I listened to the audiobook version of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and as I listened walked through the streets of Boston. One night as I listened to Michelle Alexander talk about how African American men are far more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, I came across two Emerson Police Officers forcing a black man to the ground. He knelt down with his hands in the air as they patted his body down. Maybe he had done something do deserve this treatment, or maybe he had just looked like a criminal because of the color of his skin.
As I continued to read The New Jim Crow I continued to think of that man. I didn’t see them approach him, so I don’t know how the situation unfolded. but I can’t help but wonder if he knew that he could say no to a search. I wonder if this had happened to him before. I wonder if the police officers truly had reason to search him. I wonder if he had been white, would they have stopped him? This questions came to me as Michelle Alexander talked about all of the ways in which the prison system and the War on Drugs are aimed to control black men.
I wonder if he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, stuck in the age of the New Jim Crow. What struck me most, was not the statistics about the amount of black men in prison. I’m from California, l’ve known about the problem with our prison system for a long time. What stuck me was the amount that police officers are incentivized to put them there. On page 78, Michelle Alexander talks about the “finders keepers law” that allowed police departments to keep whatever they seized. “As if the free military equipment, training, and cash grants were not enough, the Reagan administration provided aw enforcement with yet another financial incentive to devote extraordinary resources to drug law enforcement, rather than more serious crimes: state and local law enforcement agencies were granted the authority to keep, for their own use, the vast majority of cash and assets they seize when waging the drug war” (Alexander 78).
This was the turning point for me, I went from being someone who would have answered that the state of the prison system is not due to a desire to control black men, but because of poverty, lack of education cause of poverty. lack of education, ect. that turns black men into criminals, to someone who sees that the judicial system is a new state of control for the black population. Michelle Alexander argues that these laws were put in place to incentives police officers to arrest as many black men as they can. This seems to me like a pretty clear system of control, the system that leads to the mass incarceration of black men. This mass incarceration leads to another big problem, the way in which black men are treated after being released from prison.
Another major thing that struck me while reading The New Jim Crow was how African Americans are forced into a life of poverty after being released from prison. Michelle Alexander argues that they have a much harder time finding a job or a place to live after being convicted of any crime. “Nearly every state allows private employers to discriminate on the basis of past criminal convictions. In fact, employers in most states can deny jobs to people who were arrested but never convicted of any crime” (Alexander 149).
This makes it almost impossible for most people to find a job after leaving prison, and as police departments continue to arrest black men at a much higher rate than white men it is far more likely that black families will end up living below the poverty line. Reading this section of the The New Jim Crow also made me think about all of the other ways black men are at a disadvantage when getting a job. Black men face prejudice due to their names, the lack of education they have received, their social connections, and so much more.
Adding these factors onto a felony charge makes it nearly impossible for a black man to get ahead of all the white people vying for the same jobs. Michelle Alexander points out that in many countries having a job is considered a basic human right, not something used to control a minority population, and yet many African Americans don’t know when their next paycheck will come to them, because, of state we find our country in.
In addition to not knowing when they will get paid next, many black men do not know where they will live, especially when getting out of the prison system. Michelle Alexander states that unless they have family who is willing to take them in for an extended period of time many black men getting out of prison will have no where to go. Much like getting jobs, many black men find it hard to get an apartment once they have been labeled a felon. Many landlords don’t want to have someone who has been charged with a drug related crime living in their home.
If by some miracle they are able to find a landlord willing to rent to them, finding the money to for their place will be extremely challenging. All of these factors go into creating a country where black people remain at the bottom of the totem pole. Michelle Alexander uses the old Jim Crow laws as the basis for her book. She discusses how those old laws seem very similar to the mass incarceration today. She argues that after slavery white Americans needed a way to control the black population and so Jim Crow was born.
After Jim Crow ended white Americans once again needed to way to control the black population, and so the War on Drugs began, and with it came the age of mass incarceration. “Jim Crow eventually replaced slavery, but now it too had died, and it was unclear what might take its place” (Alexander 40). I am inclined to accept her argument as fact after reading The New Jim Crow. It is hard to argue with the facts that she presents. It seems that black people are unfairly targeted, not because they are more likely to be committing crimes, but simply because they are black.
Before reading this book, I would have said that the crime rate was caused by the poverty that many black families find themselves in, but that’s not seeing the whole picture. That is seeing one tiny fragment of it. It is not addressing the larger problem. It is not helping to end the mass incarceration of black men. It is not helping to end the New Jim Crow. After reading this book my eyes have been opened to the real problems facing black men in the United States.