The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (N.Y., The New Press, 2010). 290 pages.
The New Jim Crow offers an unflinching look at the US addiction to imprisonment and comes up with a startling diagnosis: American corporate greed, political opportunism and the exploitation of age-old hatred and fears have congealed to created a monstrous explosion in the world’s largest prison industrial complex. Further, the author, Michelle Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, digs deep into US history, and deeper still into US criminal law and practice, to conclude that the barbarous system of repression and control known commonly as Jim Crow had a rebirth in this era.
That’s why she calls it The New Jim Crow.
This system of legal discrimination came into being much as the first one did. After the rout of the South in the Civil War, millions of newly-freed Africans exercised their new rights under Reconstruction. Black men became senators and legislators across the South. But this period was short-lived, and as soon as possible states passed harsh laws known as Black Codes, which denied rights and criminalized behavior by Blacks, and exposed them to the repression of southern prisons where convicts were leased out to labor for others. It was the rebirth of slavery by other means.
This present era began at the height of the US civil rights movement, when millions of Blacks fought for their rights denied for more than a century.
Alexander concludes that this new system – this new coalescence of economic and political interests – targeted Blacks, especially those engaged in the drug industry, as the human capital with which to provide massive prison construction, huge prison staffs and the other appendages of the apparatus of state repression.
But perhaps Alexander’s most salient point is her finding that America’s Black population constitutes a “racial caste” that feeds and perpetuates mass incarceration.
Indeed, every other societal structure supports this superstructure, from broken schools to deindustrialization to population concentration in isolated urban ghettoes to police violence and to the silence of the Black middle class.
One might argue that such a claim seems unsustainable when we see a Black president, hundreds of Black political figures and those in entertainment and sports. But Alexander explains that every system allows exceptions, for they serve to legitimize the system and mask its ugliness and its gross effects upon the majority of Blacks.
For example, while it’s well-known that apartheid was an overtly racist system, it allowed Asian and even African-American diplomats to live and work in such a regime, through the political expediency of identifying them as “honorary whites” in their official papers.
When comparing both systems, Alexander argues that the US imprisons more Blacks, both in raw numbers and per capita, than were incarcerated in South Africa at the height of apartheid.
The New Jim Crow, indeed!
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