Sunday, February 19, 2017

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2010)

I don't tend to read that much non-fiction and I really really don't tend to read much in the world of activism or politics, but after the election in November my book club decided that we should all push our comfort zone a bit and read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) for our next selection.

Alexander argues that the system of mass incarceration of African American men justified by a racially biased "war on drugs" is a system of control for the black population of the United States that takes the place of the previous institutions of slavery and Jim Crow. Because we now live in a society that sees itself as colorblind, replacing the fear of people because they are black with a fear of people because they are criminals (who happen, because of unfair application of the law to almost all be black) is a way for us to continue a system of institutional racism while at the same time pretending that we aren't still racist. And, because of laws restricting the ability of convicted felons to vote, get jobs, serve on juries, receive food stamps, or get housing assistance, we have created a subclass of Americans that can never fully participate in our society.

This book is seven years old now and in a Black Lives Matter world, some of her conclusions that at the time seemed revelatory now seem like common sense. That doesn't mean that there isn't something worth digging into here. On the contrary, Alexander's carefully researched and impassioned arguments add heft and immediacy to a state of institutional racism so ingrained in American society that many of us (particularly middle-class white women like myself) can usually pretend that it doesn't exist. While much of what she outlines was not a surprise to me, I did learn a huge amount about the impact of supreme court decisions on the ability to fight racial bias in the justice system, and Alexander's experience as a civil rights lawyer gives the reader a close-in view on the ability to fight discrimination through legal cases.

Alexander's argument is focused and pointed -- I would have liked to see more inclusion of how mass incarceration affects black women, as well as how the church has been and still is involved in these communities, but I realize you can't fit everything into one book. Rather than putting out a call for specific action, the last chapter guides the reader through a series of open questions, and sets the stage for a companion volume (which I've bought but haven't read yet) called Building a Movement to End Jim Crow by Daniel Hunter. I'm interested to dig into that book and see where it leads. Reading and talking about racial issues can make us uncomfortable, but I think white women like me need to get a little better at being uncomfortable sometimes and facing these issues that other people in our community don't have the option of ignoring.

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