The New Jim Crow: Book Review

Editor’s Note: Lizzy is one of our summer interns focusing on missions and I was so excited that she was willing to write up a guest blog post for me!

By Guest Blogger:Lizzy Rand

We all notice the trends. Whether we observe a group of high school or college students hanging out, adults eating at a restaurant, or the employees working at the grocery store, there seems to be a specific demographic often missing from those situations— black males. I thought I held a good understanding of racism in the United States until I read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Ohio State University Law Professor and one-time clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court, Michelle Alexander. This book examines the cyclical rebirth of racial caste in America beginning with slavery and continuing into present society where discrimination has been covertly manifested in our criminal justice system and the mass incarceration of black males, has created the “New Jim Crow.”

The New Jim Crow begins with a cohesive history of racial injustice in America through a lens that strongly focuses on the African Americans struggle to possess equality in the nation. I have found that to understand the essence of this book, and really, the stream of consciousness of America, it is important to know this facet of history.

In the early colonial era black and white indentured servants were valued on the same level; they both struggled against the affluent planter and farmer. But when plantation farming expanded, there was naturally an increased need for cheap labor. After the events of Bacon’s rebellion, when an alliance between black and white bond workers formed, colonial leaders and plantation owners decided slaves imported from Africa would be less likely to misbehave or join forces with the whites. White leaders and settlers also theorized that if they deliberately gave special privileges to the white lower-class and allowed them to police slaves, it would create a wider gap between whites and blacks. The demeaned status of African Americans was justified by the fact that they were an uncivilized, inferior race that was lacking intelligence and admirable characteristics. This changed the social system that was formerly based on status in the economy to a racial caste system.

Most everyone is aware that slavery ended with the defeat of the southern states during the Civil War, “But during the four centuries in which slavery flourished, the idea of race flourished as well… the notion of racial difference—specifically the notion of white supremacy—proved far more durable than the institution that gave birth to it” (26). After the war southern states eventually implemented black codes, convict leasing and other discriminatory laws in order to repress former slaves. Southern whites started a campaign known as the “southern redemption,” which was reinforced by the Klu Klux Klan. By the 1900’s every state in the south had segregation and discriminatory legislation against blacks in almost every aspect of life— jobs, schools, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, prisons, morgues, cemeteries, etc. This new order was termed Jim Crow.

In the early 1960’s the Civil Rights Movement emerged. President Johnson’s determination to end the Jim Crow segregation laws pushed Congress into passing two significant legislative acts: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A major disrupt in the nation’s racial system had occurred through this dismantling of Jim Crow, however, a new racial caste system formed by means of covert racism. Proponents of racial hierarchy found they could assert white supremacy through demanding “law and order” rather than complete segregation. This is the basis for the birth of mass incarceration of black men and the corrupt and unjust criminal justice system the United States uses today.

During the Civil Rights era crime rates rose dramatically in the U.S. and many of these acts were demonstrated by blacks in uprisings following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Thus, crime and the surge of drug usage, which boomed in urban areas where most blacks lived, began to have an association with the black population. Reagan’s “War on Drugs” played a huge role in recreating the racial caste system because it targeted black males. Politicians of that era used the rhetoric of “law and order” to crack down on street crime. The media was very willing to get involved and proved to reinforce negative black stereotypes— that black women were irresponsible and lazy “welfare queens” and black men were “predators” and seen as criminals. A New Jim Crow was born.

While none of these historical events were new to me, I had never viewed American history as such a cohesive story of injustice to a certain people group that still carries the imprint of unfairness.

Statistics today show that African Americans make up 80-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison. More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For black males in their 20’s, one in every eight is in prison or jail on any given day. But how and why is this the case? Alexander proposes a process that contains three phases as to how a colorblind criminal justice system attains racial discriminatory effects. The first step is allowing law enforcement officials to have outstanding discretion concerning who to search, stop, arrest and charge for offenses; this allows for conscious or subconscious stereotypes to be supported, but it also creates serious racial inconsistencies. The second step is conviction, where defendants often lack effective legal representation and are pressured to plead guilty through the threat of lengthy sentences if they do not. Prosecutors have nearly unlimited discretion during conviction. Laws have also forbidden defendants to claim that the justice system allows for racial discrimination. There needs to be clear evidence of conscious intent, which is very difficult to measure—making it very possible to maintain this New Jim Crow.

The third phase occurs when people are out of jail and enter into mainstream society. Once they have been incarcerated, “the badge of inferiority remains with you for the rest of your life, relegating you to a permanent second-class status” (142).” People convicted of a felony are ineligible for public housing assistance for a minimum of five years, and almost every state allows private businesses to discriminate on the basis of past criminal records. Many ex-offenders will also describe the personal shame and stigma that follows them forever. People who are not even ex-offenders, but who carry the same stereotypical features of a criminal, receive the same looks of denial, contempt, and suspicion from ordinary people in society. They are seen as a group of people unworthy of respect and worthy of disrespect.

Alexander argues there needs to be a mass movement to destroy the racial hierarchies in America— a mass movement that does not ignore the racial divisions of the country. There also needs to be an effort to cultivate genuine care, compassion and concern for every human, regardless of race, to begin to eliminate the New Jim Crow and our racially organized society.

I’m not sure why this book hit me the way it did, but it definitely opened my eyes to my own attitude and false belief that our justice system is exactly that— just. I don’t want to completely disregard the notion that people are responsible for their own actions, but I now recognize that our systems are faulty and allow for much injustice. Alexander states, “It is far more convenient to imagine that a majority of young African American men in urban areas freely chose a life of crime than to accept the real possibility that their lives were structured in a way that virtually guaranteed their early admission into a system from which they can never escape” (178-179). Behind the more tangible statistics and historical accounts, this book drives at personhood— not necessarily from a biblical foundation— but the notion that every person has inherent rights and should be treated with justice, love, and care. The incarceration rates of black males are disturbing to me, and I just want to scream, “It’s not fair!” It’s not fair that there are whites and other people that commit the same crimes, but their incarceration rates are much lower.

Yet how do we change the minds of Americans that are so strongly influenced by our discriminatory history? How can we face the reality that our nation is not colorblind? We must seek humility, justice and genuine care for all persons. I recommend this book for anyone that wants a disturbing, yet accurate picture of racism in America and is ready to replace impression with reality.

For a similar book regarding racial injustice visit Ken’s book review: Worse Than Slavery

Lizzy is currently a student at Taylor University.



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