Book Review - The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Michelle Alexander was born in 1967, part of the first generation to take birth in a new, fairer America in the aftermath of The Civil Rights Act, 1964. But, as the former director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford set out in her famous critique of American governance since, structural racism has continued to unfold, supported by a legal and policy infrastructure that is deeply discriminatory. In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander effectively draws an implicit historical parallel, arguing that, since the 1980s, the United States' "War on Drugs" has disproportionately targeted black people, resulting in a new "Jim Crow" era, referring to set of policies, first enacted in the 19th century, that wrote systemic racism and exclusion of African-Americans into the legal framework of the United States.
In the aftermath of The Civil War (1861-1865), slavery was abolished and the United States entered the reconstruction era, where for the next twelve years federal laws provided civil rights protections to newly emancipated Americans. However, a violent pushback against these laws took place in the southern United States, eventually leading to the institution of Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised black people and instituted segregation. This apartheid was upheld as constitutionally valid in the infamous Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. By 1913, most civil rights gains from the war were eliminated when President Woodrow Wilson implemented segregation of federal workplaces in 1913.
Starting with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, a slew of United States’ Supreme Court decisions overruled the “separate but equal” doctrine that segregation laws were based upon. By 1965, The twin Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had removed segregation, and although several southern states resisted, institutional racism in the United States was on its way out. Or at least that is how the traditional narrative reads. In The New Jim Crow, Alexander convincingly argues that the “War on Drugs” policies enacted in the 1980s were, in effect, a pushback against civil rights gains made in the 1960s and 70s. The United States prison population has since exploded, going from 300,000 to more than 2,000,000, without counting the nearly five million people on parole or probation. These numbers get worse. The imprisonment rate for black men is nearly six times that of white men.
As Attorney Antonio Moore observed, there are more African American men incarcerated in the U.S. than the total prison populations in India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel and England combined. To put that into perspective, the United States has a total of approximately 20 million black men as opposed to more than 1.6 billion people in the aforementioned countries. Alexander contends that in 1982 the Reagan administration began an escalation of the War on Drugs, purportedly as a response to a crack cocaine crisis in black ghettos, which, according to her, was announced well before crack cocaine arrived in most inner-city neighbourhoods. During the mid-1980s, as the use of crack cocaine increased to epidemic levels in these neighbourhoods, federal drug authorities publicized the problem, using scare tactics to generate support for their already-declared escalation.
Alexander’s gripping account is replete with horror stories. In 1998, the CIA acknowledged that during the 1980s the Contra faction, covertly supported by the US, had been involved in smuggling cocaine into the US and distributing it in US cities. DEA efforts to expose these illegal activities were blocked by Reagan officials, which contributed to an explosion of crack cocaine consumption in America's urban neighborhoods. More aggressive enforcement of federal drug laws resulted in a dramatic increase in street-level arrests for possession. Disparate sentencing policies (the crack cocaine v. powdered cocaine penalty disparity was 100-1 by weight and remains 18-1 even after recent reform efforts) meant that a disproportionate number of inner-city residents were charged with felonies and sentenced to long prison terms, because they tended to purchase the more affordable crack version of cocaine, rather than the powdered version commonly consumed in the suburbs.
This targeted approach adopted during the War on Drugs forms the centerpiece of Alexander’s narrative, who argues that the felonization of black men has had a devastating impact on the African American community of the United States. Interestingly, studies have revealed that African American drug usage may actually be lower than that of white Americans, the dominant racial group in the United States.
In the eleven years that have elapsed since the book first came out, it has been the subject of much discussion. Although it has received glowing reviews, Alexander’s view of the War on Drugs as an active effort to roll back progress on civil rights has come under criticism too. In Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, John Pfaff argues that the true cause of America’s rates of incarceration lies in violent crime and prosecutorial discretion, while the War on Drugs has played a relatively minor role. This point of view is certainly worth noting. Pfaff points out that, between 1994 and 2008, reported violent and property count fell, even as the number of felony cases filed in Court continued to rise. A Brookings Institution study of raw data examined both points of view and noted that owing to longer sentences, most Americans in prison are, in fact, serving time owing to violent crime. The study concluded that rolling back the War on Drugs would not totally solve the problem of mass incarceration, but clearly stated it continued to be a significant cause. Eleven years later, Michelle Alexander’s work continues to ask important questions that need to be urgently addressed by America’s lawmakers.