Review of “The New Jim Crow”

(one of a monthly series of columns written for the Iowa City Press-Citizen)

When did we become a nation that locked up its poor people of color?

One could argue that we’ve always done so, but in terms of recent history, there are eye-opening specifics. In 1972, 350,000 Americans were in jail. Today, the number is 2.3 million, a percentage greater than China or Iran. A large percentage of those are poor African-Americans, arrested on drug charges.

And for African-Americans, the criminal justice system serves as gateway into a larger system of permanent marginalization, a system rivaling the 19th century’s Jim Crow system of racial control. That’s the claim Michelle Alexander makes in her new book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

Jim Crow and mass incarceration had similar origins, Alexander, a lawyer and academic, writes – a desire among white elites to exploit resentments and racial biases of working class whites for political gain. African-Americans are no more likely to use or sell drugs than whites, but they’re made criminals at much higher rates for doing so.

It’s all tied to politics and the War on Drugs. In the mid-‘80s predominantly black inner city communities suffered economic collapse. Crack hit the inner city streets, easier to sell than cocaine. Reagan pushed for the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which laid out mandatory minimum sentences, and a more severe punishment for crack than cocaine. Prior to ‘86 the longest sentence for drug possession was one year.

Reagan convinced law enforcement the drug war should be a priority, and did so with cash, the so-called ‘Byrne grants.’ SWAT raids increased. (Alexander suggests black neighborhoods face practices that would provoke widespread outrage if committed in white, middle-class areas). Police departments were allowed to keep asset forfeitures, increasing the size of their budget. There was pressure to keep arrests up. Yet, defendants were typically denied proper representation, pressured to plea bargain, and often pled guilty to crimes they didn’t commit for fear of mandatory sentences. Most arrests are not for dealing, or for dangerous drugs – marijuana possession made up 80 percent of arrests in the ‘90s.

There’s also been a sharp change in the Supreme Court’s Fourth Amendment view on search and seizures. In short, it’s been changes in laws, not an increase in crime, that’s responsible for the growth of the prison system. And prisons are big business.

Once labeled a felon, convicts are “ushered into a universe of discrimination, stigma and exclusion”: no more voting and jury service, barred from public housing, discriminated against by private landlords, ineligible for food stamps, unable to find work, owing money to probation departments and courts. The human cost of this stigmatization is only now becoming clear. Facing overwhelming odds, many parolees end up back in prison.

“It’s no longer permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination…” Alexander writes. Instead, “we use the justice system to label people of color ‘criminals.’” By granting police discretion regarding whom to stop and search, conscious and unconscious racial beliefs are given free rein. And courts are closed to any claims that the system operates in a discriminatory fashion.

Failure to care lies at the core of this system of control. Rather than shaming and condemning an already deeply stigmatized group, Alexander writes, we could collectively embrace them, not their behavior, but their humanness. We could talk about race, not be color-blind. We could deal with structural racism through job creation, educational reform, and restorative justice programs.

We could, as Alexander summarizes, choose to be a nation that extends care and compassion to those who are locked up and locked out; we could treat them like one of ‘us.’

You can get your copy of "Curve of the World" at the following outlets: Direct from the publisher, Bottom Dog Press, or at Amazon.com