Note: This is the first installment in a series discussing Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. For other posts in this series:
Even though it was only published six years ago, Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness turns up in everything I read nowadays about systemic injustice. After reading yet another article that referenced this book, I finally decided to take the plunge and read it myself.
Given our current cultural context, I expect this book to be highly thought-provoking and intensely controversial. I’ve decided to blog out my thoughts from chapter to chapter in an effort to spark more discussion in my social circles surrounding the issues that Alexander tackles.
To be fair, I am not an unbiased reader. As a teacher in a low-income community of color, many of the things that Alexander writes about I have seen first hand from a very sympathetic point of view. Despite my experiences, I have nevertheless struggled to effectively communicate my thoughts to other people.
For me, reading literature on systemic injustice is educational and deeply personal. Every source that Alexander cites I am researching and reviewing, mostly for my own benefit. Rarely do I talk about social justice that I do not receive a raised eyebrow. Over the past several years I’ve become a small library of resources related to the topic, simply because people challenge almost any idea that I articulate about it.
Given the legwork that I am already doing, it only makes sense to share some of it on my blog. My hope is that blogging through Alexander’s book will spark discussion and force people to seriously think about issues that are too easily ignored, whether they agree with Alexander or not.
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Michelle Alexander’s main argument is that mass incarceration is nothing more than a redesigned system of racial control in the United States. The Jim Crow notion of “separate but equal” is now widely recognized to be code language for racial injustice. Despite notions of “progress,” we did not get rid of racially charged code language following the Civil Rights Movement. We merely reinvented the words. Today, we talk about getting “tough on crime” and the “War on Drugs,” under the notion that justice is “colorblind.” However, this pervasive assumption of “colorblindness” in our country prevents people from seeing the color of the vast majority of people in our prison system. Here are a few major talking points from Alexander’s introduction:
1. When the U.S. declared a “War on Drugs,” the threat of drugs and crime was exaggerated, overly connected to communities of color, and fueled by government agencies.
Alexander provides pretty convincing evidence to back up this claim. The Reagan administration declared a war on drugs in 1982, years before crack cocaine became a major issue in poor black communities and during a time when drug use was actually on the decline. In 1985, the administration began exaggerating crack “horror stories” in order to gain more support for the war, saturating the media with images of “crack whores” and black dealers, images that news outlets later admitted were inflated.
For more research:
- War on Drugs Declared
- The Crack Attack: America’s Latest Drug Scare
- The Crack Attack: Politics and Media in the Crack Scare
There is also a troubling amount of evidence linking illegal drug networks to CIA operations. In the past, the CIA has blocked investigations examining its relationship to drug networks used to fund its operations. In 1998, the CIA admitted that it covered up its connection to guerrilla groups in Nicaragua that were trafficking illegal drugs into the United States.
For more research:
- “The Truth in ‘Dark Alliance’”
- “CIA’s Challenge in South-Central”
- “Why They Hated Gary Webb”
- Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press
2. The War on Drugs has led to an unprecedented explosion in the U.S. prison population. The U.S. imprisons more people than any other industrialized country in the world, including Russia and China.
Once again, Alexander’s claim is hard to deny when you look at world statistics and U.S. data. Since we declared a “War on Drugs,” the U.S. prison population has ballooned from 300,000 to over 1.5 million people in less than thirty years. We hold roughly 25 percent of the world’s prison population, even though our country accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s people. Drug convictions account for the majority of the increase. The situation is so drastic that no other country even comes close to the rate at which we lock up our citizens. The incarceration rate in the U.S. is 6 to 10 times greater than the rate of any other developed country, despite crime rates that are fairly similar to international norms.
For more research:
- Race to Incarcerate (p. 33)
- Trends in U.S. Corrections
- Rising Incarceration Rates
- One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008
- Thinking About Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture (p. 14)
- Highest to Lowest: Prison Population Total
- Yes, U.S. locks people up at a higher rate than any other country
3. Even though people of all colors buy and sell illegal drugs at the same rates, the majority of drug offenders in U.S. prisons are people of color.
This claim is virtually undeniable when you look at the data. Studies show there is no significant difference between Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics when it comes to buying and selling illegal drugs. Nevertheless, despite the similarity between races, prisons are overflowing with drug offenders who are people of color. Some states imprison Black men on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of White men. In some cities, up to 80 percent of young Black men have criminal records.
For more research:
- Summary of Findings from the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (p. 21)
- Results from the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (p. 16)
- Results from the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (p. 25)
- Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs
- Male Incarceration Rates by Race
It seems that Alexander is setting the stage to focus on the drug war. But what about rising incarceration rates for other crimes? The rhetoric surrounding the drug war affected much more than how we approach drugs in the United States. It affected how we approach all forms of crime and how we view numerous issues surrounding poverty. I’m also wondering if she will discuss the division that has existed in the black community over “tough on crime” measures, a division that has often helped to legitimize overly punitive measures against crime in poor communities. This conflict also highlights the growing dissonance between poor people of color and middle-class people of color. To what extent do racism and classism intersect in this crime war? On top of this, key victories earned during the Civil Rights Movement have unraveled over the past two decades, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I’m curious to see if Alexander will address this.
Some Concluding Thoughts
Overall, Alexander’s introductory case for a “New Jim Crow” is compelling.
Let’s imagine that ten years following the holocaust, Germany declared a “War on Crime” that ballooned its prison population from several hundred thousand to roughly two million people in less than thirty years. Now let’s imagine that despite German claims of evenhandedness, the vast majority of its prison population happened to be Jewish. What would you think? I would think that Germany’s “War on Crime” was a veiled attempt at racial cleansing.
So then what exactly is America’s “War on Drugs”?
We declared this war only a decade following the end of the Civil Rights Movement and expanded our prison population from thousands to millions in less than thirty years. Despite beliefs surrounding “colorblindness,” the majority of our prison population is black or brown. We simply cannot examine this situation and pretend that something isn’t wrong.
But it is easy to pretend that nothing is wrong when the language used by the system legitimizes injustice. After all, we’re not doing these things to Black people or Hispanic people. We’re doing it to “criminals.” When you predicate that criminals have no rights and then redefine the meaning of “criminal,” there is no end to the people you can oppress.
People of color are criminals. White people just need help. A black man sentenced to prison for drug possession then released as a felon, with no right to vote and the legal possibility of facing discrimination in all areas of employment for the rest of his life, is a “criminal.” So it’s okay. But when white people abuse drugs, we declare the situation a “social health concern,” not an issue of crime, and call for treatment and rehabilitation programs. The injustice of such disparity is overwhelming.
But it happens. It happens every day.