reading: The New Jim Crow

July 13, 2015



When Bekah proposed that we read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander for our book club, she said it was necessary and urgent to read. I really value her passion for racial equity, and respect her insights greatly. Her blog, https://beingbek.wordpress.com/, is a reflection of what she is thinking about and working on. We all jumped at the chance to read her recommendation and really challenge ourselves with the content.

This book's premise is that the War on Drugs has created a new Jim Crow, a new system of oppression that is "colorblind" yet overwhelmingly targets people of color, and denies citizens liberty indefinitely by labeling them a felon.

The structure of the book is interesting, it seems to me to be more of a coil than a step ladder. Michelle Alexander explains to the reader in the introduction the ideas that will be outlined in the book, she expands on these ideas and provides stories and data in the middle, and then she circles back in the last chapter to remind the reader of what has been said, and what must be done. I needed her to circle around the ideas like that, because it's a lot to take in.

"What this book is intended to do- the only thing it is intended to do- is to stimulate a much needed conversations about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierachy in the United States." -Michelle Alexander

It was, and continues to be, disturbing to learn about the ways that the criminal justice system rounds people up on drug charges, uses mandatory drug sentencing to acquire guilty pleas and keep people incarcerated for as long as possible, and then makes rehabilitating nearly impossible. If you wonder how this would be possible, I encourage you to read the book. The evidence in this book showing that ours is a system of control and racism, rather than a system of justice and rehabilitation is staggering. What is truly concerning is the role that my complicity, along with that of many other Americans, has played in allowing an injust system to label African Americans as criminals. 

One of the most powerful quotations from the book was this:

“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans." -Michelle Alexander

I still want to stew over this book, and its implications for my teaching. I can see some parallels between mass incarceration and suspensions. That both are systems that do not actually help people succeed despite hardship, but rather just remove them from the situation and penalize them. I would be interested in using portions of this book in my classroom, along with The House We Live In, a documentary that pairs well with this text. This may also be a useful text to read for equity work with the staff at my school. At the end of the book, Michelle Alexander calls for people to realize the trap of thinking about our system as voluntary, and wake up to the fact that all people of all races are committing crimes that should be landing them in prison, not just African Americans. She calls for us to care about the fate and humanity of all people.

“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that's why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.” -Michelle Alexander


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