Review: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

I finished The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander today and what an amazing work by the author! This book is so well researched and put together that it’s accessible for anyone.

The term mass incarceration refers not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison.

Introduction p.15

The New Jim Crow details and tells the story of how the current system of mass incarceration came about in the United States, which affects black men most of all. Alexander takes us back to the beginning of slavery, the “end” of slavery, the start of the Jim Crow era, the “end” of the Jim Crow era, and our current criminal justice system at detail. To go through everything would take a long time but I want to highlight some of the things that impacted me the most, and which I hope will resonate with others as well.

Follow the money! I didn’t know that the reason why the War on Drugs is based a lot on politics and money (not a real worry about people’s health). Politicians, starting with Regan (the War on Drugs creator), made incentives for police departments to pursue the arrests of people for drug possession. If it weren’t for these incentives, the police would have no reason to go looking for people who have drugs as much as they do. All of the raids on homes with no-knock warrants, sending SWAT teams to find drugs and shooting first all come from these incentives. It is in the best interest of the police departments to arrest people for drugs because each arrest gives their department money while other arrests don’t have those same incentives.

Each arrest, in theory, would net a given city or county about $153 in state and federal funding. Non-drug-related policing brought no federal dollars, even for violent crime. As a result, when Jackson County, Wisconsin, quadrupled its drug arrests between 1999 and 2000, the county’s federal subsidy quadrupled too.

The Lockdown p.98

Say now that someone is arrested. The sentencing for drug offenses is just illogical and it’s all based on politicians wanting to not be seen as “soft on crime” so they implement “3 strikes and you’re out” laws or minimum mandatory sentencing. For example:

Because [Edward] Clary had been caught with more than fifty grams of crack (less than two ounces), the sentencing judge believed he had no choice but to sentence him — an eighteen-year-old who had no criminal record — to a minimum of ten years in federal prison.

The Color of Justice p.141

The fact is, even after people who are arrested get out of prison, they are still under the really impossible situation that they are now labeled a “criminal”. They have to check that box saying that they have a criminal record and can’t apply for a myriad of things, including government aid for housing, food stamps, some licenses for certain jobs, and even voting is restricted.

One parent barred from voting due to his felony conviction put it this way: “I have no right to vote on the school referendum that … will affect my children. I have no right to vote on how my taxes is going to be spent or used, which I have to pay whether I’m a felon or not, you know? So basically I’ve lost all voice or control over my government … I get bad because I can’t say anything because I don’t have a voice.”

The Cruel Hand pg.201

There are so many heartbreaking stories within the pages of this book, from arrests to sentencing to life in prison, to life after prison, it’s just a lot! I just touched on a few things that Alexander dives deep into throughout the book so I highly recommend that you read it if this is of interest to you. Alexander leaves us with some thoughts on how this system could potentially be changed. The bottom line is that it’s not an easy thing to fix. It can’t be fixed with a law or a presidential signature. It will require a complete change in the thinking of a majority of our society. We can’t keep ignoring and turning off the news when black people are obviously being treated like second-hand citizens. We can all help in different ways for there are many things to do, from small acts of kindness to participating in social justice activism. The least we can do is inform ourselves of what is happening with the criminal justice system so that we can see past the political gestures of being “hard on crime” for what they are, reinforcements of the current system.

I highly recommend this book as well as the documentary 13th, which also talks about the system of mass incarceration and also features Michelle Alexander as one of the experts. I leave you with that full film (available for free on Youtube) and hope you’ll be interested in getting informed about these issues.

Full Feature film “13th” on YouTube.

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