As I watch my friends debate the ongoing protests in Ferguson on its tragic anniversary and the Black Lives Matters demonstrators interrupting Bernie Sanders rallies, it’s even more apparent that many of us are simply so far removed from the lived experience of black Americans in the United States to offer more than a kneejerk or superificial response. Most of us certainly believe and hope that we are not racist, and decry the overtly racist actions of police and government officials when we see them on TV or read about them on the news, but our lived experiences simply don’t give us the tools to understand the pervasive power of the police state on African-American communities.
Growing up in the bubble of small town Montana, I hardly have the experience to speak for others, and that’s why I so enthusiastically recommend Michelle Alexander’s 2012 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which makes a powerful case that the United States is still engaged in the production of a racial caste system: that what was once slavery, then Jim Crow, has been replaced by a system of incarcerating young African-American men at a higher rate than any other developed country incarcerates anyone.
Alexander’s central thesis is that mass incarceration of African-Americans is the most important element of a deliberate backlash against the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, and the most critical social issue we must address. She writes:
Mass incarceration—not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil rights enforcement—is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. The popular narrative that emphasizes the death of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, is dangerously misguided. The colorblind public consensus that prevails in America today—i.e., the widespread belief that race no longer matters—has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system.
Alexander breaks down all of the tools that are used to criminalize black life in America, from pretext stops and disparate enforcement of drug laws, exploding comfortable myths that ours is a colorblind justice system and that increased rates of incarceration in black communities is the result of increased criminality there. While many readers will no doubt be familiar with the individual policies Alexander critiques, the real power of her book is how she weaves those strands together to reveal a cage of racist practice that dehumanize and criminalize black life in America.
At the heart of this, of course, is the War on Drugs, but it’s not enough to simply critique it without addressing the racial dimension of its application. As Alexander writes:
There is, of course, an official explanation for all of this: crime rates. This explanation has tremendous appeal—before you know the facts—for it is consistent with, and reinforces, dominant racial narratives about crime and criminality dating back to slavery. The truth, however, is that rates and patterns of drug crime do not explain the glaring racial disparities in our criminal justice system. People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.10 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 illegal drug dealing than people of color.
Even well-meaning critics of the War on Drugs need to do more to acknowledge its deeply racist application and the underlying narratives of criminality and race that drive the police response. Drug legalization and adopting a harms reduction model would be an important first step, but until our society confronts and addresses the race-based application of our laws, it’s likely to be an insufficient step.
Alexander also offers some eye-opening history about the prison population in the United States, writing that as late as the 1970s, criminologists were arguing that the prison system would “fade away,” including a 1973 recommendation from the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals that argued “no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed.” In two generations, we’ve gone from a society pondering a massive restructuring of the penal system into a place only for the most violent, irredeemable criminals to one wherein states are writing contracts with for-profit prisons mandating 100% occupancy in their facilities.
Until we confront the comforting illusion that individual choices lead to imprisonment, we’ll never adopt policies that improve our schools, our law enforcement, and our legal system. Though written before the events of the past few years, Ms. Alexander’s book offers a powerful entry into understanding how the institutions of racism have not vanished, but merely transformed, and calls readers into action to demand change. Echoing Jonathan Kozol’s powerful critique of accountability measures imposed on segregated schools, Alexander asks:
are we willing to demonize a population, declare a war against them, and then stand back and heap shame and contempt upon them for failing to behave like model citizens while under attack?
It’s a question all of us, conditioned by the news media, anodyne discussions about race in our schools, and simple lack of experience, need to ask ourselves—and The New Jim Crow offers an excellent starting point to deconstruct our biases and assumptions.