Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
By Michelle Alexander
There are some books so good, so coherent and persuasive, and so morally urgent, that I don’t really feel comfortable reviewing them. They speak better for themselves than I ever could, and I am tempted, in these cases, to simply quote them at length, to put their most powerful passages forward verbatim and stand next to them, with humility.
‘The New Jim Crow‘ is that kind of book. There is absolutely nothing I can write about this book that will be more effective, or affecting, than something like this:
‘…it is nearly impossible to imagine anything remotely similar to mass incarceration happening to young white men. Can we envision a system that would enforce drug laws almost exclusively among young white men and largely ignore drug crime among young black men? Can we imagine large majorities of young white men being rounded up for minor drug offenses, placed under the control of the criminal justice system, labeled felons, and then subjected to a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion? Can we imagine this happening while most black men landed decent jobs or trotted off to college? No, we cannot. If such a thing occurred, “it would occasion a most profound reflection about what had gone wrong, not only with THEM, but with US.” It would never be dismissed with the thought that white men were simply reaping what they have sown.’ (p. 205)
‘The profile [the drug-courier profile used by law enforcement during drug sweeps] can include traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs, driving with out-of-state license plates, driving a rental car, driving with “mismatched occupants”, acting too calm, acting too nervous, dressing casually, wearing expensive clothing or jewelry, being one of the first to deplane, being one of the last to deplane, deplaning in the middle, paying for a ticket in cash, using large-denomination currency, using small-denomination currency, traveling alone, traveling with a companion, and so on.’ (p. 71)
‘Examples of preconviction service fees imposed throughout the United States today include jail book-in fees levied at the time of arrest, jail per diems assessed to cover the cost of pre-trial detention, public defender application fees charged when someone applies for court-appointed counsel, and the bail investigation fee imposed when the court determines the likelihood of the accused appearing at trial. Postconviction fees include pre-sentence report fees, public defender recoupment fees, and fees levied on convicted persons placed in a residential or work-release program. Upon release, even more fees may attach, including parole or probation service fees…Failure to pay may warrant additional community control sanctions or a modification in the offender’s sentence.’ (p. 155)
‘This means, for example, that a woman who knew that her husband occasionally smoked pot could have her car forfeited to the government because she allowed him to use her car. Because the “car” was guilty of transporting someone who had broken a drug law at some time, she could legally lose her only form of transportation, even though she herself committed no crime…Courts have not been forgiving of women in these circumstances, frequently concluding that “the nature and circumstances of the marital relationship may give rise to an inference of knowledge by the spouse claiming innocent ownership.” (p. 82)
“More African American adults are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.’ (p. 180)
I could go on all day – my copy of ‘The New Jim Crow‘ bristles with sticky notes. These passages give some small sense of the overall effect of this book: one of slow, suffocating injustice, a smothering and pervasive evil, the feeling that you are standing at the foot of a sheer and dizzying cliff, unclimbable and inescapable. It is vertiginous and overwhelming.
It is difficult to recommend books which you know are going to be unpleasant for people to read. It’s pedantic; you are essentially saying, ‘You ought to read this. This is information that you do not possess and need to. It’s won’t be fun, but it will be good for you.’ You are an adult telling another adult to eat their vegetables – it’s patronizing, and so I try not to do it very often.
And, in truth, there are very few books which I feel that all adults ought to read, as a moral matter. I suppose that I don’t even think that all adults ought to read ‘The New Jim Crow‘, but I definitely think that all American adults ought to. And I am confident that not a single one of them will ‘enjoy’ reading it; nevertheless, I believe that it contains information which it is morally and civically urgent that voting American adults possess.
The basic thesis of ‘The New Jim Crow‘ is: that the War on Drugs in the United States of America is a system of racial oppression, conceived and understood as such by its architects, that it is enforced in a highly discriminatory fashion against racial minorities, and has had the effect of creating and maintaining a racial underclass in this country.
Alexander’s logic is presented beautifully. Her language is clear and unadorned. Her argument is well-structured and well-sourced. It is neither understated nor exaggerated. She marshals an enormous amount of supporting information. She is meticulous, and since every stage of her reasoning is credible, she is therefore wholly persuasive. Her verdicts feel inescapable.
All of which make this book hard to read. Her conclusion, the reality she describes, is catastrophic: painful and enraging and grim. But what I most deeply want to communicate is that it is painful because it is true. I believe her. Her argument is sound; her evidence is crushing.
There are a lot of reasons why you might not want to read this book. You might not want to sift through a lot of terrible evidence in order to reach a devastating truth. You might reject her argument out of hand, might not wish to subject yourself to more liberal, America-hating, race-baiting, special pleading. You might just want to read some beach fiction instead. To these objections, I will say this:
We do not have the right to excuse ourselves from true information simply because it is unpleasant to consume. And we certainly don’t have the right to avoid evidence because we do not wish it to be true. I think we have an obligation to see the world as it is, even if it does not flatter us, or accord with our world view. And we have no right to reject arguments we have not heard. You may disagree with Alexander at the end of her book, but you may not disagree with her before, not with any integrity.
That’s why I read this book. ‘The New Jim Crow‘ doesn’t show me a version of my country that I like, but that doesn’t make it a bad book, and it certainly doesn’t make it wrong. And it wasn’t fun, but it was magnificent, and it was important, and I think it was true. And that is all the justification it needs.