Monday, April 11, 2011

Books Yay!: The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

What I really want to do is cut and paste all of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness into a post and say "just read it," or somehow make it so everyone who clicks on the review gets a copy delivered to their home automatically.  The book explains the way our prison system, justice system, law enforcement and legislation all combine to create a new - or, depending on your level of cynicism, preserve the existing - racial caste system in America.  In the interest of full disclosure, I went into this book with a large degree of skepticism.  After all, even highly visible black public figures from President Obama to Bill Cosby have commented on the need for the black community, and particularly black men, to step up and fix their behavior, stay out of jail, and tend to their families.  Even if you assume that there is SOME environmental influence over these behaviors, surely if these public figures are making such statements, they must be at least MOSTLY true, right?

Ms. Alexander has convinced me that this is not the case, not even sorta-kinda.  Early in the book, Alexander mentions that institutional racism often becomes clear much like one of those Magic Eye pictures, swimming into view suddenly from just the right angle.  I know racism is still a major problem in our society, but the depth and breadth of our mass incarceration system as a tool and function of that racism was still a revelation to me.  I feel some sense of shame for not having seen this; of course, the reason I have not before now is because a white woman like myself is not forced into living this reality.  I have argued with several friends who feel that all people should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" by pointing out that not everyone HAS bootstraps to pull, but I have always considered that argument in an original or passive sense, i.e. that people often BEGIN with no bootstraps to pull, or that they may lose them through no fault of their own.  I had not considered that not only the bootstraps but the boot and sole would be forcibly taken by the justice system that I have always considered one of the best parts of our political construct.

Alexander's elegant prose cuts through many of the assumptions we make and ideas we are fed about black and brown people - primarily men - in prison and as criminals.  She sees an evolution from slavery to segregation during Jim Crow to mass incarceration and its attendant disenfranchisement.   She highlights the War on Drugs as the most influential feeder of this last section, with its mandatory minimums that keep offenders in jail even longer than those who have committed violent crimes.  The problems do not end with the service of the prison sentence.  The jailed are then turned back out into society with a felony conviction that prevents them from getting most jobs, professional licenses, public housing, food assistance, and from participating in political society in any meaningful way, since most lose their right to vote and serve on juries.  There is no "doing your time," as we often say, suggesting that you just hang out in prison for a while and then society welcomes you back with both arms and a smile.  Even when felons can technically regain their political rights, there are often fines and massive bureaucratic hurdles in their way, which would be daunting or impassable enough without the fear that this kind of persecutory system instills.

In other conversations, it has been suggested that if you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear from law enforcement.  It is interesting to note that this line usually came up when I was talking about the affront to the Fourth Amendment that is the newest TSA screening procedures (yes, I realize they have been ramped back, and no, I don't care, because the fact that it would occur to the government to create AND enact them is supremely problematic), which is only a concern for those far, far above the income brackets of the millions of incarcerated black and brown people that this book concerns.  It is an affront to liberty when the TSA does it, and it is an affront to liberty when the DEA and police do it to black and brown men.  Alexander launches a full on assault to show that black and brown men DO in fact have something to fear, even if they are innocent.  She describes the techniques and practices that law enforcement follow to keep a steady flow of these men into the prisons, regardless of their guilt.  She also shows us the shoddy legal representation afforded these people once they are in the system, where the accused are pushed into guilty pleas to avoid longer sentences and inadequate or flat-out wrong information abounds.  It is hard to read without a sense of desperation...and Alexander is giving us the information that the prisoners do not receive.  Just imagine how horrible it must be to be IN the system without it.

This book is exceptional for its clarity.  I don't think that anyone could read this and not feel both outraged and moved to Do Something.  This book is a call to action, and it is our responsibility to respond accordingly, recognizing that the problem of racism is far from over in this country.  Both of these objectives are difficult.  Addressing one's privilege is difficult, particularly because the phenomenon is frequently misunderstood.  It is uncomfortable to think about the idea that you receive often-intangible benefits simply by virtue of some quality we were born with.  We feel unable to do anything to remedy this privilege, and feel that those who are not privileged blame us for it.  But generally, this is not the case.  Rather, privilege is a lens - our corneas - through which we see the world, and though we cannot remove our privilege any more than we would remove our corneas, we can adjust our worldview to see the world more appropriately, just as one would get a pair of glasses.  This is the way we can begin to move forward, to create a fairer world.

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