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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Paperback – January 16, 2012
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Alexander is absolutely right to fight for what she describes as a much-needed conversation” about the wide-ranging social costs and divisive racial impact of our
Invaluable . . . a timely and stunning guide to the labyrinth of propaganda, discrimination, and racist policies masquerading under other names that comprises what we call justice in America.
Many critics have cast doubt on the proclamations of racism’s erasure in the Obama era, but few have presented a case as powerful as Alexander’s.
—In These Times
Carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable.
[Written] with rare clarity, depth, and candor.
A call to action for everyone concerned with racial justice and an important tool for anyone concerned with understanding and dismantling this oppressive system.
Undoubtedly the most important book published in this century about the U.S.
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During the 1960's we tried to reduce the crime rate by getting to the root causes of crime. Civil rights legislation was passed into law. The War on Poverty made welfare benefits more generous and easier to qualify for. Prisons were reformed in ways that made incarceration less likely and less harsh. In short, we did what Michelle Alexander advocates in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
According to the Justice Policy Institute of the U.S. Department of Justice, from 1960 to 1970 the prison population declined from 212,953 to 196,429.
The results were disappointing. According to FBI Uniform Crime Reports, from 1960 to 1970 the crime rate per 100,000 inhabitants in the United States rose from 1,887.2 to 3,984.5.
Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 the United States has tried a different approach, one that is distressing to Michelle Alexander. Anti poverty programs have been scaled back. From 1980 to 2000 the prison population grew from 315,974 to 1,428,187. During this time the crime rate per 100,000 inhabitants has declined from 5,950.0 to 4,124.8.
Since 2000 the crime rate has continued to decline, despite the facts that most Americans lost ground economically during the Bush administration. They have lost more ground during the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression. Still, the crime rate declines.
In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander expresses little concern for the violent crime rate, and little concern for its victims. Her concern is for the large number of "non violent drug offenders," disproportionately black, whose presence in prison has contributed to the tripling of the prison population since 1980.
She argues plausibly that blacks and whites are equally likely to sell and use illegal drugs, but that blacks are much more likely to be arrested and sent to prison. Blacks are more likely to sell illegal drugs outdoors, where they come to the attention of the police. Young black men are more likely to be stopped and frisked by the police than are young white men. Consequently, they are more likely to be found in possession of illegal drugs.
I am not a partisan for the War on Drugs. It does not seem to have reduced the use of illegal drugs. I would like to reduce the use of illegal drugs by legalizing marijuana. I also believe that the possession of hard drugs for personal consumption should not be punished with prison sentences.
Nevertheless, I think the War on Drugs has contributed to the reduction in the violent crime rate. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics from 1976 to 2005 the black murder rate has fluctuated from 6.3 to 9.5 times the white rate. The murder rate is a good way of evaluating the entire crime rate, because murders are more likely to come to the attention of the police.
On Martin Luther King Day many white Americans congratulated themselves on how far black Americans have come since the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. With Barak Obama, Mission Accomplished! But what Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act and War on Poverty accomplished on the one hand, Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs took away with the other.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness documents the appalling subjugation of black communities by a new but only-too-familiar caste system engineered to restrict their rights and liberties: mass incarceration. First came slavery, then Jim Crow, and now mass incarceration, resulting from a highly discriminatory War on Drugs that unfairly targets blacks and denies them not only liberty while imprisoned, but also voting rights, housing, education, welfare, and other benefits for the rest of their lives. As felons, employment is hard to find, and many lapse back into addiction and dealing and end up back in prison as a recurring cycle. The incarceration of so many black males means women are raising children as single mothers and increases poverty in the black inner-city.
Since 1972 the U.S. prison population has increased tenfold, and the U.S.today has the largest share of its population imprisoned of any nation on earth, overwhelmingly on drug charges far more punitive than those of other countries. Prison building and the provision of prison services have proven a lucrative business benefiting mostly white rural communities, and politicians have long claimed “tough on crime” credentials to appeal to mostly poor white voters who felt left behind by all the civil rights legislation benefiting blacks. In 1988 Michael Dukakis’ presidential ambitions were torpedoed by Lee Atwater’s highly successful Willie Horton campaign, which featured the furloughed rapist/murderer as typical of the “soft-on-cime” weakness of George H. Bush’s opponent.
When the War on Drugs was launched, drug use was actually in decline, and police forces did not give its prosecution a high priority. But politicians made ample funds available to prosecute it, and allowed police forces to keep the cars, houses and effects of any accused of drug crimes. Army surplus helicopters and equipment were also made available to them, used by new SWAT teams to raid black communities and arrest mostly nonviolent perpetrators. The crack cocaine panic of the early 1980s also fueled the War on Drugs, which served primarily political, police, and business interests.
The police found it convenient to target black-inner city residents rather than white suburbanites because their drug activity was easier to reach and they were politically powerless. Every effort was made to make the War on Drugs seem colorblind and target only criminals, not blacks specifically. Civil rights lawyers were focusing their attention on affirmative action and largely ignored the growth of this new caste system, since its victims were all tainted as criminal drug users, quite unlike the squeaky-clean heroes of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s like Rosa Parks and the sit-in students. The disenfranchised drug felon is no poster child, and few black families or ministers wanted to admit connection to the incarcerated. As a result, black communities today in the U.S. are suffering a monstrous assault which is not primarily about drugs and crime but about votes and power. It was motivated primarily to effect vote suppression, not morality, and it will not be corrected by former convicts marching in the streets, like other civil rights advocates.
But we can all start by recognizing the new caste system for was it is, by repealing unjust laws, by treating drug addiction as a public health issue, by cracking down on pols who try to exploit our fear of drug violence, and on the greed of prison-builders and prison service suppliers. Go read The New Jim Crow and write your congressman.
John Brain. January, 2014
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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness