New Jim Crow

Are you aware that the highest incidence of the use and sale of illegal drugs is found in communities characterized as White? That the percentage of federal prisoners convicted of violent crimes is 7.9%? That the greatest increase in funding for the War on Drugs took place during the Administration of Bill Clinton?


The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2010) 338 pages ★★★★★ 


If you can honestly say you knew all this, go to the head of the class. If you’re like me, however, chances are you found at least one or two of these facts to be surprising — despite think of yourself as generally well informed, as I do. And if you now read Michelle Alexander‘s groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow, you’ll come across a never-ending list of surprises about the so-called “War on Drugs” and our country’s vaunted criminal justice system.

In this extraordinary book, Prof. Alexander explains how the country’s criminal justice system has been warped to the point of nonrecognition by a series of Presidential actions, Congressional legislation, and Supreme Court decisions; how the system of arrests, prosecution, conviction, and sentencing really works now; and the catastrophic consequences of this sequence of events for our cities, our African-American and Latino communities, and ultimately all of ourselves. The New Jim Crow is one of the most important books published in the English language in a great many years, because it dispels so many of our cherished illusions and takes no prisoners in naming those responsible or in proposing remedies.

For starters, “The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran.” The number of prisoners of African-American and Latino descent is wildly out of proportion to their share of the general population, and the War on Drugs accounts for the lion’s share of the difference. Despite the fact that the incidence of drug use and drug sales are about the same among whites as they are among people of color, “In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.”

Alexander demonstrates, step by careful step, how this happened, starting in 1982 with Ronald Reagan’s announcement of the War on Drugs. First, legislation proposed and passed by the same politicians (Democrats as well as Republicans) who opposed the civil rights movement) elevated drug offenses far above their previous levels — beginning three years before the introduction of crack cocaine and a nationwide increase in drug use.

Next, state and local police have been granted significant financial incentives to arrest large numbers of drug users (not, as TV and film presentations might suggest, “drug kingpins”) and insulated from charges of racism in targeting drug use in inner cities rather than in neighborhoods largely populated by whites. Prosecutors as well as police have been given free rein by a series of Supreme Court decisions to operate as they will, in the absence of any legal representation for the accused, and to justify their actions (such as excluding blacks or Latinos from juries or overcharging to force plea-bargain confessions) using even completely absurd or “silly” reasons. (Don’t believe this? Read the book!)

“Almost no one ever goes to trial. Nearly all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining.” Those few who do go on trial frequently face all-white juries and sentencing rules hemmed in by federal legislation that requires judges to impose the harshest possible sentences — even a life sentence for a first-time offense!

Simply possessing modest amounts of marijuana has turned millions of Americans into felons serving years in federal penitentiaries, barred for life from voting or serving on juries, shamed by their families, forced to pay fees for their own parole or probation (including drug tests), excluded from public housing, and discriminated against by most employers. Is it any wonder so many return to prison?

Alexander’s thesis is brutally simple: “Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.” And we all pay the price.

For additional reading

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