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

Review: 

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness - Michelle AlexanderI have to admit that the title is what initially caught my attention, as I’m sure it was intended to do. The New Jim Crow presents a compelling case for how the war on drugs, among others things, has created an undercaste in the United States. It sounds a little crazy at first but when you stop and think about it, if you’ve ever had contact with concentrated groups of minorities, it sounds less crazy. It was really a cousin of mine and his consistent trouble with the police after his initial jail time that got me thinking about it. And then seeing a young black man at a RedBox get stopped and cuffed, having barely been addressed by cops with semi-automatic weapons, that really got me thinking about it.

Well before getting into the book, the idea of a new Jim Crow got a lot less crazy. This had been on my TBR for a while before all this but I kept putting it off. It wasn’t so much that it sounded crazy but as it sounded progressively less crazy, I wanted to get into it less. I know that’s not the right thing to say or think but I read a lot about a lot of issues and things get overwhelming sometimes. I knew how this book would make me feel, which is about the same as Girls Like Us and I know that I cannot fight for them but support them in their endeavors and I already try to do what I can which isn’t much, only now I’ll feel worse about it. None of this is actually being a good ally but I’m working on it.

Then the new Read Harder list came out this year and I knew that it was time. So I have read it now and I was right. Most of the information in the book was information that I had but not that I had put together in quite this way. The best thing that I took out of it is the birdcage analogy. I had never thought of all those programs and issues that way. The basic idea is that the war on drugs, mass incarceration, police saturation in ghettos, the lack of people willing to hire felons as well as the lack of people willing to give them social help of any kind with many other things work together to cage black men into being an undercaste in America. Let us also not underestimate what the images in every kind of media do to create and manipulate perception of black men as a group. No single wire of the cage is responsible for holding them in and so it’s hard to call out any single program as racist or causing the problem.

The unfortunate thing about this book, like so many books about social issues, is that an actual solution eludes us all. Being that we live in such a capitalist society and that we have created such a profit around locking people up, there is little to no incentive in closing prisons down. Creating a capitalist solution to reforming prisoners would only create a bigger market for prisoners to reform and not solve the problem. How do we make it more profitable to keep people (particularly the minorities who are disproportionately targeted for searches and therefore arrested more often) out of jail than to put them in it? How do we then make it up to this generation of black men who have neither rights to vote nor access to most kinds of social help?

For me the first question ended up as the main question in the book. Bear in mind that it was written in 2010, while President Obama was still in office. Alexander further goes on to talk about how it was actually under the last two Democratic presidents, Obama and Clinton, that the worst of this happened, which goes a long way to explaining the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years. I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve had with people who don’t understand that the way police treat them is not the same way police treat the people who end up shot in these situations. Not every situation is the same. I am also not against police in any way. I just know the difference between the way I treat someone I have been socialized to find intimidating vice someone I’ve been socialized to find accomodating. We can’t walk around pretending that every interaction with every person is the same. At the very least, most women should be able to appreciate that as there is an immediate sizing up of men we encounter and differing attitudes for men that intimidate us or who we feel safe around.

So what do we do?

Well, read the book for starters. I know that it’s been read for several online and feminist book clubs. The book is a start and not a finish. It is well organized, well researched and beautifully articulated. I would have a hard time believing that anyone wouldn’t be convinced by the end of this book that this undercaste exists unless they just shamelessly call Alexander a liar. So, read the book. Take it all in. Talk about it. Take a look at the implications of it.

The first time I had intended to read it, but then procrastinated, I accidentally got Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: an organizing guide by Daniel Hunter, which I will be reading soon and am also interested in The New Jim Crow Study Guide and Call to Action by Veterans of Hope. Both of these are guides to organizing against the new Jim Crow and hopefully provide ways that those of us not directly affected can support it. I don’t have to be affected by something to support it, but I don’t support rushing in ahead of the people who are affected by it. It may have taken support from every class and race in order to get both slavery and Jim Crow overturned before this, but it did not mean that others were supposed to crowd the podium and talk down to the people who require these institutions to go away. Let’s not do that. Let’s stand with and/or behind but not in front of the people this system of injustice holds down.

One of the immediate actions we can begin to take is to walk away from colorblindness. This is not the only place I’ve seen mention it’s negative effects. It’s actually one thing I’ve been enjoying about the Black Lives Matter movement and the Kaepernick protests. How can we protest racism when people like to pretend their biases don’t get count? Pointing out that they do. So, immediate homework for this book, colorblindness and bias.

I have The New Jim Crow on my Scribd account, in audiobook format, but it’s also available for purchase from several outlets. Click on the cover image above to be redirected to Booklikes for options or add to Goodreads for later. It’s a great selection for Read Harder’s task 14, a book of social science.

 

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