The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2012), New York, NY: The New Press
Outraged, shocked, and amazed are words that I do not use lightly. It really takes persuasive and data-rich information in order to convince me that I need to be alarmed. I am typically a passive reader in which I gather information to increase my knowledge base as opposed to an active reader in which what I read compels me to action or further investigation. After reading this book, I have a visceral need to do, respond, and act.
Outraged, Shocked, and Amazed: Alexander asserts that the new Jim Crow is mass incarceration because a disproportionate number of black men are jailed for minor drug offenses than white males for the same offenses. It is not just the fact that this is happening, but that is a legitimate form of legalized subjugation. She states that even though the superlative nature of the individual black achievement today in formerly white domains is a good indicator that the old Jim Crow is dead, it does not necessarily mean it is the end of the racial caste system. If history is any guide, it may have simply taken a different form. The racial caste system was predominant during slavery, but continued to exist through indentured servitude, segregated neighborhoods, differential wages, and currently mass incarceration. The racial caste system was in place with the aggressive enforcement of criminal offenses which imprisoned black men and contracted them out as laborers to the highest bidder. Alexander states that the War on Drugs was a deliberate operation that enabled the government to police and enforce a legalized racial caste system by incentivizing law enforcement officers to seize property, racially profile, use abusive and heavy-handed techniques, and escalate sentencing and elongated incarceration for repeat of minor drug possession. Alexander provided copious abuses of three strike rules that created life imprisonment for minors who were tried as adults. Other abuses of justice included deliberate searches of properties that were targeted by law enforcement officers. These properties were then seized as places that were drug havens and then sold to enhance the coffers of the law enforcement departments.
Again, reading this book, I was viscerally appalled at how difficult it is to live your life after prison or even sentencing. If you were incarcerated or sentenced for a felony, you have to check the box on all job applications that you are a felon. This usually meant that you would most likely not get the position. If you did get the position, it would be a minimum wage position that would make it difficult for you to support your children, maintain transportation, or secure housing. If you are a convicted felon, you are not eligible for federal welfare support or government housing. In many cases, you cannot harbor a convicted drug-related felon in government housing due to threats of eviction. In addition to these unfair practices, felons cannot vote or participate in other government actions to protest these sanctions.
I found this book to be a compelling, enlightening read. It took me back to my time when I was living in St. Paul and I worked with vulnerable adult males to secure housing and support after incarceration or due to the over indulgence in drug and alcohol usage. It was so difficult for these men to redirect their lives and the amount of government assistance was minimal. Most funds were earmarked for women and children. I ended up providing temporary shelter for many of these men so that they could reinvigorate their lives and become gainfully employed, participatory citizens. I lost many to recidivism, but those that I was able to assist have remained lifelong friends who are my go-to people when I need assistance in the Twin Cities area. I am now glad that I was able to engender change in the lives of many who were victimized by unjust practices. I hope this book is a must read for all of our political science, sociology, and criminal justice majors.
Dr. Dwight C. Watson, Dean College of Education University of Northern Iowa