The New Jim Crow – Common Read ’13 Review
Overcoming Colorblindness to Defeat Racial Caste America
Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a well researched, convincingly documented argument that the result of the War on Drugs and growth of mass incarceration during the past 30 years in America has been to re-assert social control over black and brown-skinned people in the United States. Alexander shows that mass incarceration replaces forms of discrimination (notably the “Jim Crow” laws) that enforced racial castes in American society but have been dismantled through court challenge and legislation. She explains how the goal of undoing laws that explicitly enforced racial caste to create a “colorblind” society (by, for example, creating programs such as Affirmative Action) has been perverted through mass incarceration to create a racially identifiable caste of impoverished, second class citizens who are legally denied access to housing, employment, the right to vote or government support. Alexander claims it is the supposed colorblindness of drug laws, leveraged by the policy of mass incarceration, that keeps American society rooted in racially-based discrimination. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences writes that, “One-third of African American male high-school dropouts under age 40 are currently behind bars. Among all African American men born since the mid-1960s, more than 20 percent will go to prison, nearly twice the number that will graduate college. This extraordinary pattern of penal confinement has been called “mass incarceration,” a rate of incarceration so high that it affects not only the individual offender, but also whole social groups”(1). Michelle Alexander teaches us that this is not an accident.
Unequal police enforcement
The term “War on Drugs”, was coined by President Richard Nixon in 1971 and later adopted by the press to describe a campaign of prohibition and foreign military aid and military intervention undertaken by the United States government, to restrict access to unregulated or illegal drugs in the United States. For more than 30 years the federal government has funneled billions of dollars in paramilitary training and equipment to local police forces through grants (replacing dwindling police funding) allocated specifically to pursue a “zero tolerance” drug use policy in the United States. The number of drug warrants served by SWAT teams consequently exploded from several hundred per year in 1972 to more than 40,000 in 2001 (Alexander, 74-78).
Alexander deftly shows how and why local and state police forces target economic lower-class minority populations to generate arrests and win further Federal grants and access to military armaments. (Yes, military armaments: in 1981 the U.S. Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act which, “encouraged the military to give local, state and federal police access to military bases, intelligence, research, weaponry and other equipment for drug interdiction; rescind mandatory drug sentencing; legalize marijuana, eliminate the laws that discriminate against drug offenders”(Alexander, 77). (Read more on how police forces have become increasingly militarized here.) The militarization of local policing frequently results in an excessive use of force and civilian casualties with little accountability to victims(2), further alienating the targeted community.
Economics of Inequality
Alexander examines the economics of the Drug War, and the privatization of incarceration(3)(4) to demonstrate how entrenched mass incarceration has become in American society, pointing out that more than one million jobs would be lost if current policy was reformed. (According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, the incarceration industry accounted for 2.4 million jobs, and $185 billion was spent on police protection, detention, judicial and legal activities in 2003.) Alexander signals a profit-driven private prison system that has created the highest percentage of imprisoned citizens in the world and that cost society more in trailing effects more than it saves in the present, writing, “We have passed the tipping point beyond which imprisonment lowers the crime rate, so that now the policy of mass incarceration is rending fragile social networks, destroying families, and creating a permanent class of unemployables..”(Alexander, 237).
Alexander notes that discussing mass incarceration racial terms is not effective for promoting reform, while the prolonged economic downturn since 2008 has been, observing that states rescinded mandatory sentencing laws and promoted treatment and rehabilitation for many drug offenders because it is less expensive than incarcerating them. But, she explains, it is a mistake to believe that economics alone make this the moment mobilizing against mass incarceration will work because if we leave the underlying, longstanding racial stereotypes unchallenged they will eventually appear in society again (Alexander, 239).
Toward equitable incarceration
Alexander concedes that imprisonment is a necessary tool for protecting society from dangerous people, but she does decry the racist underpinning of the current policy of mass incarceration. She does more than alert us to the corrosive danger and inequity of the policy of mass incarceration, she provides a detailed list of “to-do’s” if we are to undo the harm, starting with dismantling the “War on Drugs”:
- End Federal grant money for drug enforcement;
- End police organizations’ ability to capture the proceeds of drug arrests;
- End racial profiling;
- Stop concentrating drug enforcement in poor communities of color;
- Stop the transfer of military materiel and intelligence to police forces (Alexander, 232-233).
Alexander also challenges us to immediately make a difference by recognizing that even if incarceration is color-blind, our perception of drug offenders is not, stating that we must stop seeing it as a problem of black or brown people, but a problem of all people, and writing, “It is this failure to care… across racial lines that lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States…”(Alexander, 234).
The following passage from Alexander’s book sums up the problem and calls us to action,
The deeply flawed nature of colorblindness, as a governing principle, is evidenced by the fact that the public consensus supporting mass incarceration is officially colorblind. It purports to see black and brown men not as black and brown, but simply as men – raceless men – who have failed miserably to play by the rules the rest of us follow quite naturally. 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. Our commitment to colorblindness extends beyond individuals to institutions and and social arrangements. We have become blind, not so much to race, but to the existence of racial caste in America” (Alexander, 241).
Michelle Alexander’s work uncovers fundamental injustice and inspires a passionate response. Perhaps one reason why is she shows that for all the efforts good people make to defeat racism there remains much work – and considerable reflection – to be done. The First and Second principles of Unitarian Universalism are called into action by Alexander’s work, and amongst UU responses is the creation of a Facebook group, UUs Resisting New Jim Crow & Mass Incarceration, to “connect and share ideas to help build UU engagement with the movement to end mass incarceration and “The New Jim Crow” and to support prisoners and their families.” The injustice Michelle Alexander describes is deep, troubling, pervasive and too often unseen in mainstream society. (Reflected, for example, by the practice of solitary confinement,which disproportionately affects minorities, and, Senator Dick Durbin (D. Illinois) believes violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel or unusual punishment.) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness demands discussion, debate and action.
ACLU Launches Nationwide Police Militarization Investigation (Huffington Post)
Solitary Confinement: Punishment or Cruelty? (National Public Radio – written or radio report)
UUs Resisting Mass Incarceration (Facebook group)
“Common Read Looks at Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” (Interconnections Newsletter)
Solitarywatch.com Information on the practice of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.