Monday, June 11, 2012

Review: The New Jim Crow

Alexander, Michelle.  "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."  New York: The New Press, 2010.  Revised edition 2012.

You have probably heard about this book, if you listen to NPR or PBS, or read the New York Times, or interact with sundry other vaguely lefty sources.  Michelle Alexander has been on the lecture circuit for a couple of years after the publication of this book.  Its thesis, quite baldly, is that the major social justice and civil rights issue of our time is the mass incarceration of American citizens of color, the system of control that has replaced legalized racial discrimination of the Jim Crow era. This situation exists as the end of the desire for politicians and police to look "tough on crime," and carrying out that desire on the bodies of (especially but not exclusively) black men.  Whether or not intended to deprive impossibly large percentages of the male population of color of their voting rights, housing rights, working rights, etc., this is the effect of the incarceration. 
Alexander's research is thorough, and the statistics she amasses to back up her thesis astounding.  Up to half of black men in many cites are in prison or involved in the criminal justice system; one of her major themes is that it is not enough to look at the currently imprisoned population, but we must also examine the lot of those released--who immediately lose their rights to vote, to live in public housing, to not be discriminated against for private housing, to hold many kinds of jobs...rights that, she notes, parallel the rights explicitly denied black people under the regime of Jim Crow post-reconstruction.
The Supreme Court comes out as quite the villains, abandoning their purported role of the last protectors of justice in our fair land. What most surprised me in this book was how impossible SCOTUS makes it to prove racial bias in the law-enforcement system.  You may recently have read of the immense problems with the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policies, where the percentage of white people stopped was negligible, but over 100% of black males in the city were stopped during a year (that is, every black male in the city, on average, was randomly searched more than once a year); this, even though the times they did search whites were MORE likely (not less) to yield illegal firearms or drugs.  Well, according to SCOTUS, no amount of statistical evidence of racial bias can be used to demonstrate discrimination unless the judge or police-person involved in a case explicitly says s/he is using racist criteria to sentence or try the person accused.  For example, and I quote, "Georgia prosecutors...sought the death penalty in 70% of cases involving black defendants and white victims, but only 19% of cases involving white defendants and black victims" (pg. 110). But in 1987, SCOTUS ruled that this type of evidence showing systemic racist bias could be not be admitted.  Only direct admission of racism qualified. 
The war on drugs then created a profit motive for police to find and prosecute people with drugs (via federal grants for "effective" departments, etc.). Alexander argues that, to yield massive racial disparity in rates of arrest and incarceration, this did not so much require actual racism of the "white people are just better than black people" variety, but simply that our population didn't pay much attention as huge and unprecedented percentages of our citizens of color went behind bars.  Now, did most of those people behind bars break the law?  Sure, most but not all. Legal defense is expensive, and many cannot afford it; the lengthy mandatory sentences that many victimless crimes (i.e., drug possession) involve often scare the innocent into taking plea bargains. And actual rates of crime commission are startlingly similar across racial lines.  But, if you stop 50% of black people in a town and check them for drugs--and only 3% of them have drugs on them--well, now 1.5% of that population is in jail.  If you only stop 10% of the white population, and the same 3% of people (not people stopped, but white people in general) are carrying drugs at any given time, well, you've only got .3% of the white population in jail.  
Alexander explains all this much more eloquently than I can.  Her writing is direct and fluid, and I finished the book in just a couple of days of casual reading.  If you work anywhere in the social justice system, the religious support system, in social work, or in the educational system, you should definitely read this book. I think she demonstrates her thesis with mind boggling (and enormously depressing) amounts of evidence.
Now, this book has gotten panned a lot of places, mostly for what she doesn't do.  She doesn't connect her call for prison reform to the prison abolition movement or radical politics.  This is frustrating to me, as someone involved in radical politics, that she is basically taking ideas from very radical sources and trying to make them palatable to a large audience--in the process, discounting their radical nature and continuing the problem of moderate writers claiming good ideas for moderation, allowing the right to keep saying we are crazies.  I mean, prison reform/abolition is something that anarchists and socialists and civil-rights groups of all stripes and churches and even a lot of fiscal conservatives (keeping people locked up is expensive) and, well, everyone except those directly profiting off the prison-industrial complex (a disturbing array of characters) should get behind.   And Alexander is positing that it is so important that we should all overcome our differences and coordinate efforts to make it happen, forgetting other causes for the moment until this is sorted out. 
Which I actually kind of agree with.  I work with kids who suffer the effects of mass incarceration and racially biased sentencing, and those effects are significant, and I want them liberated from these oppressions.  But then, I'm a big-tent anarchist and happy to work with any people or group of people who want a more just world where people can flourish.  And I think a lot of other people are unwilling to participate in this kind of movement because their other causes wouldn't get credit for dealing with it.  But I am annoyed that she doesn't ground some of the analysis in the devastating COINTELPRO FBI assassinations of Black Panthers and other leaders in the black community in the 60s, a system of violent oppression that set up the current situation.  Also, she doesn't address the questions of violent crime, focusing mostly on drug use violations. I am with her in believing that an awful lot of violent crime can be tied to the violence of mass incarceration and to drug prohibition, but this is a case that needs to be made explicitly.  Many people have done this; including a couple of those arguments in the book would have strengthened an already strong analysis.
The most cogent (and accurate) critique of the book is its near-exclusion of class-based analysis. Alexander does comment on the fact that nearly all people in jail are people in situations of poverty, but that is not the focus of her book.  She "brackets" the question of poverty except as it relates to race, since that is not the focus of this book.  I think she is right to limit her focus, though--this would not have been as digestible if she had done a thorough race/class/gender/sexuality based analysis of the prison system of control.  She is seeking as broad a base of support as possible for the movement, by limiting her analysis to the race-based discrimination that nearly all the above-mentioned groups find unacceptable.  
Unfortunately, I think this broad focus will actually detract from building the movement.  Of all the social justice oriented groups at work in the US, many are willing to make prison reform/abolition a secondary plank in their platform, but few, I expect, will make it their primary focus.  Anarchists (and Occupy groups, etc), at least theoretically might get behind it--but we are few and do not herd well.  And right now everyone is so concerned with the dreadful horror of economic problems that it is hard to return to a problem (systemic racism) that most right-leaning people are happy to ignore, and most left-leaning white people think was solved a long time ago.  
On the upside, though, I think we have found that a new American revolution will not require a guillotine.  No, we already have a system that will do quite nicely to bring justice to the exploiters of labor, the politicians who got rich by violating the rights of others, the torturers and the lawyers who justify their actions.  Prison, followed by the social isolation and economic oblivion that awaits so many young black men now, would be quite sufficient for them.  I look forward to the day when those who have wreaked so much injustice will suffer the same fate as they have wreaked on so many human beings.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know if you remember this, but I ordered a copy of this book while I was staying with you and Jake. Unfortunately, unlike you, I haven't gotten around to reading it yet. Sounds good. Thanks for the writeup!