Two books I read previous to this one were particularly helpful: Stamped from the Beginning, a comprehensive history of anti-Black racism in America (and, by extension, Black history), and Locking Up Our Own, which has an interesting perspective on the War on Drugs, the justice system, and the history of mandatory minimum sentencing. If you just want to jump right into this one you’ll be okay, as she spends a chapter outlining the relevant facts and history, but both of the books mentioned above spend their whole page count doing what she only has time for one chapter on. I was grateful I had the background.
This isn’t going to be a hugely long review, because I don’t feel up to trying to break down all the many varied and salient points Alexander makes in this fairly long book. I will say that I went in with a pretty good idea of what I thought she was going to argue, and was only partly right. By the end, the arguments as she lays them out felt as plain and obvious to me as the nose on my face, but they hadn’t (for the most part) even been on my radar before reading. I told you I wasn’t up to describing this book; I’ve resorted to clichés and mixed metaphors, all in one go.
What surprised me about this book was surprising in itself. I knew going in that the prison industrial complex created crime, and does almost nothing to stop it, and I knew that prisons were disproportionately filled with Black people, many of whom were there on drug charges their white counterparts never even did time for. What I didn’t expect the book to do was to make such a compelling argument for humanizing the criminal, that the very idea we classify someone as “a criminal” after they commit a crime is harmful and hypocritical (raise your hand if you’ve never broken the law).
Alexander is careful to note that her book focuses specifically on Black men who have been affected by the drug war. She does not make any arguments regarding violent crime, or about murderers, rapists, serial killers, abusers, etc. She is focused on non-violent crime only. I was also impressed by her continuous ability to consider a spectrum of ideas, and more often than not, follow more radical statements with very balanced ones, and things to consider. The range of her critical thinking skills, and her ability to consider things thoughtfully and with care, was very evident, and it made her arguments all the more convincing.
The main points she hits here are: How the War on Drugs created an underclass, essentially a racial underclass, of people marked into the criminal system by drug offences, and even when released, how they are unable to escape from the consequences of once having been imprisoned; how the age of “colorblindness” has actually harmed more than it’s done good, because it makes it easier for people to ignore what is really happening, i.e. “that man isn’t arrested because of racism, he’s arrested because he’s a criminal”. She argues that colorblindness should not be the goal, rather, seeing color and accepting and seeing differences between people should be, because it makes it possible to see the nuances in a situation. She argues that colorblindness and the belief that racism is over has resulted in the ignoring of the problem of mass incarceration.
She also addresses how to move forward. It really surprised me that she, like Martin Luther King, Jr. apparently, advocates stepping away from a civil rights focus (finding a way to incorporate the marginalized into existing systems) to a human rights focus that looks to include everyone (including white men) in “us”, and seeks to rebuild the system from scratch, rather than trying to work from within.
I don’t even remember what all was in here, I’m just rambling at this point. I need to buy a hard copy and read it again.
I highly recommend the audio. The narrator was very engaging. However, a small issue with the audio of the 10th anniversary edition: If you don’t do the audio like I did, read the text of the original book first, and then the 10th anniversary foreword. The 10th anniversary essay is quite extensive and long, and it’s put at the beginning of the book, which I don’t think was the best decision. With that plus the introduction and the original foreword to the book all in a row, it had the effect of hours of listening before I even actually started the book. It also had the effect of making me feel unprepared to process Alexander’s thoughts in the 10th anniversary essay because I hadn’t read the book yet and didn’t have all the concepts straight. Anyway, all that to say, if you have the ability, leave that until you’ve read the whole book, and circle back to it.