One of my book groups discussed Michelle Alexander’s popular and newsworthy book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness almost a month ago, but I have been procrastinating on writing my review because it is such a complex book with so many important topics covered.
Alexander’s theory is that mass incarceration of black men has become like a new form of de facto Jim Crow law, essentially limiting their entire lives through a domino effect of biased laws, overly punitive sentences for minor crimes, and little-known consequences that affect the life of a convicted criminal forever. She begins by looking back in history to slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and the War on Drugs. She then takes a close look into our criminal justice system, which can be anything but just. She explains how stricter and stricter drug laws and implicit racial profiling, backed up by Supreme Court decisions, have created a system that is extremely racially biased. She also delves into some startling statistics.
The facts that Alexander presents are often shocking. She knocks down common stereotypes – of the black “welfare queen,” the supposed primacy of African-Americans as drug users and dealers, and the fair justice system we see on TV, where everyone gets a trial – by providing real-life statistics. Studies show that roughly equal percentages of white and black teens use drugs and slightly more whites sell drugs, yet 80-90% of all drug offenders in prison are African-American!
As for our justice system, approximately 80% of criminal defendants of all types are indigent and can’t afford a lawyer; they either go to court without a lawyer (in WI, if you earn more than $3000 a year, the state says you can afford your own) or are rushed through the court system with a woefully overworked, underpaid public defender who often encourages them to plead guilty, even if they aren’t. Finally, once someone has been convicted of a crime (even if he didn’t commit it), he is barred from receiving food stamps or welfare, his job prospects are extremely limited, and in many states, he cannot even vote. A minor offense as a teen – perhaps possession of an ounce or two of marijuana – could easily result in prison time and dire effects that last a man’s entire life.
The implicit racial bias in our system is also shocking. In a 1995 study, people were asked to picture in their minds a drug user and then describe that person. Ninety-five percent of the study participants pictured a black person, though at the time, African-Americans made up only 15% of drug users. Similarly, sentencing guidelines for drug offenses are inherently biased. A conviction for the sale of just 5 grams of crack cocaine (a cheaper form more likely to be used by poor blacks) carries a mandatory sentence of 5 years in prison, while someone would have to sell 500 grams of powder cocaine (more likely to be used by wealthy whites) before reaching that sentence. The statistics and stories that Alexander shares are just mind-boggling.
Our book group was absolutely shocked by the picture she paints in this book, and our discussion was long and passionate. Some of the facts presented here were stunning to us: the Supreme Court decisions that basically made racial bias into law, that Democratic Presidents - even Barack Obama - have done just as much to worsen this situation as Republicans, and all of the startling facts (and much more) that I described in the previous paragraph. We all agreed that it was an eye-opening book, though somewhat depressing, as the problems that Alexander presents are deeply rooted in every aspect of our legal system and seem almost insurmountable.
On the downside, most of us struggled a bit with reading the book. While the information is fascinating, it is presented in a somewhat dry, academic way, with some repetition. I think it could have been even more convincing – and far more readable – with more personal stories woven into the narrative; the ones she does include are captivating. In fact, I didn’t actually read the entire book (though between my own reading and the discussion, I felt like I got enough of it to write a thorough review). I got about halfway through and was running out of time before our discussion, so I skipped to the last (6th) chapter and read that.
You may have heard mention of “mass incarceration of blacks” in the news or from politicians campaigning; I think all of that was sparked by this book, so it is highly relevant. The roots of these serious problems are far-reaching, from legislation to policing to the court system to sentencing. Despite the difficulties in reading this book, its topics are extremely important, and it should be required reading for every American citizen.
261 pages (plus extensive footnotes), The New Press