Book review of The New Jim Crow

Marci Hess


The New Jim Crow book is an eye opener!! Once you’ve read this, you will see lifestyles many of us do not experience or recognize. The book was written about national experiences by a civil rights lawyer and legal scholar and is a wake-up call to the devastation our legal system is creating on our fellow Americans.


How did we get to this era of mass incarceration? More importantly, how did we get to it with blacks being the majority of those in prison? Michelle Alexander takes the reader on an historical journey from Emanicipation through the Reagan Era War on Drugs to today explaining how America has reached this point.


It’s important to understand this issue goes back to the days of slavery and the Southern white (aka planter elite) sector. When Emancipation set the blacks free, they had few resources (i.e. education, job opportunities) to make a living. The poor whites living in the south were experiencing the same oppression. Banning together, they attempted to overthrow the planter elite; this revolution was “ended by force and false promises.” What it did accomplish was an awakening of the elite whites that if the blacks and poor whites banned together, it could ruin their “empire.” The result was a “racial bribe” where the elite systematically gave privileges to the poor whites in order to drive a wedge between them and the blacks.


This is an important turning point in America’s caste system.


While some progress was made to get education and job opportunities to former slaves, it was quickly replaced with Jim Crow laws, which created a blatant racial inequity. By 1964, these laws were overturned by the Civil Rights Act, which changed the conversation from race to crime. With this came new rhetoric, carefully crafted to appear as if crime was the issue and not poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and lack of education.


By 1982, when Reagan declared the War on Drugs, this rhetoric was fully accepted. At the time of this enactment, other negative influences putting inner city blacks at a disadvantage were already in action – blue collar factory jobs were decreasing and factory jobs were moving away from the inner city at a time when only 28% of blacks owned cars. Instead of focusing on job creation, legislators focused on how to get “tough on crime.” Ironically, drug use was on the decline at the time this “War” was declared.


The rules of warfare were created via legal means – rules of law, rules of procedures, and financial incentives. It was a topdown system created by well-to-do, well-connected white men; it was not a grassroots movement.


The Fourth Amendment was relaxed and search and seizure became commonplace with little concrete evidence required to justify it. Procedures such as “stop and frisk” became widespread but required nothing more than a hunch to implement. The legal system failed because enforcement agencies were granted tremendous discretion and exercised it in a highly discriminatory manner. Financial incentives, such as allowing police agencies to keep cash and assets seized, and grants that were based on arrest number, and military weapons and SWAT teams were provided to police for these raids. There were no checks on police power. Simultaneously, Federal programs to assist with jobs and food support disallowed participation from anyone with a criminal drug offense, no matter how minor the offense. Sentencing laws were enacted, creating strict and punishing prison time for extremely minor amounts of marijuana.


While all the above may not seem racists, the facts show otherwise. “Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, ¾ of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” (p99) Studies and surveys explicitly found whites were more likely to use drugs. One revealed that “white students use cocaine at 7 times the rate of black students.” (p99) Lawsuits have demonstrated that “federal crack laws were fair on their face and impartial in their appearance, but were selectively enforced in a racially discriminatory manner.” (p116) It would have been much more lucrative for police to target college campuses and white suburbs yet overwhelmingly the focus was on the poor black and brown communities. White drug offenders are treated more favorably. Why? Targeting blacks created very little public outcry and political backlash.


The label of criminal has desecrated many lives and torn apart many families. Because of the War on Drugs and the following rule changes, a mere few grams of marijuana could create this destruction. The result of this war has not been a decrease in drugs or necessarily the arrests of kingpins and drug lords. It’s been the castigation of poor blacks. There’s not another country in the world who marginalizes and removes rights from people who are released from prison the way US does. (p158)


Once again, freed men were stigmatized and demonized. Once freed from prison (or merely an arrest), the stigma is not removed. Persons who have served time can be stopped and searched by police for any reason and returned to prison for incredibly minor offenses. They will be labeled as “felons” with an easy target on their backs. They will forever be discriminated for employment, housing, education, public benefits, jury service, and some lose the right to vote. In America, we have determined that one never really “pays their debt to society” as prison follows one everywhere.


The War on Drugs was a created “war” at a time when drugs weren’t the biggest issue shattering the lives of Americans. That was alcohol, which killed 100,000 vs 22,000 for drugs annually. Instead of creating a war on it, it was legalized.


In the end, research has demonstrated over and over that joblessness is the main culprit for increased crime. What would have happened if job creation was given as much attention and financial incentives as incarceration were? What if as much time and energy went into education, job training, public transportation, and relocation assistance? When the economic boom of the 1990s was occurring, there was a staggering increase in jobless black men – either they were locked up or they were unable to find a job upon release.


Americans need to reevaluate our prison system. There’s a lot of money to be made keeping it in its current overflowing state. Should the system be changed, jobs would be lost, police agencies would lose money, and private-sector investment would be lost. Prisons are big business and wealthy, powerful people are reluctant to reduce those profitable incarcerations.


There is overwhelming evidence that prison creates more crime than prevents it. Yet, we have normalized the system of mass incarceration – a system explicitly designed to keep the blacks in a lower caste system than whites. We have moved from slavery to subordination to marginalization. And we’ve created more crime. “The genius of the current cast system…is that is appears voluntary.” (p215)

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