It wouldn’t be an understatement to consider Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness a paradigm shifting book. Many Americans are cognizant of the fact that the criminal justice system in America today is less than fair, but Alexander demonstrates that the racial disparity in incarceration is precisely the point. The system isn’t locking up African Americans at rates absurdly higher than those of whites because it is broken, it is doing so because that is precisely what it was designed to do.
The New Jim Crow is one of the most powerful, shocking, and infuriating books I have ever read. While I recommended Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars to anyone with an interest in national security affairs, I recommend The New Jim Crow to absolutely everyone who lives in the United States of America. It’s that important, and Alexander makes her point that impactfully.
The book argues that within a few decades of the racial caste system of “Jim Crow” ending, a new racial caste system was built in its place. Mass Incarceration began in the 1980s with the Reagan Administration’s war on drugs–a war declared at a time when drug use nationwide was actually declining. But according to the book, “Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses rose 1100%, from some 41K to over half a million, while drug use has remained relatively flat. 90% of those incarcerated are black or latino, despite whites making up a slight majority of drug users.”
Though what makes Mass Incarceration a true caste system is the fact that it extends far beyond simply jails and prisons. “Unfairness in criminal justice doesn’t end with prison. Legal discrimination exists in employment, civic involvement, housing, and welfare for those permanently labeled felons. Extensive use of probation and parole exacerbate the problem as more people were imprisoned for simple parole violations in 2000 than for ALL REASONS in 1980.”
Alexander writes that though the war on drugs is supposedly a war on a thing, the numbers belie that it is actually a war on people–specifically brown people: “Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.” By 2000, the incarceration rate of African Americans had increased more than twenty-six times the rates of 1983.
Of course the idea that the criminal justice system is INTENTIONALLY racist begs for skepticism, but Alexander speaks to exactly this fact. As the increase in drug arrests was due, not to an increase in drug crime, but to an increase in seeking out such arrests by law enforcement. Between the “crack epidemic” rhetoric of the Reagan Administration and other “us” vs. “them” media portrayals of drug criminals, the pump was primed for bias, intentional or otherwise. Then, when a check on majoritarian overreach was most needed, the US Supreme Court instead raised the bar necessary to prove discrimination and then effectively closed its doors to future challenges of racial bias in policing. Indeed, the Court let law enforcement off its leash, effectively carving a “War on Drugs” exemption into the Fourth Amendment.
The risk that prosecutorial discretion will be racially biased is especially acute in the drug enforcement context, where virtually identical behavior is susceptible to a wide variety of interpretations and responses and the media imagery and political discourse has been so thoroughly racialized. Whether a kid is perceived as a dangerous drug-dealing thug or instead viewed as a good kid who was merely experimenting with drugs and selling to a few friends has to do with the ways in which information about illegal drug activity is processed and interpreted, in a social climate in which drug dealing is racially defined. As a former U.S. Attorney explained: I had an [assistant U.S. attorney who] wanted to drop the gun charge against the defendant [in a case in which] there were no extenuating circumstances. I asked “Why do you want to drop the gun offense?” And he said, “He’s a rural guy and grew up on a farm. The gun he had with him was a rifle. He’s a good ol’ boy, and all good ol’ boys have rifles, and it’s not like he was a gun-toting drug dealer.” But he was a gun-toting drug dealer, exactly.
Alexander shows that the US Supreme Court has immunized police from complaints in bias in policing, prosecutors from complaints of bias in charging and jury selection, and the system as a whole from complaints of bias in sentencing. It simply refuses to hear cases arguing for racial bias unless that bias is demonstrated overtly: explicitly race based, or racist language. Mere racist results are insufficient proof.
Another reason the war on drugs is waged against communities of color is that they simply lack the political might to raise a fuss. Where paramilitary tactics to break up perception drug abuse by soccer moms, ecstasy use by teens, or pot use by frats would silly in severe backlash. These tactics in the ghetto, by contrast, go largely unnoticed by most of society.
Yet the injustice doesn’t end with incarceration, the shame and stigma of a felony on ones record, paired with the legal discrimination against felons in employment, housing, welfare, healthcare, education, professional licensing, voting, serving on juries, custody make reintegration an almost unbearable hardship. Additionally, many ground face extremely high debts as a result of their incarceration, debts they struggle to pay in the face of bleak employment options, and which can paradoxically lead them back to prison if left unpaid.
Overcoming this system is daunting. First because it requires overcoming or own denial. It sounds exaggerated, even fanciful, to believe that in our colorblind age Mass Incarceration is a thinly veiled racial caste system, but an examination of the facts and myths surrounding Mass Incarceration can lead to no other conclusion.
But we must overcome this denial, end the legal discrimination, the ghetto to prison pipelines, end the dug war, and dismantle Mass Incarceration. More importantly, however, Americans must learn to care across racial lines: the reflexively conjured image of the face of a drug criminal must cease to be a brown one. Real economic opportunity must be extended to the ghetto. There is no moral alternative.