I feel like I’m the last person in my circle to have not read Michelle Alexander’s landmark work The New Jim Crow. It’s one of those books I’d always meant to get to but never had the chance. I borrowed it from someone in my family over a year ago and since I’m going to see them this weekend, I figured there’s no better excuse than that to finally read it.
I’ve heard a lot of arguments adjacent to it in favor of ending the drug war but Michelle Alexander’s work is more than that. In fact, to my recollection, she only mentions decriminalization once, which surprised me since decriminalization is often considered the end all to the drug war itself.
Instead, this is a polemic of history, a history that’s been forgotten and suppressed by white powers that be. Alexander’s argument in the broadest sense is that mass incarceration via drug arrests is the newest example of legalized prejudice to emerge from the United States’ anti-Black heritage, dating back to the transatlantic slave trade. She fills in the argument with facts and anecdotes about what the drug war post-Civil Rights has done to Black people.
I was familiar with some of the arguments but others floored me. Drug use was on a steady decline before the drug war itself was instituted by Nixon. Militarization of the police, which I often attributed to post-9/11 domestic hysteria, actually began in the 80s under Reagan. The vast majority of drug offenders are non-violent offenses.
She also touches on the stigma of incarceration and how being branded a criminal sticks with one after they leave prison. It presents a different challenge than Jim Crow. On the one hand, a person can no longer be legally discriminated against because of skin color. On the other hand, so many black people bear the title of “criminal,” that there is a galvanizing effect against them both in terms of employment and resources. I thought the toughest chapter would be the statistics but it was the particular one on what the criminal label does to people that I had the hardest time stomaching.
Yet the most challenging thing is the often dismissed second part of the book’s title: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander’s book is not meant to heap guilt on white people. But it is meant to address how white people from all across the political spectrum have either actively or passively contributed to the mess Black people are in now. In fact, while she saves plenty of fire for conservative pols, the use of the term “colorblindness” is also a critique of white liberalism and well-intentioned white politeness. She even makes a brief but compelling critique of classism in the Black community that has contributed to mass incarceration.
It’s a book worthy of its accolades and should be read by every able bodied, sentient white person. Alexander posits some challenges but the biggest one is the need for a reformation of morals and values within white folks to change what they think is important in order that the political pressure to maintain mass incarceration cease.