It is not surprising that The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander was featured on the New York Time’s bestseller list for more than a year. Alexander’s book addresses the ugly truth about ‘mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness; a truth that our nation is reluctant to face. However, Alexander leaves everything on the table in her book with the most important take away being that many gains of the civil right movement have been undermined by mass incarceration of black Americans in the ‘War on Drugs’. In fact, Alexander uses historical evidence, statistics, and real life cases to prove that incarcerating young African American males through the ‘War on Drugs’ was done intentionally as a method of control after the Civil Rights movement.
Alexander’s most compelling argument is that we no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt, instead we relying on labeling people of color “criminals”. It is perfectly legal and acceptable to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the way that was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination–employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service–are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.
The most troubling argument Alexander presented is the fact that federal funding to state and local law enforcement agencies actually encourages drug arrests. These agencies are rewarded in cash for the total number of people arrested on drug offenses. In other words, law enforcement agencies and police have a strong incentive to go out a look for “trouble makers” through almost any means necessary including stopping, frisking, and searching as many people as possible. Why wouldn’t the police pull over as many cars as possible in “bad neighborhoods” in order to boost the number of arrest and ensure continued funding for their department?
Another troubling argument is the severity of punishment for Blacks versus whites on the same criminal offenses. Alexander explores this phenomenon in great depth in Chapter 3: The Color of Justice. African Americans are not only targeted, they are also more severity punished for crimes when compared to their white counterparts. Alexander uses the example of crack cocaine (preferred by Blacks) and cocaine (preferred by Whites). Although the drugs are almost one and the same, those (Blacks) in possession of crack cocaine suffer much harsher sentences than those (Whites) who are in possession of cocaine. I kept asking myself, where is the fairness?
There are several lessons learn from Alexander. The main lesson is that racial injustice exists in our nation’s legal system. Mass incarceration turns people of color into second class citizens. As Alexander says, “mass incarceration in the United States has, in fact, emerged as a comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow”. Our nation never ended the racial caste system; we just found a way to redesign it. This is not the fault of one political party (I was surprised to learn of Clinton’s contribution to his issue with his radial stance on “Get Tough’ laws). It is the fault of a combination of factors with the most important being our nation allowing criminals to be labeled as “no bodies” that are unworthy of our concern or time.
There are several studies and statics Alexander used in her book to identify problems related to government and its relationship with minorities groups. Simple statics from a Census show that there is an imbalance in system and that fairness doesn’t always exist. Professors and Universities have joined effort with other civil rights lawyers, and activists to provide solid evidence that colorblindness is dangerous, mass incarceration is an issue, and that minorities, specifically young black men, are target. Because of this issue and Alexander’s courage to bring light onto it, several civil right groups have formed to combat mass incarceration. The news media has also caught wind of this hot topic and that has made it a conversation citizens are having with family, co-workers, and their representatives. Just Google ‘mass incarceration’ and you will find that most of the articles from high profile media outlet are recently reported. This is something everyone is talking about thanks to Alexander.
Alexander suggests remedies to address the issue of mass incarceration and the legal system’s relationship with minority groups. The first and most obvious solution is to wake up. We cannot be in denial any longer. Americans must recognize mass incarceration for what is; a new caste system thinly veiled by the cloak of colorblindness.
The best remedy is to legalize drugs, specifically marijuana. Decriminalization is the key to ending mass incarceration. That will remove the incentive for police to randomly frisk young black males. It will free up jail cells for actual criminals. Funding can go towards rehabilitation rather than the construction of more prisons for petty criminals who are mostly hurting themselves and not others. We should take a page out of Portugal’s book and realize Decriminalization of drugs does not mean we risk a more dangerous country. We are endangering ourselves by not providing proper rehabilitation programs to those who need help (not punishment). Like Portugal, we can only benefit from such a system.
I believe Alexander’s book ignited several initiatives to address issues related to racial inequality especially in the legal system. One initiative Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health calls mass incarceration a “disease” that profoundly influences many public health outcomes (http://www.mailman.columbia.edu/faculty-staff/faculty-and-staff-resources/momentum/new-initiative-aims-prevent-%E2%80%9Cdisease%E2%80%9D-mass-incarc). Columbia University realizes that mass incarceration affects a broad spectrum of people but disproportionately impacts the poor and minorities. It has become an epidemic and chronic condition.
“Once you get into the prison system,” explains Dr. Drucker, “you get ‘infected,’ for life.”
Through the Incarceration Prevention Initiative, Drs. Drucker and Metsch plan to meet with faculty researchers and organize a series of lectures and symposia for the entire Mailman community. Speakers will range from prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges to drug treatment experts and trainers who teach police how to intervene in domestic violence incidents. “Researchers in criminal justice work in a parallel world to public health,” Dr. Drucker says. “They look at the same issues of family and risk for illness. We need to integrate the two.”
Countless other universities across the nation have similar initiatives.
A recent initiative by President Obama is ‘My Brother’s Keeper’. This initiative is aimed at young black boys falling behind mostly due to having families and communities disrupted by the ‘War of Drugs’. In an interview with stopthedrugwar.org, Michelle Alexander expresses that she is “d that Obama is shining a spotlight on the real crisis facing black communities today, in particular black boys and young men, and he’s right to draw attention to it and elevate it, but I worry that the initiative is based more in rhetoric than in a meaningful commitment to addressing the structures and institutions that have created these conditions in our communities”(http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2014/mar/10/new_jim_crow_michelle_alexander_talk).
I believe in Michelle Alexander’s argument. I believe Jim Crow still exists in the United States under a new format—mass incarceration through the “War on Drugs’. Not only is mass incarceration a “disease” to the individual or the individual’s poor community, is a huge sickness that will affect our country in the long run. We cannot allow racial equality to exist in any shape or form. I believe The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community—and all of us—to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.
Below is not only a shameless plug for my brother-in-law’s show (Tim Carvell–show runner/main writer/7 time Emmy winner/avid Muppet enthusiast) but a relevant clip of John Oliver on Last Week Tonight talking about America’s exceptionally high incarceration rate, the horrendous conditions inside many American prisons, the problems with privatization, the tastelessness of jokes about prison rape, and the disproportionate criminal penalties meted out to people of color for low-level drug offenses.
Other interesting videos to watch (if you have time):
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