I have had this book on my iPad forever! Seriously, I think I downloaded it before 13th, the Netflix documentary, was even a development idea. I watched 13th last year, and yet it didn’t spur me to pick this up, but after reading The Hate U Give, this felt like a fitting follow up.
I remember being very impressed by 13th, but the nice thing about reading this, is that it really gave me the chance to absorb and contemplate everything, rather than being hit by one shocking statement after another with no time to digest. I am also curious if there has been any change in any of the policies or their implementations as a result of the publishing of this book, or if the main effect so far has been the increased awareness and the potential change in social justice focus. For example, she discusses Obama supporting similar destructive initiatives early on in his presidency (the book was originally written in 2009). Unfortunately, having an older version, this didn’t include an afterword that included a discussion on the impact of this book and Alexander’s work.
As part of her argument, she breaks down slavery, Jim Crow and the prison system to demonstrate their similarities in implementing racial injustice and their differences. Every system included people on all sides that argued for and against it: for example, some members of the black community were more interested in making sure that what they received under the “separate but equal” concept was truly equal rather than wanting to change the status quo. The distinguishing part is just how difficult the prison and incarceration cycle has become to break because the racism driving the system is less obvious on the surface. It is obvious how slavery was racist, it is obvious how Jim Crow was racist, but mass incarceration hides behind the idea of a colorblind system, making it much harder to show how the institution overall leads to racially targeted practices. It isn’t until someone starts doing the work, and showing the stats that it can be seen how much this system is used to target black communities, and how felony convictions lead to life-long mark and a cycle that is difficult to break. Less jail time and shorter conviction periods don’t help since once the word “felon” is on someone’s record it follows them for life, making it difficult to get jobs, and preventing them from receiving certain services.
The other thing with the prison system is that it breaks the community. Under Jim Crow, the community was still together, and could support each other, so even if the system was horrible, the people affected could still commiserate and lean on each other. Imprisonment is still seen as such as black mark, an embarrassment and failure that many people don’t even realize that their neighbors might also be affected by it, and have family members in the system. Instead of leaning on each other, they hide these facts from each other, further disguising just how many black communities and people have been affected.
While people might argue that the police are simply going where the crime is and stopping those most likely to be committing crimes, she shows that the statistics don’t support this statement. White men are much more likely to be dealing than black men, though the prisoning and sentencing numbers certainly wouldn’t support this. The white people are either not being pulled over, or being let off much more easily because if things were to happen in white communities, it would raise media attention. It wasn’t even that the police necessarily chose in the beginning to conduct a war on drugs in black communities – the government started the policy of the war on drugs, and monetized it in such a way that this simply became the obvious choice. I had no idea about all the laws governing incentives for the war on drugs, some of which allow police departments to directly profit from seizures of property. It would be like paying a judge for every guilty verdict – of course, everyone is going to end up guilty in that type of set up.
She also highlights a few lawsuits that have attempted to demonstrate the bias in the system and how these were hamstrung and struck down. She emphasizes this because she knows one of the methods popular with civil rights activists is using the law to make changes, but she shows why this isn’t enough, and how this route has already been tried with no success. Additionally, she argues that it wasn’t only the lawsuits that made the difference in the ‘50s and ‘60s but the public demonstrations and awareness building to fight against complacency.
This one is definitely worth a read – while 13th covers a lot of the points, the book adds the nuisances and the details, and gives the room to think about it. If anyone reads a newer edition of this, please let me know if there is an afterword with an update! Of course, with our current administration, any update would probably have to be followed by “and then this decision was reversed again.”