The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – by Michelle Alexander

After centuries of effort to establish a country in which people can supposedly pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, our society has reached a generation in which we can point to a former Black president and declare that we are a post-racial society. Or are we? In a thoroughly researched and relentless retelling of the social history of the United States, Michelle Alexander makes that argument that not only has the U.S. failed to achieve this goal, but rather has maintained a carefully calculated and redesigned system founded on racial oppression in the form of mass incarceration. As a direct result of the War on Drugs, Black and brown men have been incarcerated at astonishing rates, suffering social, financial, and political exclusion that endures long after completing a prison sentence. These actions have been legitimated by overtly by policies, funding allocations, and court decisions, and insidiously by pitting the poorest and most marginalized Americans against each other to ensure factions do not come together to enact a change in power, much less an entire restructuring of the social system. And all within a supposedly post-racial society.

“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander is an astounding, horrifying, and unfortunately believable study of how the institution of slavery eventually led to the institution of mass incarceration. The transition of racist sentiment from overt acts of hostility to unnoticeable (to Whites) microaggressions has created a culture in which racism is abhorred and unable to be discussed. As a result, issues defined by racial boundaries, particularly mass incarceration, are also not up for discussion. Alexander supports her connections among slavery, Jim Crow, and colorblindness with an exhaustive list of research, court decisions, and policies. More importantly, she demonstrates the racism inherent in the War on Drugs with the exact same research, although explicit claims of racist actions cannot be made in a supposedly colorblind society (another Catch-22 upheld by court review). After delineating each of these devastating connections, Alexander then goes on to describe the long-term impact of the War on Drugs on the individuals and communities most impacted by them. Deprived on basic human dignity and relegated to a life of presumed criminality, the men locked behind bars for petty drug crimes face a lifetime of punishment, even if they do not receive a life sentence.

Wow! This book…wow! I would like to call it unbelievable, except that Alexander clearly supports each and every argument she makes throughout the book. Not to be glanced through, this book needs to be fully digested, and preferably regurgitated in conversation with others. My one criticism is that although she excellently calls out racism despite the supposed colorblindness of U.S. society, I felt that some of her arguments were not as nuanced in relation to gender norms, and particularly expected male behavior. Regardless of the dense reading and occasional gendered statements, this book is an absolute must-read!

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