Review: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

imgresThis is going to be my last post for a few weeks, save for one Speak Easy post I’m working on.  I’ve picked up a lot of overtime at my day job, so this place is going to be quiet for a time.

I watched a documentary on Netflix a couple weeks ago called The House I Live In, which detailed the War on Drugs and how it has influenced a breakdown in our judicial system and police forces.   It also featured an author named Michelle Alexander, who wrote some book called The New Jim Crow. Cornel West even endorsed it, so I thought it might be worth checking out while I sail these strange waters that detail the impacts of systemic racism on American culture today.

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander details how the War on Drugs functions as a new form of the Jim Crow laws of the South from the days of segregation, setting up African Americans (and other minorities) to be second-class citizens by virtue of felony counts on a criminal record, rendering them unable to receive government aid for things like food stamps and government housing, inhibiting their ability to find employment or get an education (by limiting their access to student funding), and, by virtue of these things, increasing the likelihood of their reentry into the prison system.  Her goal in examining different matters like the stop-and-search policies, the “tough on crime” positions of politicians, and the affluence of the prison industry is to demonstrate not some conspiracy where the Big Other white devil is out to wash clean America of its minorities, but consistent patterns in history and the present, and how we can come to overcome these patterns.

Most people I know who read that summary will find themselves confused at, and perhaps a bit hostile toward, the idea that racism of this caliber is still a problem in America.  “Didn’t this all end with civil rights in the sixties?” you might say. “Aren’t we supposed to be a colorblind society?” Alexander points to the notion of colorblindness as the reason we don’t see it.  The very notion that we don’t “notice” the color of another person’s skin has, instead of taking care of racism, has actually made it something that exists under the surface, forcing us instead to give other reasons for our inherently racist actions. You might say, “Criminals choose their lifestyle; they deserve to be in the prison system.” Alexander is actually very good at answering this point, acknowledging that, while drugs and crime are a very serious problem that require our attention, the War of Drugs has actually failed to do so, due to latent racism.

What I really liked about this book was how inclusive Alexander is without pulling punches.  TNJC holds nothing back about exposing the major flaws of America’s judicial systems and police forces, but does so with accurate data and research, then shows how everyone is at fault for allowing this system to continue, whether it’s rich, white bureaucrats, the average American citizen, and even civil rights groups, who have instead focused on other matters. She also shows how everyone of every color is affected negatively by the War on Drugs (helped even more by her appearance in The House I Live In).  She’s far more interested in uniting against a common problem, rather than pointing fingers and placing blame.

Cornel West compared this book to The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the book that Martin Luther King Jr. called “the Bible of the Civil Rights Movement. Many hope that writings such as these would inspire a new movement against the War on Drugs, against this New Jim Crow.  I don’t know how possible that is, but my mind can’t always imagine the things that could be. If you want to know more, check this book out.

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