If you're a regular visitor to this blog, you know I don't often cover nonfiction. Nothing against nonfiction (I've written some myself). Just trying to maintain some focus. However, occasionally a book grabs my attention. The New Press sent me a copy of The New Jim Crow, which is definitely worthy of any attention I can help bring to it. Before I could read this NAACP image award winner, I noticed novelist Cheri Paris Edwards mention on Facebook that she was planning to read it. Kismet. I offered her the copy the publisher sent me if she'd do a review. She kindly agreed. Below is her review.
Summary /Review of Michelle Alexander’s
The New Jim Crow-Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Cheri Paris Edwards
Racial control revisited
In “The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” civil rights attorney and advocate Michelle Alexander presents a well-supported argument that America’s prison system has been used to control brown and black people in this country. She likens this control to the age of Jim Crow where laws enforcing this sort of race-based system of control were legal. Alexander’s argument begins with an absorbing introduction that includes these disturbing facts:
- “In less than 30 years the US prison population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase.”
- “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the heart of apartheid.”
- “In Washington D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all from the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to spend time in prison."
Alexander notes that though most arrests are drug-related, the disparity in incarceration can’t be explained by rates of drug use. Studies show all races use drugs and reveal that young white men are most likely to be using and selling drugs though African-American men are locked up in prison systems at a rate 20-50 times greater than that of white men. The result of this mass incarceration is that more than 2/3 of young black men now have a criminal record that legally makes them part of a growing "under caste."
"They can’t vote, their employment choices are limited, they can’t live in public housing for a designated period, they can’t get food stamps or other subsidies and in some cases they are unable to vote, serve on a jury or get financial aid for college."
Alexander effectively discusses how caging black and brown folks has become a vital industry in America providing jobs to more than 700,000, a number that doesn’t include the many extraneous industries that are also dependent on the penal system for their livelihood. America’s incarceration rate has outpaced every other Western nation’s though our crime rates remain stable and this is at least partially because most countries choose to deal rehabilitate drug offenders rather than jail them for long period of time. Most heartbreaking are the examples that Alexander includes that demonstrate that the innocent are often jailed too; simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, being poor, or affiliating with someone who is considered guilty. When and if these offenders are released from the penal system, Alexander asserts it is to a caste system that allows them few rights and little chance to succeed. They can’t vote, their employment choices are limited, they can’t live in public housing for a designated period, they can’t get food stamps or other subsidies and in some cases they are unable to vote, serve on a jury or get financial aid for college.
In “The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” Michelle Alexander uses carefully researched documentation to effectively prove her argument that the penal system is being used today as a method of racial control. Alexander offers credible reasons why this situation has been overlooked by the civil rights community including that affirmative action’s ability to help some blacks achieve success resulted in a façade of colorblindness that allowed this system to take root and intertwine into America’s economic and social arena. It is important to note that although this mass incarceration was based on exploiting racial stereotypes and fears, Alexander believes any credible solutions lie in the formation of multicultural groups who are united in their focus to dismantle this unfair system. This is an important read for all citizens because what happens to one affects each one of us and a must-read for those committed to or interested in social justice and advocacy.