Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New York: The New Press, 2010 and 2012). Xvii and 312.
Reviewed by Alan Berndt-Dreyer, M.Div. Senior
It has been a long journey for me from the rural, yet diverse community of Western Nebraska to the streets of the Harambee neighborhood in Milwaukee and back to seminary. Along the way I have had the opportunity to encounter races other than my own and more importantly, my own aversion to defining race that has led to colorblindness. This colorblindness has not been helpful for me or for others. Through the course of living a year in a predominately African American neighborhood I have seen the effects of my and the nation’s colorblindness in helping to create and maintain, as the author rightly calls it, a racial caste system.
Through her book, Michelle Alexander lays out argument after argument, fact after fact, to support her thesis: “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” Alexander points to the very same constitutional amendment that abolished slavery as the one that allows the one who is a criminal to be a slave to the state. As we know; one must pay their debt to society. Just 110 years after the emancipation proclamation and a decade after a successful civil rights movement, the start of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration moved in to redefine racial minorities, particularly African Americans, in terms of being a criminal. Being labeled a criminal puts every obstacle in the way of reintegration into society. Who wants to argue on behalf of one labeled a criminal?
Michelle Alexander successfully argues that this “New Jim Crow” has been created through the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs was started by President Ronald Reagan on the verge of seeing penal prisons on their way out. The War on Drugs systemically has given police in our country the legal right to racially profile along with the financial incentives to do so. Moreover, prosecutors have incentive to pick all-white juries, as well as try to bring as many charges as possible against people of color. Though drug use and sales are equal across the races in America, blacks and browns are targeted unfairly, but legally, through many cases judged by the Supreme Court to be constitutional. Furthermore, drugs that are common to those who are white carry a much lighter sentence than those more common to those who are black. These are just a few of the hundreds of cases and examples that she brings forward to support her case.
Though Alexander’s book is devastating in example after example of racial discrimination and the effects of that discrimination, she remains hopeful and determined that this new racial caste system should and will fall. The core of the book comes not in the first five chapters where she builds the case that a new racial caste has been created, but in the final chapter where she addresses colorblindness. Colorblindness to an issue doesn’t mean that the issue isn’t there. As we are made aware of the issues of race that still pervade our society and will continue to as sinful human institutions it becomes clear that colorblindness to racial disparities equals endorsement. It becomes increasingly important to focus on race, not because we want to endorse racism, but because race is a factor in how a person is treated. It is a responsibility that a person act on behalf of brothers and sisters who are put most at odds with society. By naming the evil in our society, even if that means giving up our illusion of a colorblind society that has moved past racism, we are able to continuously be concerned with those who are often positioned as the least. By becoming aware of our false colorblindness we are able to discuss frankly the welfare of not only our neighbors, but ourselves as well. We are all affected when one is affected. This is the crux of the book and the hope that this new Jim Crow will be the last.