Book Review

Book Review: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in The Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

Reviewed by Mary Getlein

Once upon a time there was slavery in this country. Jim Crow laws were laws put in place during the reconstruction of the South, for the management and regulation of freed black slaves.

Ladies, when you’re walking down a street and it’s dark, and you see a Black man following you, does your heart accelerate and you start moving faster down the street? That reaction proves that racism is not dead.

The Jim Crow laws got Black men lynched. In 1954 Emmett Till went to Mississippi to visit a cousin. He was fourteen years old. He supposedly whistled at a white woman, which you did not do in Mississippi. A small crowd of white men forced their way into his cousin’s house, took him away, and beat him until he died. They wrapped him with barbed wire and chained him to a car motor and threw him into the river. When they found his body, his face was mutilated beyond description. His mother got his body back to Chicago and had an open casket funeral. White America got to see what happens to a young black man in their country. Most whites were horrified beyond belief. That happened in 1954.

Michelle Alexander and her book, The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in The Age of Colorblindness, documents what is happening to millions of Black and Latino people today. Instead of lynching, we have the “War on Drugs,” which started with the Nixon White House. President Nixon said to Haldeman: “Face the facts! The whole problem is the Blacks. We have to devise a system to keep them in check.” Voila! the War on Drugs was born, designed specifically with the goal of locking up an incredible number of people with Draconian drug laws.

Black people are set up for a crime, are harasse and intimidated into accepting a “lesser charge,” but it’s still a felony conviction. Now they have a felony drug conviction in their records, and thus do not qualify for any federal aid such as food stamps, federal housing, any federal education grants, or anything else. You have no food and no place to live, yet you’re supposed to get a job and have a place to live in order to stay on parole. Most people will not hire anyone with a felony conviction.

Our country leads the world in locking up its citizens. For a drug offense in England, for example, you might get six months. In the United States, because of mandatory drug sentencing laws, a person might get five to ten years. The three strikes law gives you 25 years to life for your third strike. This year in the US there are over 50,000 in solitary confinement. This is “cruel and unusual” punishment. These people are locked in a cell twenty – four hours a day. Their food is shoved into the room. There is no contact with another human being. Humans are social animals. We need to be around other people. This is a prescription for mental illness, and it comes true.

This is a prison system that is cruel beyond belief. Who profits? The criminal “justice” system starts with juvenile hall and goes all the way up. They make money on the entire imprisoned population, which is often put in jail illegally. People do not know their rights and are easily persuaded to take a “lesser charge.” What they should have done was to stay in jail and fight it. If you fight it, they will usually drop it. Once you have a felony drug conviction, your life gets less and less your own. You are busy trying to get a job, trying to find a place to live, trying to reconnect with your kids, trying to live down the shame and stigma of a felony drug conviction.

Criminals are the one social group that we have permission to hate. They are entitled to no respect. They have our collective scorn and contempt. They are routinely treated as less than human.

What can we do? We can fight for new laws on drugs. In the Senate there is bill 1506, which would make posession a misdemeanor and not a felony. Marijuana is socially acceptable in most of the US, yet the drug laws do not reflect this. If they were reduced to misdemeanor charges, they would pay a fine and go home.

If you feel no compassion for the prisoners, you might care about this issue just on the cost to taxpayers. This is a 100 billion dollar issue. That’s how much California’s budget pays their criminal “justice” system. The jails and prisons are overcrowded as it is.

Michelle Alexander has written a brilliant book about this apartheid has come to be. While most white Americans think that racism is over: the fact is that we lock up mostly Blacks and Latinos. Why is that? She details the process extensively.

Alexander: “Rather than shaming and condemning an already deeply stigmatized group, we collectively can embrace them – not necessarily their behavior, but them – their humaness.”

People think that people in jail are in there because of their own fault. Mass incarceration is based on the belief that all these people have freely chosen a life of crime and that they deserve to be in prison. It’s exactly like when people believe that homeless people have freely chosen to be homeless. Losing a job, being evicted, having no money and no place to live – that has “nothing” to do with people being homeless. Those that are trapped at the bottom actually “chose” their fate.

Alexander ends the book by saying, “I was never a believer in conspiracy theories, now I am. Now I am a believer.”