Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, essentially analyzes the United States criminal justice system. The main thesis/ argument of her analysis is that mass incarceration constitutes a new system of racial oppression that is similar to slavery and the original Jim Crow. Furthermore, she claims that mass incarceration has had a profound impact on how criminal justice issues are interpreted today. She also argues that individuals who have fallen victim to mass incarceration are part of a new racial caste.
Prior to reading the entirety of the book, I thought she would thoroughly discuss how each and every minority is affected by mass incarceration; however, her analysis only focuses on African Americans. She does support her reasoning behind why I think she somewhat overlooked other minorities i. e. Native Americans—because her overarching argument is how the rates of the incarcerated population skyrocketed between the year 1980 and early 2000’s. In all, during this time span, African Americans were disproportionately labeled as felons and targeted the most in the War on Drugs.
In The New Jim Crow, Alexander supports her claim by first stating how politicians from both sides of the political spectrum have repeatedly voted for strict sentencing laws and reallocating public resources. One of the points about chapter one that surprised me the most was when she said, “… funding that had once been used for public housing was being redirected to prison construction… [and] Clinton also made it easier for federally assisted public housing projects to exclude anyone with a criminal history” (2012:57).
In all, Alexander proves that these stringent laws were solely made to impede black people’s growth in the society. For instance, “conservatives argued that poverty was caused not by structural factors related to race and class but rather by culture- particularly black culture” (2012:45). In all, I found these two passages the most preposterous. Quite frankly, I was indignant when I read that passage mostly because even before the unfairness of the justice system, the American government has always worked against blacks by concocting different ways to subjugate this particular race.
Starting from the waywardness of America’s founding fathers, slavery, polygenism, Jim Crow Laws, etc. the system has always been made to keep the black man poor. African Americans did not cause poverty, it is simply ludicrous that even today, the system still affiliates poverty with African Americans. For instance, when someone says “that is a bad/poor neighborhood” today, they are most likely referring to a community that is mostly populated by blacks. (I know for a fact in Dallas, Oak cliff has this stigma). Moreover, in her argument, Alexander ties criminalization of African Americans on welfare.
She made sure to reiterate that while Reagan and other Republicans were the sole initiators of this effort of stripping government aids, the Clinton administration absolutely plummeted public benefits. Clinton made sure to put a federal law ban on anyone with a drug conviction from getting SNAP (food stamps) or TANF, and also granted local authorities the power to refuse people with felonies public housing. In all, all these actions further explain the economic opportunities that are mostly stripped away from African Americans.
The rest of the book entails the effects of the War on Drugs. I found it particularly interesting how the justice system/police have sought different ways to take people to jail based on hunches on drugs or using minor traffic violations as an excuse to stop motorists for drug investigations- even when there is no profound evidence that the motorist has engaged in a drug crime. Also, it was interesting to read how the Supreme Court (whose responsibility is to protect minorities from majoritarian emocracy) has placed somewhat of an infringement on minorities fourth amendment rights.
Finally, Alexander makes sure to note that drug trade offenses have been a driving force of mass incarceration of black people. In terms of politics, I concur with Alexander’s argument that the War on Drugs was established explicitly in racist terms. Ever since working for the Congressman, I have been self-learning about Reagan (mostly because his entire office is decorated with Reagan posters, calendars, and cut out boards of him), and his predecessors.
This book has supported most of my preconceived notions of their administrations. For instance, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s former policy advisor even admitted in a 1994 interview with reporter Dan Baum about these claims: “The Nixon Campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… we knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin.
And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities… Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did” (LoBianco 2016). So my question to America’s recent president and color blindness goal is- since the foundation of the War on Drugs is solely built on racism, why is this war still ongoing? In all, The New Jim Crow was an amazing read because it gave me a lot of insights about the justice system I was oblivious to like the Mcleskey v. Kemp case.