“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. New York, The New Press. $28.
“A human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch,” declares Michelle Alexander in her excellent (and first) book, “The New Jim Crow.” In a highly accessible presentation, Alexander challenges us to admit that the policies of mass incarceration being carried out today represent a modern version of “Jim Crow” racial control, and she urges us to build a mass movement in the streets to fight it.
There may be no one today better suited than Alexander—who worked as a civil rights litigator for years and is now a legal scholar—to present an airtight case that we are indeed amidst the New Jim Crow. The reader feels like a juror present at a trial in which the entire criminal justice system is being indicted, and Alexander, in the role of the prosecutor, does an amazing job. With great clarity and insight she exposes the system as an intricate web of racist oppression that stretches beyond just the prison walls—including numerous statistics, studies, and quotes (from victims of the oppression) to back her case.
Alexander expects resistance to her assertions; she routinely raises the likely arguments of her detractors, and then destroys them. Readers have been provided with a “toolkit” with which to fortify themselves for future discussions.
Alexander’s strength in legal knowledge emerges as she includes little known, but important, details about cases that made their way through the court system. For instance, her ability to detail the dynamic between the racist tactics of cops on the beat and court decisions that support this behavior is extraordinary. Race is—understandably—a central topic of the book, and Alexander sheds light on the construction of race in America and its connection to the origins of chattel slavery, how slavery became Jim Crow, and then how Jim Crow became mass incarceration.
One extremely interesting theme, which is echoed throughout the book, is her focus on how the rich and powerful of this country have gone to great lengths to whip up racism and keep poor whites divided from their Black and Brown counterparts. When writing about this she notes that the current racial caste system is the first to directly and clearly harm some poor whites (who also have become victims of mass incarceration). This actually “does create important opportunities for a multiracial, bottom-up resistance movement” (p. 202); but, she argues, it shouldn’t lead us to a “colorblind” critique of the criminal justice system.
Dismantling mass incarceration without fundamentally changing society, and how society views Black and Brown men, she writes, will only ensure that the racial caste will adapt and reappear, as previous racial caste systems did.
When discussing the path forward, Alexander begins with a critique of the focus and direction of the established civil rights organizations like the NAACP and ACLU (which she used to work for). “Civil rights advocacy is stuck in a model of advocacy Martin Luther King Jr. was determined to leave behind. Rather than challenging the basic structure of society and doing the hard work of movement building … we have been tempted too often by the opportunity for people of color to be included within the political and economic structure as-is. … We have allowed ourselves to be willfully blind to the emergence of a new caste system …” (p. 246).
Instead, Alexander thinks filing cases for reforms should become secondary to movement building; reform work is to be carried out only so long as it is “done consciously as movement-building work” (p. 223, emphasis in original). Alexander ultimately concludes that “what is needed now, at this critical juncture, is not more tinkering or tokenism, but as King insisted 40 years ago, a “radical restructuring of our society…” (p. 247).
When it comes to what method is best for this radical restructuring of American society, Alexander is very clear: “A civil war had to be waged to end slavery; a mass movement was necessary to bring a formal end to Jim Crow. Those who imagine that far less is required to dismantle mass incarceration … fail to appreciate the distance between Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and the ongoing racial nightmare for those locked up and locked out of American society” (p. 203).
But Alexander tells us that this current racial caste system is very resilient; it is cloaked in race-neutral rhetoric, disguising the racist policies of the New Jim Crow within discussions of “crime.” Additionally, there are major economic interests in the growth of mass incarceration. On top of all that, politicians from both the Democrats and Republicans endorse the “get tough on crime” policies that fuel the New Jim Crow.
In the face of an organized and militant opposition to mass incarceration, these forces wouldn’t “openly argue that we should lock up millions of poor people just so that other people can have jobs or get a good return on their private investments. Instead, familiar arguments would likely resurface about the need to be ‘tough’ on criminals …” (p. 227).
Activists must be prepared for the difficult task of defending “criminals,” something that the civil rights movement has traditionally been reluctant to do. And while Alexander repeatedly points out the great extent to which Democratic politicians like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have supported the New Jim Crow, we should be crystal clear that a mass movement that can truly challenge mass incarceration would have to be independent of capitalist political interests.
Alexander endorses a mass movement approach, a revolutionary perspective, and imagines a fundamentally different society that sounds a lot like socialism—much as Martin Luther King Jr. did towards the end of his life. But she neglects to explicitly mention or attack capitalism outright, and it is unclear if she left this out to make the book more palatable to the mainstream or if she actually believes her goals can be accomplished without ultimately confronting capitalism. Still, in all, this book is a must read; pick it up as soon as you can and tell your friends about it. When you are finished, you will likely agree that the criminal justice system is “guilty as charged.”
> The article above was written by Clay Wadena and first appeared in the June 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.