by Michelle Alexander (The New Press 2010; ISBN 978-1-59558-103-7)
This book is a shocking exposé of institutionalized racism in America. Alexander’s basic premise is that when slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy, it was replaced by Jim Crow (legal discrimination against people of color, primarily in the South); when Jim Crow was ended by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, it was replaced by the mass incarceration of African American and Latino people that we have today, due in large part to the War on Drugs begun under President Reagan but intensified by President Clinton and others–everyone wants to be seen as being “tough on crime”. As a result of mandatory sentencing laws, a very large proportion of African American adults (males in particular) are either in prison or are trying to reintegrate into a society that shuns them due to their status as felons. Their debt to society is eternal, as is their punishment. (White drug offenders typically manage to avoid incarceration.)
According to Alexander, all three cases–slavery, segregation, and incarceration–are instances of racial caste. She writes, “In this age of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. 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 arguably 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.” (p. 2)
Alexander makes a convincing case for her thesis (backed up by 30 pages of notes and citations). I felt that she could have made the case in fewer words; there is much repetition. In the six years since its publication, I have both heard and read about the scandal of mass incarceration in the U.S.; I wonder if this book played any role in that. In fact, just a few weeks ago there was a piece on 60 Minutes about German prisons, which are like a paradise compared to U.S. prisons. So we in America are beginning to rethink the system, because it doesn’t work to rehabilitate criminals. On the contrary, it works to cycle criminals in and out of prison, since once they are released they find themselves legally discriminated against in housing, employment, and education, and they often lose their right to serve on a jury or vote, yet we somehow expect them to function in society. When they turn to crime again (because it is often the only avenue open to them), we blame them, and re-incarcerate them.
What I never realized, however, is that our prison system, and the fact that so many poor African American men are in prison, is no accident, and it is not because black people use or sell more drugs than white people do but because the police and the courts deal with white crime differently. Following the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment (protection against unreasonable searches and seizures) and the militarization of the police, police forces around the country target poor African American communities with drug busts, SWAT teams and arrests. And the fact that some whites are incarcerated and some blacks are wildly successful (think: Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleeza Rice…) only serves to maintain the fiction that those who are incarcerated deserve their fate because they have chosen to break the law–they are not incarcerated because of their race. The fact that 90 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes are African American seems unfortunate but does not raise a red flag in our “colorblind” era.
Alexander points out in her final chapter that reforming the American criminal justice system is a huge challenge which cannot be overcome unless we end the War on Drugs and cast off the “colorblindness” we have adopted in the post-Jim Crow era.
This book is a must-read by all Americans.