The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

I can’t finish this book.  It’s too heartbreaking.  I’ll take it back to the library and in a month or two I’ll check it out again.  I’ve been known to do that, once with a book called The Worst Hard Times, by Timothy Egan.  Set in the panhandle of Texas and Oklahoma in the 1930s, Egan describes the horror of the ten-thousand-foot-high dust storms that swept across the land.  People  tried to survive by eating cactus, tumbleweed, and yucca roots.  Children died of pneumonia, brought on by the dust they inhaled.  The stomachs of dead animals  were found to be packed with dirt.  Rabbits who nibbled on crops were rounded up and clubbed to death.  I returned the book to the library, knowing I’d have to check it out again, finish the story.

The New Jim Crow is, in a way, nearly as bad.  Alexander, civil rights advocate, litigator, and commentator for CNN, MSNBC, and NPR,  tells the story of Candidate Bill Clinton, flying home to Arkansas “to oversee the execution of … 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…”

What kind of society we have become, I wondered.

Was Ronald Reagan really using code words when he talked about welfare queens and states rights?  Was the war on drugs, as it was implemented, really an attempt to imprison as many young black men as possible, to deprive the black population of the civil rights they had fought so hard to win?  I was skeptical, but I read on.

I learned that a black man can be singled out because a policeman doesn’t like his haircut or his clothing or the way he walks.  That all a police officer has to do in order to conduct a baseless drug investigation is ask to get the ‘consent’ of the person they want to search.

The Supreme Court has, according to Alexander, systematically issued decisions that have eviscerated the black population in America, causing them to be imprisoned at a rate far out of proportion of the crimes they have committed, and made it nearly impossible for a black man to come out of prison and remain free.

If a man is a convicted felon,  and he serves his time, if his family lives in public housing, he cannot go home.  If he does, they can all be evicted, thrown into the streets.  He is obligated to find “gainful employment,” but how is he to do that when he has no place to live, no transportation, no money, and every job application has a box that he must check telling the prospective employer that he is a convicted felon.  The employer is entirely within his rights to refuse to hire him because he is a convicted felon.

“For nearly three decades,” Alexander asserts, “news stories regarding virtually all street crime have disproportionately featured African American offenders.  One study suggests that the standard news ‘script’ is so prevalent and so thoroughly racialized that viewers imagine a black perpetrator even when none exists.  In that study, 60 percent of viewers who saw a story with no image falsely recalled seeing one, and 70 percent… believed the perpetrator to be African American.”

It’s perfectly legal for public housing authorities “to reject applicants simply on the basis of arrests, regardless of whether they result in convictions or fines.”  And further, “public housing tenants can be evicted regardless of whether they had knowledge of or participated in alleged criminal activity.”  William Lee and Barbara Hill were evicted after their grandson was charged with smoking marijuana in a nearby parking lot.  Herman Walker was evicted after police found cocaine on his caregiver.  Perlie Rucker was evicted after her daughter was arrested for possession of cocaine a few blocks from her home.

Police departments all over America benefit financially by laws that allow them to seize properties involved in drug raids.  Yet these same laws are almost never applied to white people.  Racism has become codified in our laws.  It permeates our legal system.

I ask again:  what kind of country have we become?

One Response to The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

  1. Chris Svitek May 19, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

    I suspect it isn’t what we’ve become but what we’ve always been. Were there any dark skinned people on the Mayflower? Weren’t most dark skinned people brought here against their will to work for the white folks? And what about the things we did to the Native Americans?

    I think the WAY racism exists is very different today. But I’m not sure it’s an indictment on our current times. I hope not anyway.

    What hope I hold on to rests on the individual. The people who have and will helped out their fellow American, regardless of race. If I think globally or even nationally about “institutionalized racism”, I wouldn’t leave my home.

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