The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, By Michelle Alexander (The New Press, New York, N.Y., 2010, 290 pages.)
Book Review by Dennis Moore
October 8, 2010 (San Diego) -- Michelle Alexander, former director of the Racial Justice Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Northern California and a former law clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court, has written a provocative and thought-provoking book about race and incarceration, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
She created a buzz in San Diego on October 1st and 2nd, bringing her book and message to a reception at the Jacobs Center and St. Stephens Cathedral. This scholar, wife and mother challenges the civil rights community, and all of us, to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.
Alexander states, “The fact that more than half of the young black men in any large American city are currently under the control of the criminal justice system (or saddled with criminal records) is not – as many argue – just a symptom of poverty or poor choices, but rather evidence of a new racial caste system at work.”
My own son was one of those young black men. To see my high school “Honor Roll” and star athlete son, who had received a scholarship in architecture to Syracuse University, being brought into court in chains from an Illinois prison, was painful beyond belief, for it conjured up images of us as a people being brought to this continent from Africa in chains. Thankfully, my son was ultimately sentenced to 4 months in a “boot camp,” and not the 30 years in prison that he was facing. A lot of African-American parents would not be that fortunate. Still, the stigma and residue of incarceration hangs over him, despite the fact that he has been gainfully employed and leading a model life since being released from “boot camp” more than five years ago. My son, Damien, proudly wears a tattoo on his arm that says: “Only God Can Judge Him!”
Alexander states in the introduction of her book: “Knowing as I do the difficulty of seeing what most everyone insists does not exist, I anticipate that this book will be met with skepticism or something worse. For some, the characterization of mass incarceration as a ‘racial caste system’ may seem like a gross exaggeration, if not hyperbole.” She further states that “Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of incarceration.”
The author offers statistics to support her thesis, stating, “The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000.” Statistics also show that in some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men. ( Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs, HRW Reports vol. 12, no. 2 [New York, 2000]). Alexander also states in her book that if there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color. (See, e.g., Howard N. Snyder and Melissa Sickman, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention).
Perhaps, most profound is the introduction to Alexander’s book: “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.” She further states, “Since the nation’s founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time.”
To more fully comprehend and follow along in Alexander’s book, it would help to understand the history and concept of “Jim Crow.”
Jim Crow was the name of the racial caste system which operated primarily between 1877 and the mid-1960s. Jim Crow was more than just a series of rigid anti-Black laws. It was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens. Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-Black racism. As I was born near the end of the Jim Crow era, I am painfully aware of the signs that would state: “No Dogs, Negros, Mexicans,” and signs stating; “Colored Served In Rear,” as well as the drinking fountains designating separate for whites and colored.
As I was born in Charleston, Missouri, shortly before William Shatner of “Star Trek” fame starred in a movie made there by Roger Corwin about race relations titled “Shame” (The Intruder), I am even more painfully aware of the vestiges of Jim Crow, as pointed out in Alexander’s book. In this movie, which can be obtained from Blockbuster and other media outlets, it actually shows friends of mine that I grew up with some 45 years ago, along with the Jim Crow customs.
Alexander eloquently states in her book: “I argue that the shame and stigma of the ‘prison label’ is, in many respects, more damaging to the African American community than the shame and stigma associated with Jim Crow. The criminalization and demonization of black men has turned the black community against itself, unraveling community and family relationships, decimating networks of mutual support, and intensifying the shame and self-hate experienced by the pariah caste.” I can’t argue her point either, for I have seen and lived through both sides of the issue, being born in the Jim Crow era, and ministering to incarcerated inmates in Illinois and California.
It is hard to imagine this “shame and stigma of the ‘prison label’ being more damaging to the African American community than the shame and stigma associated with Jim Crow, as Alexander states, especially when you examine the horrible legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, as graphically depicted in another book, Without Sanctuary, by Hilton Als and James Allen. It depicts the numerous lynching of African American men.
This scholarly examination and critique of race, The New Jim Crow, clearly states in the introduction of the book: “It justifies a legal, social, and economic boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Chapter 5 also explores some of the differences among slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, most significantly the fact that mass incarceration is designed to warehouse a population deemed disposable – unnecessary to the functioning of the new global economy – while earlier systems of control were designed to exploit and control black labor.” Try to explain that to the mostly black and brown brothers that I regularly visit and minister to at RJ Donovan Prison in San Diego County, and those that I once ministered to in Illinois jails and prisons!
These incarcerated African American men that Alexander speak of in her book are not nameless and faceless men. They are a Christopher Greene, a young black man with a documented history of mental illness, that I have visited with and correspond with regularly; They are Andre Harrison, who has served timed in RJ Donovan Prison, and is now out trying to maintain a job, that I mentor; they are “Eddie,” still serving time at RJ Donovan Prison, who recently pleaded with me at a worship service at the prison to continue coming out there to visit and participate in the services; they are a Reggie McMillin, who is attempting to escape the unfair and misapplied designation of his being a sexual predator, now that he has been out of prison for a number of years; they are my own three paternal brothers, who were once incarcerated at the same time; they are a “Dwight,” a young black man formerly at RJ Donovan that I had befriended, serving triple-life; What’s up with that, as if a life sentence is not sufficient?
They are a Mustafa Abdullah, a longtime and childhood friend of mine, that recently got released from prison due to changes to sentencing guidelines (crack cocaine), as Alexander refers to in her book; They are a Rev. Dennis Malone, now the director of the San Diego chapter of “All of Us or None,” a support organization of formerly incarcerated men, that Alexander also refers to in her book. In anticipation of my interviewing the author of The New Jim Crow, Rev. Malone indicated to me: “Exposing those exploiting the incarcerated for private economical gains within our community is more harmful than outside exploitation.”
Surprisingly to me, the author states that “Clinton – more than any other president – created the current undercaste.” In her book, Alexander states: “To the contrary, in 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton vowed he would never permit any Republican to be perceived as tougher on crime than he. True to his word, just weeks before the critical New Hampshire primary, Clinton chose to fly home to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally impaired black man who had so little conception of what was about to happen to him that he asked for the dessert from his last meal to be saved for him until the morning. After the execution, Clinton remarked, ‘I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.’”
In further regard to the incarceration and subsequent execution of this mentally ill black man in Arkansas, in a one-on-one interview with the author of The New Jim Crow on October 1, 2010, in the offices of the United African American Ministerial Action Council (UAAMAC) in San Diego, I asked Ms. Alexander her viewpoint on the incarceration of men with a documented history of mental illness. She said that she felt it was a human rights violation, suggesting that these men should be given treatment at an alternative facility, other than prison, where the inherent conditions of prison might exacerbate the mental illness. That position seems to be embraced by the Education Director of the San Diego office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Anita Fisher.
Lest anyone gets the impression from reading Alexander’s book that she might be “soft on crime,” there may even be disagreement within her own household as she indicates that her husband Carter, a federal prosecutor, does not share her views about the criminal justice system, but his different world view has not, even for a moment, compromised his ability to support her. After all, it is his job to prosecute those that Alexander profiles in this book to the fullest extent of the law.
That might be the crux of the matter, for there has been widespread instances of prosecutorial misconduct in regard to blacks accused of crimes, which might explain to some extent the disparity between the aforementioned statistics of blacks and whites incarcerated. In a celebrated case in my hometown of Chicago, a former police detective (John Burge) was convicted recently of torturing many blacks into confessions, which landed them on death row. The current mayor of Chicago (Richard Daley) was the prosecutor on that, and many others of these cases involving the tortured confessions of blacks. Also, just recently, another black man (John Thompson) was released from prison and death row, after it was discovered that a prosecutor had hid evidence that would have exonerated him. The Supreme Court is currently reviewing a case of prosecutorial misconduct, which has resulted in numerous blacks being sent to prison.
Further in our interview in regard to affirmative action, which she repeatedly addresses in The New Jim Crow, I mentioned to her the findings of the “SCENDIS Report” which I had been a part of while a buyer at Cingular Wireless (AT&T) in Chicago. This report, commissioned by Cingular Wireless (AT&T) in 2001, had white management specifically stating: “Affirmative action will hurt the company.” This damning document and declaration was put under court seal due to its sensitivity, which was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago. (See Moore v. Cingular Wireless No. 06-1928).
In the context of Ms. Alexander being the former law clerk of Supreme Court Justice Blackmun, and her formerly directing Civil Rights Clinics at Stanford Law School as an associate professor, also as a lawyer who had litigated numerous class-action employment-discrimination cases, she respond to me that she was all for the aggressive pursuit of affirmativeaAction for remedial results, as she indicated that she had greatly benefitted from it in her education. Arguably, in the 7th Circuit maintaining the aforementioned “SCENDIS Report” under court seal, they see things differently, which harkens back to an earlier pronouncement made by the late Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney: “A black man has no rights a white man is bound to respect.”
Alexander sums up her book by stating: “Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and largely less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Alexander wanted this book, The New Jim Crow, to be the start of an honest and frank dialogue on race and the ramifications of mass incarceration. I believe that she has done just that in this book, which I highly recommend.
Dennis Moore is a member of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild. He has written for LifeAfter50 Magazine in Pasadena, California, and the Baja Times Newspaper in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. He is the President of Bethel A.M.E. Prison Ministry in San Diego, and a member of the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office Reentry Roundtable. Mr. Moore can be contacted at email@example.com.