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

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
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's review
Jun 01, 2011

really liked it
Read from June 01 to 02, 2011

The New Jim Crow is a really well-reasoned argument about the racial prejudice inherent in the criminal justice system and how this bias allows mass incarceration and the war on drugs to function as an effective system of social control, maintaining blacks, and especially poor, black men as a racial underclass.

The author takes the current idea of a post-racial society and challenges all of the wisdom we now hold as true. She asserts that the ostensible 'colorblindness' of the criminal justice system really functions as anything but colorblind and cites various studies showing this with strong statistical evidence. The fact that the (mostly) black men affected can be said to have committed crimes is the basic reason we all feel justified in ignoring the racial prejudice in the system and its implementation. As Alexander says, "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."

We treat criminals as less than citizens, legally denying them access to jobs, housing, assistance, education, and civil rights like jury duty and voting. It is perfectly acceptable to treat them as such because we tell ourselves that they had a choice in becoming criminals. They didn't have to commit the crime. This is a false argument. Someone doing something illegal doesn't mean that they cannot be treated unjustly or that the system can no longer fail to produce an equitable outcome for them. A criminal is no less likely to be a victim of racial prejudice than a model citizen.

"The temptation is to insist that black men "choose" to be criminals; the system does not make them criminals, at least not in the way that slavery made blacks slaves or Jim Crow made them second-class citizens. The myth of choice here is seductive, but it should be resisted. 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. In fact, studies suggest that white professionals may be the most likely of any group to have engaged in illegal drug activity in their lifetime, yet they are the least likely to be made criminals. The prevalence of illegal drug activity among all racial and ethnic groups creates a situation in which, due to limited law enforcement resources and political constraints, some people are made criminals while others are not. Black people have been made criminals by the War on Drugs to a degree that dwarfs its effect on other racial and ethnic groups, especially whites. And the process of making them criminals has produced racial stigma."

Additionally, our criminal justice system is now based mostly on the prosecution of drug-related offenses. The majority of felons behind bars are there for drugs - using, dealing, smuggling, trafficking, etc. The thing about the War on Drugs is that it is conducted in a manner that specifically targets low income black neighborhoods, rather than middle and high income white neighborhoods where the crimes are just as likely to happen, albeit in lower population density. "Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color... In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men." In some major cities, "as many as 80 percent of young African American men" have done jail time and are now considered criminals and are subject to the post-incarceration sanctions that keep them as a permanent underclass.

Another interesting part of the War on Drugs, is that not all felons are ineligible for public assitance, often, just drug felons, which taken with the image of the 'welfare queen' can pretty well illustrate what we think of blacks, and that the entire operation is at the very least related to racial motives.

"What is key to America's understanding of class is the persistent belief-despite all evidence to the contrary-that anyone, with the proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult, but the key to our collective self-image is the assumption that mobility is always possible, so failure to move up reflects on one's character. By extension, the failure of a race or ethnic group to move up reflects very poorly on the group as a whole." We convince ourselves that we are giving minorities enough of a chance to move up by barring explicit discrimination against them for reasons of color and by providing them with access to top schools through affirmative action, but this really does nothing to improve the station of the vast majority of minority citizens.

It is 'trickle-down theory of justice'. "Affirmative action, particularly when it is justified on the grounds of diversity rather than equity (or remedy), masks the severity of racial inequality in America, leading to greatly exaggerated claims of racial progress and overly optimistic assments of the future for African Americans." We see the exceptions doing well, people like Oprah and President Obama, and think that if black people can get there, they can get anywhere they want to, and they don't because they either don't want to be there or don't want to work hard enough to be there. We don't think about the way that the world is stacked against them to begin with. And the worst part is that almost everyone complicit in this doesn't even realize that they're complicit. You don't think about it because you don't see it or you think it doesn't affect you.

If you haven't committed a crime or had anyone close to you commit a crime, you don't see the racial disparities in sentencing, plea bargaining, access to representation, access to a jury trial, etc. There are disparities all the way down. White defendants are more likely to be allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor offense. They're more likely to have privately engaged counsel rather than an overworked public defender. And they're less likely to be sentenced to life in prison than blacks. One of the strongest arguments for racial bias in sentencing comes from the Baldus study, which found that
"defendants charged with killing white victims received the death penalty eleven times more often than defendants charged with killing black victims. Georgia prosecutors... sought the death penalty in 70 percent of cases involving black defendants and white victims, but only 19 percent of cases involving white defendants and black victims... after accounting for thirty-five nonracial variables, the researchers found that defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times more likely to receive a death sentence than defendants charged with killing blacks."

The arguments in this book clearly have carried me, and I feel I've gained a lot by reading it. I'd recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning a bit more about racial justice, even if they don't share my opinion. They can see the studies she references and judge the sources for themselves.
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message 1: by Dan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dan Sirotkin Great review, the one thing I think Alexander might've missed is tying the War on Drugs to the destruction of the black family and their economic decline:

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