As I was reading Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindedness”, national organisation the American Civil Liberties Union had called for the state of New Jersey to reverse its ban on the book at two prisons. State representatives eventually reversed the ban without answering “questions about why the book was banned in the first place“, but the book’s thesis that “the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States” is a plausible explanation. After all, the argument that the American government’s misguided war on drugs has become a means of racial discrimination, systematically causing young African-American men to be disproportionately targeted and therefore incarcerated.
The book is well-written and the approach methodical, especially with the good use of statistics and research studies to make the case of “a new racial caste system” operating in the country, in ways which are eerily similar to the Jim Crow laws of segregation. Parts of the narrative, especially in the beginning, are thematically similar to a series of books on American history and society – Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” (on the enslavement of African-Americans), Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” (on a broken criminal justice system), J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” (on the conditions of the poor working-class whites), as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” (on the notions of race, ethnicity, and racecraft) – as the six chapters progressively build up.
An overview is provided in the beginning: The first chapter “reviews the history of racialised social control in the United States”, the second describes “the structure of mass incarceration”, from the financial incentives to law enforcement to the discrimination against ex-offenders; the third, on “the role of race in the [country’s] criminal justice system”, and in particular on the legal rules which “ensure that the undercaste is overwhelmingly black and brown”; the fourth, on the persistence of the racial caste system even after individuals have been released from prison; the fifth explores “the many parallels between mass incarceration and Jim Crow”; as well as the sixth, which argues for “nothing short of a major social movement [to] successfully dismantle the new caste system” in the future.
Chapters two to four therefore form the core of “The New Jim Crow”. The criminal justice and the drug enforcement system in the country – abetted by the legislative and judicial branches, and further facilitated by the executive branch and the police – has resulted in a high rate of incarceration (with the prison population increasing from approximately 350,000 to 2.3 million, even though crime rates have not significantly increased), yet how did the war on drugs come to be racially defined? “The racial bias inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men” (even though some evidence has shown that white or white professionals are more likely to consume drugs or to be involved in illegal drug activity).
Instead of old-fashioned racism, Alexander argues that:
“The first step is to grant law enforcement officials extraordinary discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free reign.
Then, the damning step: Close the courthouse doors to all claims by defendants and private litigants that the criminal justice system operates in racially discriminatory fashion.”
Readers are likely to be overwhelmed by a depressing feeling of helplessness. This is probably exacerbated by the absence of ready-made solutions to the many structural problems identified, made even more difficult by the entrenched, “racially charged political rhetoric and media imagery” crafted by the political and media elites in the country, consequently constructing a public consensus that “drug crime is black and brown”. In this vein many would be disappointed by the lack of tangible proposals in “The New Jim Crow” against the racialisation of crime in the media and in politics, or that the call for a change in civil rights organisations may not necessarily materialise. Yet since the aim is to “stimulate a much-needed conversation”, then some cognisance that “whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal” as well as the challenges presented by colour-blindedness may be a productive start.