Book Review

The New Jim Crow–Full Review

Michelle Alexander is a renowned civil rights lawyer, activist, and legal expert.  She uses her talent and skills to educate others and advocate for those in need.  She is a graduate of Stanford Law School and Vanderbilt University.  Mrs. Alexander has held several different positions throughout her career and has been affiliated with many organizations.  She held an associate professorship at Stanford Law School and directed the Civil Rights Clinic, which is an organization that focuses on race and the criminal justice system.  She garnered financial support for her book by winning the Soros Justice Fellowship, in 2005.  Michelle Alexander was a litigating lawyer and served as the director of the Racial Justice Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.  This project centered its attention on eliminating racial profiling in America.  Michelle continues to impact society with her passion for equality and justice for all.

The New Jim Crow starts with a forward by Cornel West.  In it, he discusses the progress we have made as a country here in the United States of America with regards to the election of our first black president, President Barack Obama.  However, he goes on to let readers know that while history has been made we as a country are still experiencing widespread racism and prejudice.  West states that this divisiveness is being expressed in many ways two of which include government and policy.  He declares that our country is in a climatic state where perception conflicts with reality.  To put it plainly, we are achieving unfathomable feats, while festering in the inhibiting sentiments of the past.  Continuing on, he rejects the notion of “colorblindness,” a tactical dialogue that is used to undermine the black experience and “disguise the depths of black suffering in the 1980s and 90s.”  These methods of minimizing past wrongs has society unaware and unmoved by the suffering that still exists within the black community at the hands of governmental targeting through policy and law.  This is the New Jim Crow.  West says that this book breaks the silence of indifference and apathy, exposing the shortcomings of a system that was put in place to widen the gap separating people based on color and socioeconomic status.  West urges readers to follow the direction of a renowned Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  In his writings, Dr. King encourages “us to be lovestruck with each other not colorblind toward each other.”  Simply put, we need to care about each other, have compassion for one another, and progress as a society.  In other words, there is still work to be done and we must do our part to educate ourselves, recognize where we are lacking, and be concerned enough to change.  West passionately informs readers that The New Jim Crow is a book that has ignited a social movement that is influencing change.  As a result, readers must do what it takes to be accountable and breakdown a system of abuse and neglect.  He calls for us to be involved in the decision making processes of government in order to transfer power from the antiquated leadership imposing the ideologies of an even more restrictive period in our history. to those progressively influencing change.  As President Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan stated, “Forward.”

Interestingly enough, Michelle states in the preface that this book is for a specific audience.  To clarify, she means that this book is for people who want to effect change within the criminal justice system.  These individuals are concerned for the well-being of mistreated groups and have a passion for racial equality.  In addition, this book is for people who are naively carrying on their daily lives not realizing that there is a major crisis occurring right before their eyes.  Unfortunately, this situation is all too familiar for most of us going on as if we are not a part of the problem.  We get so entrenched in our own endeavors that there is little to no thought of the person residing in a crammed jail cell for life, living in dire conditions, and with no hope all because he committed one misdemeanor too many.  She dedicates her book to us.

The book mentions that the War on Drugs was a major contributor to the massive incarceration of black people during a time when drug abuse and illegal drug activity was on the decline.  Michelle Alexander questions the motives of those enacting this initiative and brings this apparent discrepancy to light.  For example, this massive campaign manipulated public attention by using media coverage to ignite urgency and a sense of pressing danger if this issue was not remedied quickly and with the full force of government resources and attention.  In addition, it was well within the authority of the police force to handle an arrestee in whatever way deemed necessary in order for apprehension and detainment; even if the circumstances were questionable on behalf of law enforcement.  The laws enacted during the War on Drugs are still having an impact today with individuals enduring a life of incarceration for committing repeated minor offenses or those of certain minority groups facing harsh sentencing when compared to to their white counterparts.  The War on Drugs and massive incarceration efforts from the 1980’s and 90’s have caused prolonged damage to the black community and it is still currently having negative impacted on this portion of the population

The first three chapters set the stage for what Michelle Alexander outlines as the tools that shaped the modern day platform for the continual systemic abuse and mistreatment of black people.  In Chapter One, she characterizes the historical racial caste system in America and how it has sustained itself and adapted to the times and conditions of each decade.  Most notable is the way that the cast system started as a blatant form of a culmination of abuses including physical, mental, and emotional duress and overtime how it became an institution that masked those same abuses behind the guise of segregation, Jim Crow, restrictive legalities, and more.  For example, black people were stolen or sold from their native lands into slavery in America and thus provided free labor which played a major role in establishing the United States as an economic power and contributed significantly to creating the infrastructure that we still use to this day.  After the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freeing the enslaved, former slaves were downtrodden by segregation.  They were not able to take advantage of the same opportunities or attend the same establishments as white people or receive an equal education.  Black people were considered second class citizens during the imposition of the Jim Crow era.  After the Civil Rights Act and desegregation, the War on Drugs enacted under President Nixon and later enforced with great measure by President Clinton, offered a modern day source of suppression for black people.  For instance, crack cocaine was a drug illicitly used in urban communities.  The legal repercussions for being caught with crack cocaine was greater than for being found with the same amount of powdered cocaine.  Michelle also talks about the criminal justice system and the processes one goes through from being charged with crime, to being convicted of a crime, and finally sentenced for a crime.  This process is involved and costly for the accused.  In addition, Alexander describes the autonomy of law enforcement and its ability to operate with little oversight.  Consequently, policemen involved in questionable situations rarely face the same consequences as those outside of law enforcement.  The book depicts how racial discrimination permeates the legal system by offering statistical evidence and personal accounts taken from Mrs. Alexander’s experiences and those of whom she knows who are also incarcerated.  According to the book, statistically speaking people of color are more likely to be arrested, charged, and convicted of crimes.  Still, with those convictions being harsher than for the majority group in America.

Chapters Four and Five discuss how easily convictions occur and how this affects the convicted.  To put it another way, those charged with crimes are pressured into accepting plea deals not only because this saves time and effort for trial lawyers but also because it is less expensive.  Unfortunately, most plea deals include serving prison time and acquiring a permanent record for a convicted felon.  Many people accepting these deals have little education or knowledge on the lasting effects of such a choice.  On top of this, parole requirements often include being employed and paying penalties.  This promotes recidivism because jobs are difficult to find for convicted criminals and most people who have been incarcerated are on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.  In Chapter Five , the book addresses the apparent absence of black men in society; mentioning this due to the fact that public perception of this absence is a surprise.  Simply put, society is unaware of why this disappearance has occurred because of a lack concern and responsibility in knowing how our legal operates; moreover, we fail to hold our leaders accountable by demanding open dialogue and transparency when it comes to the criminal justice system.

Personally, this book gave me insight into how skewed public perception is, and how we are naively manipulated into believing what we are told because we fail to investigate for ourselves.  The themes in the book apply now in the year 2019.  Firstly, we are over policed as result of having too many laws on the books.  Secondly, a lack of resources prevents certain individuals from receiving adequate legal council.  Public defenders are overworked and therefore, have little motivation to engulf themselves in each case intensively in order to get the best outcome for the accused.  In other words, you get what you pay for.  Currently, as an Alabama resident, I live in a state that is being probed by the federal government because of abhorrent prison conditions.  Violence and abuse permeates these facilities.  Yet, Governor Kay Ivey has requested that three more prisons be built in this state.  If the goal of prisons is rehabilitation, especially for non violent offenders, why are we not developing a system that truly provides that?  Why does the United States have one of the highest incarceration rates among other world powers?  I have thought about these questions before.  However, this book has exacerbated my interest in this topic.  As a result, I intend on delving into this issue further.