole Hannah-Jones one of the guests on the show provide a new perspective:“(These)Policies might not be racialized, but the way they are implemented might be racialized”

Thanks for sharing!


Julie Christine Iris wrote: "Julie wrote: "Today's "To The Point", a syndicated public radio show from KCRW, aired a vital, fascinating segment on issues tied directly to those in The New Jim Crow: Debtor's Prisons and Crimina..."

Iris- I felt the same when I heard about Koch and Soros- you could have tipped me over with a feather. I truly hope the Koch fortune and influence is used for good.

Yes, yes to “(These)Policies might not be racialized, but the way they are implemented might be racialized.” I think this gets at the heart of the matter--it is so easy to point to policies and say, what's the problem? And walk away, shrugging off the knowledge and responsibility for how they are truly carried out.

Gah- I love these discussions. Thank you so much for continuing the conversation.


message 18: by Tony (new) - added it

Tony Hynes your review of the New Jim Crow was so intriguing I had to share it with a college professor of mine. This book truly enhanced my understanding of how and why the US incarceration system limits the ability of blacks as a whole to prosper


Julie Christine Tony wrote: "your review of the New Jim Crow was so intriguing I had to share it with a college professor of mine. This book truly enhanced my understanding of how and why the US incarceration system limits the..."
Tony, thank you for your comment and for reaching out.

This book launched a much-belated examination of my own views of racism, acknowledgement of my privilege, and a deep listening of voices and stories that have always been there, but because I passively bought into the myth of a post-racial society, I remained conveniently ignorant of. I refuse to turn away again.


message 20: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Julie wrote: "Tony wrote: "your review of the New Jim Crow was so intriguing I had to share it with a college professor of mine. This book truly enhanced my understanding of how and why the US incarceration syst..."

The article that Ta Nahesi Coates wrote on reparations had the exact same effect on me, Julie. And, yes- ignorance was bliss. I tend to think in terms of before reading the article and after reading the article.


Julie Christine Elizabeth wrote: "Julie wrote: "Tony wrote: "your review of the New Jim Crow was so intriguing I had to share it with a college professor of mine. This book truly enhanced my understanding of how and why the US inca..."

Elizabeth- yes! I was thinking of this article earlier today when this review came back up. Coates does amazing work. I'm thrilled he was awarded a "genius" MacArthur grant. So deserved.


message 22: by Naia (new) - added it

Naia I just read an article in The Atlantic by Coates that focuses on mass incarceration and I'm pretty sure he quotes often from this book by Michelle Alexander, which you so amazingly reviewed. Adding to my list now.


Julie Christine Naia wrote: "I just read an article in The Atlantic by Coates that focuses on mass incarceration and I'm pretty sure he quotes often from this book by Michelle Alexander, which you so amazingly reviewed. Adding..."

Naia, yes! And thank you. This book was a revelation to me.


✨ Anna ✨ Julie, your background really struck a chord. I was also in college in 1988 studying the Drug War, on my own mostly, but I did give a paper discussing the positive points of decriminalization. My father and I discussed the issue often (concluding decriminalization would be a better route). The Economist was the top "newspaper" in the family, and often wrote about the futility of prohibition (we had been here before, and it was not a good thing--Ken Burns documentary is excellent--some parallels are staggering. But that really concerned whites as the majority.) Restrictions on certain drugs (and how they are consumed) has produced racist drug laws for centuries now (the Chinese on the West Coast who smoked opium; but who also were building our rail system--so opium dens were outlawed and on it went...). I thought I was well versed on this topic, but MA's book blew me away! I understood the disparity in race among arrests, but there is so much more. I did not know much about our prison system, but it has evolved since then, to our detriment. And I am so tired of hearing we are past racism or that there is reverse racism or "what about the Irish, Italians, etc. who went through the "same" thing, yet seemed to integrate eventually." Well people, it might come as a shock, but black and brown-skinned people cannot change their skin color (nor should they need to). But it sure does make them sitting ducks. I would also like to know why our first black president is half-white and how black is black? And why do I see comments even now that Treyvon's murder was a good thing? That he was guilty of x, y, and z, way beyond a reasonable doubt--a life not worthy of all the protections supposedly guaranteed to all of us.

The flip side of this issue that I don't think many grasp is the deterioration of skill in our law enforcement officers. Their directive has been to pursue drug offenders to increase stats for so long that solid policing and good detective work has deteriorated. That affects all of us, in every community. Thank you for sharing!


message 25: by Lee-ann (new) - added it

Lee-ann Dunton I just started this book, and I already know I'm going to be just as devastated at the end. Your review was wonderful.


Julie Christine Anna wrote: "Julie, your background really struck a chord. I was also in college in 1988 studying the Drug War, on my own mostly, but I did give a paper discussing the positive points of decriminalization. My f..."

Anna, I am just now discovering your comments. Thank you. Thank you for thinking this through, for your perspective and indignation and anger on behalf of all who have been victims of these policies.


Julie Christine Lee-ann wrote: "I just started this book, and I already know I'm going to be just as devastated at the end. Your review was wonderful."

Lee-Ann, thank you. I am eager to learn what you think as you read and absorb- it's a lot to take in and try to make sense of.


message 28: by Akshay (new)

Akshay Vaddagiri fantastic review. just a heads up - https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n09/adam-sh...


message 29: by David (new)

David Doty Excellent review, thanks for sharing.


message 30: by Alan (new) - added it

Alan I feel much the same as you do. I'm less than halfway through the book and I am already uncomfortable, angry and wanting to know what I can do to be an agent of change.


message 31: by Carol (last edited Jul 05, 2020 07:34AM) (new)

Carol Julie wrote: "A new social consensus must be forged about race and the role of race in defining the basic structure of our society, if we ever hope to abolish the New Jim Crow".

Julie,
Your review is brilliant , heartfelt and very thought-provoking. I hope that time of reckoning is now. It's way past due. I have Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption and I'll look for this one.


Julie Christine Carol wrote: "Julie wrote: "A new social consensus must be forged about race and the role of race in defining the basic structure of our society, if we ever hope to abolish the New Jim Crow".

Julie,
Your review..."


Carol, I just came across your wonderful comment. Thank you! I can't believe this book is 10 years old already, and we are still talking about a system that has barely budged. I too hope that the reckoning is now inevitable.

You will love Just Mercy. It's more personal, but no less fascinating and urgent.


Julie Christine Alan wrote: "I feel much the same as you do. I'm less than halfway through the book and I am already uncomfortable, angry and wanting to know what I can do to be an agent of change."

Alan, thank you for this. I hope we all find ways to be the change.


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