The following review by EJS Director of Law and Policy Reggie Shuford appears in the Dec. 2010 issue of California Lawyer magazine.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness reviewed by Reginald T. Shuford
In the aftermath of the jury verdict that found BART police officer Johannes Mehserle guilty of no more than involuntary manslaughter for the shooting death of the unarmed Oscar Grant, I pondered, “What is the value of a black man’s life?” Michelle Alexander’s provocative book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, answers decisively: not much. The author offers exceedingly grim facts to describe the present reality of many black men.
Targeted by the government’s “war on drugs,” African-American men are imprisoned at a rate unprecedented in the history of the world. Today, more African-American men are under the control of the U.S. criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. As a consequence of imprisonment, black men are relegated to legally sanctioned second-class citizenship, wearing a badge of inferiority that makes it almost impossible for them to secure employment, housing, education, or public assistance and to participate in the political process. This mass incarceration of black men, Alexander posits, is America’s newest racial caste system, the New Jim Crow.
Alexander, formerly the director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, builds a compelling case to support her claim. Densely written yet eminently readable, the book is loaded with persuasive evidence, including historical parallels to previous racial caste systems: “Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.”
The war on drugs, Alexander acknowledges, is the primary engine driving mass incarceration. Launched by President Reagan in 1982, it was a tactic to increase the political fortunes of conservatives rather than a response to the times: Drug use was actually on the decline. The crack epidemic that followed, however, made poor black communities a convenient scapegoat for drug warriors. The media and politicians, using race-neutral but coded and loaded phrases like “tough on crime,” conflated blackness with drug crime, creating the image of the “criminalblackman,” a term coined by legal scholar Katheryn Russell-Brown.
Yet, all the relevant data suggests that targeting blacks in the war on drugs has been unjustified. “Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white,” writes Alexander, “three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” Money is the reason that targeting people of color nevertheless persists: Local and state police agencies have incentives to fight the drug war, she explains, receiving grants, weapons, and training from the federal government, and cash, cars, and homes through asset forfeitures. In exchange, marginalized communities—especially African-American ones—are targeted.
The author reserves special criticism for Bill Clinton. As a result of his attempts to increase his tough-on-crime bona fides, mass incarceration of people of color skyrocketed under his administration. The Supreme Court is guilty of aiding and abetting this trend, issuing decisions that stripped the Fourth Amendment of all meaningful protections and effectively shutting the courthouse doors to claims of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Such cases now require evidence of intentional discrimination, which is largely unavailable in the age of colorblindness, when unconscious bias and structural racism—rather than overt racial hostility—are the more likely culprits.
Neither does Alexander excuse racial justice allies like President Obama and civil rights advocates. Obama has pledged to continue funding the ill-conceived drug war, and civil rights advocates have failed to prioritize criminal justice reform, despite the fact that one in three young black men is under the control of the criminal justice system. Many civil rights advocates, Alexander argues, have been reluctant to engage in advocacy on behalf of alleged criminals, instead devoting their resources to issues such as affirmative action—which benefits only a select few and paints a picture of greater racial progress than reality reflects.
Recognizing some limits to the Jim Crow analogy—for example, that mass incarceration is not explicitly race based—Alexander nonetheless makes a convincing argument. Rather than propose solutions to the problem of mass incarceration, she offers numerous considerations designed to stimulate the conversation. She succeeds brilliantly, as people are certainly talking. The New Jim Crow is essential reading for anyone who cares about justice, humanity, and the future of our democracy.
Reginald T. Shuford is the director of law and policy at the Equal Justice Society in San Francisco.