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

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Rate this book
Clear rating

M 50x66
's review
Mar 07, 2012

it was amazing
Read in May, 2012

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this book. I had a vague idea that the criminal justice system was messed up, but Michelle uses numbers and powerful language to do the issue justice.

Mass incarceration has ruined about 30 million lives directly. 30. MILLION. Take a moment to absorb the truly staggering scope of that number. The charge is most commonly nonviolent marijuana possession. The victims are overwhelmingly black, despite using drugs at slightly lower rates than whites. It's a complicated system supported mostly by complacence. Once I found it was there, it literally made me sick to my stomach and I could barely finish the book.

Mass incarceration became, while we weren't really paying attention, the de facto reincarnation of Jim Crow, itself the reincarnation of slavery, the original racial caste system. The only cause I can think of that might be more important is climate change. Everything else pales in comparison.

Michelle is very brave in tackling color blindness, that most misguided yet aspired to ideology. We can't ignore the color of our neighbor's skin because his skin is important to him, and his skin is an excuse to put him in jail, whether anybody admits to it or not. We need to talk about race. We need to ask, "How do you feel about the color of your skin? How does society treat you because of the color of your skin?"

Here are some of my favorite passages:

Eight of those states enacted convict laws allowing for the hiring-o0ut of county prisoners to plantation owners and private companies. Prisoners were for4ced to work for little or no pay. One vagrancy act specirfically provided that "all free negroes and mulatooes over the age of eighteen" must have written proof of a job at the beginning of every year... In W.E.B. Du Bois's words: "The Codes spoke for themselves.... No open minded student can read them without being convinced they meant nothing more nor less than slavery in daily toil."

Once again, vagrancy laws and other laws defining activities such as "mischief" and "insulting gestures" as crimes were enforce vigorously against blacks. The aggressive enforcement of these cr5iminal offenses opened up an enormous market for convict leasing, in which prisoners were contracted out as laborers to the highest private bidder. Douglas Blackmon, in Slavery by Another Name, describes how tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested during this period, many of them hit with court costs and fines, which had to be worked off in order to secure their release. With no means to pay off their "debts," prisoners were sold as forced laborers to lumber camps, brickyars, railroads, farms, plantations, and dozens of corporations throughout the South. Death rates were shockingly high, for the private contractors had no interest in the health and well-being of their laborers, unlike the earlier slave-owners who needed their slaves, aat a minimum, to be healthy enough to survive hard labor.

Reagan... state and local law enforcement agencies were granted the authority to keep, for their own use, the vast majority of cash and assets they seize when waging the drug war. This dramatic change in policy gave state and local police an enormous stake in the War on Drugs - not in its success, but in its perpetual existence.

fully 80 percent of forfeitures went uncontested. Property or cash could be seized based on mere suspicion of illegal drug activity, and the seizure could occur without notice or hearing, upon an ex parte showing of mere probably cause to believe that the property had somehow been "involved" in a crime. The probably caukse showing could be based on nothing more than hearsay, innuendo, or even the paid, self-serving testimony of someone with interest clearly adverse to the property owner. Neither the owner of the property nor anyone else need be charged with a crime, much less found guilty iof one. Indeed, a person dcould be found innocent of any criminal conduct and the property could still be subject to forfeiture. p.78

Federal drug forfeiture laws are one reason, Blumenson and Nielson note, "why state and federal prisons now confine large numbers of men and women who had relatively jminor roles in drug distribution networks, but few of their bosses." p.79

Economis Glenn Loury once posed the question: "are we willing to cast ourselves as a society that creates crimogenic conditions for some of its members, and then acts out ritual s of punishment against them as if engaged in some awful form of human sacrifice?" p.165

As a gay activist once put it, "only by fully embracing the stigma itself can one neutralize the sting and make it laughable."

Like the minstrel shows of the slavery and Jim Crow eras, today's displays are generally designed for white audiences. The majority of consumers of gangsta rap are white, suburban teenagers. VH1 had its bets ratings ever for the first season of Flavor of Love - ratings driven by large white audiences. p.168

As a tidal wave of punitiveness, stigma, and despair washed over poor communities of color p.169

When the system of mass incarceration collapses (adn if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinaryily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was wages almost exclusively against poor peopel of color - people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prisons, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination. Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits - and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt - these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families. They were chastised for succumbing to depression and anger, and blamed for landing back in prison. Historians will likely wonder how we could descrilbe the new caste systlem as a system of crime control, when it is difficult to imagine a system better designed to create - rather than prevent - crime.

It is far more convenient to imagine that a majority of young African American men in urban areas freely chose a live of crime than to accept thae real possiblity that their lives were structered in a way that virtually guaranteed their early admissio into a system from which they can never escape.

North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago's West Side are ex-offenders, saddled for life with a criminal record. The majority (60 percent) were incarcerated for drug offenses. These neighborhoods are a minefield for parolees, for a standard condition of parole is a promise not to associate with felons.

The critical point here is that, for black men, the stigma of being a "criminal" in the era of mass incarceration is fundamentally a racial stigma... (paraphrase) for whites it's a nonracial stigma.

This system of control depends far more on racial indifference (defined as a lack of compassion and caring about race and racial groups) than racial hostility - a feature it actually shares with its predecessors.

Can we imagine large majorities of young white men being rounded up for minor drug offenses, placed under the control of the criminal justice system, labeled felons, and then subjected to a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion?

the vastly different sentences afforded drunk drivers and drug offenders speaks volumes regarding who is viewed as disposable - someone to be purged fromt he the body politic - and who is not.

...the argument implies that African Americnas prefer harsh criminal justice policies to other forms of governmental intervention, such as job creation, economic development, educational reform, and restorative justice programs, as the long-term solution to problems associated with crime... To the contrary, surveys consistently show that African Americans are generally less supoprtive of harsh criminal justice policies than whites, even though black are far more likely to be victims of crime.

The notion that African Americans support "get tough" approaches to crime is further complicated by thhe fact that "crime" is not a generic category. There are many differen types of crime, and violent crime tends to provoke the most visceral and punitive response.

one thing that makes the current penal apparatus strikingly different from previous racial caste systems is that "it does not carry out the positive economic mission of recruitment and disciplining of the workforce." Instead it serves only to warehous e poor black and brown people for increasingly length periods of time p207

Admittedly, though, the temptation to ignore race in our advocacy may be overwhelming. Race amkes people uncomfortable. One study found that some whites are so loath to talk about race and so fearful of violating racial etiquette that they indicate a preference for avoiding all contact with black people.p225

The deely flawed nature of colorblindness, as a governing principle, si evidence by the fact that the public consensus supporting mass incarceration is officially colorblind. It purports to see black and bronw men not as black and bronw, but simply as men - raceless men - who have failed miserably to play by the rules the rest of us folow quite natukrally. The fact that so many black and brown men are rounded up for drug crimes that go largely ignored when committed by whites is unseen. Our collective colorblindness prevents us from seeing this basic fact. Our blindness also prevents us from seeing the racial and structural divisions that persist in society: the segregated, unequal schools, the segregated, jobless ghettos, and the segregated public discourse - a public conversation that excludes the current pariah caste.p228

A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.p230

Yet the white man, it turns out, has suffered too. the fact that his suffering has been far less extremee, and has not been linked to a belief in his inherent inferiority, has not made his suffering less real. Civil rights advocates, however, have treated the white man's suffering as largely irrelevant to the pursuit of the promised land. As civil riights lawyers unveiled plans to desegregate public schools, it was poor and working-class whites who were expected to bear the burden of this profound social adjustment, even though many of them were as desperate for upward social mobility and quality education as African Americans.p243

Priority should have been given to figuring out some way for poor and working-class whites to feel as though they had a stake - some tangible interest - in the nascent integrated racial order... did not offer poor whites even an elementary framework for understanding what they might gain as a result of integration.
10 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The New Jim Crow.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

01/30 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Dan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dan Sirotkin One point she didn't make was tying the War on Drugs to the destruction of the black family, right as the War on Drugs started the black family began to disintegrate:


back to top