I doubt this will surprise many Greenies, but a new book links the drug war to racism and the days of Jim Crow segregation. Professor Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” has become a surprise best seller since its paperback version came out in January. Sales have totaled some 175,000 copies after an initial hardcover printing of a mere 3,000, according to the publisher, the New Press.
The book marshals pages of statistics and legal citations to argue that the get-tough approach to crime that began in the Nixon administration and intensified with Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs has devastated black America. Today, Professor Alexander writes, nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out. Professor Alexander’s book goes further, asserting that the crackdown was less a response to the actual explosion of violent crime than a deliberate effort to push back the gains of the civil rights movement.
The book is also galvanizing white readers, including some who might question its portrayal of the war on drugs as a continuation of race war by other means. “The book is helping white folks who otherwise would have simply dismissed that idea understand why so many people believe it,” said David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It is making them take that seriously.”
Professor Alexander, who is black, knew that African-Americans were overrepresented in prison, though she resisted the idea that this was anything more than unequal implementation of colorblind laws. But her work as director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California, she said, opened her eyes to the extent of the lifelong exclusion many offenders face, including job discrimination, elimination from juries and voter rolls, and even disqualification from food stamps, public housing and student loans. While this book is about the black community, the lifelong exclusion it deals with is colorblind. Everyone looses. America looses.
“Unlike in Jim Crow days, there were no ‘Whites Only’ signs. This system is out of sight, out of mind,” the Professor says. Whatever Professor Alexander’s account of the origins of mass incarceration, her overall depiction of its human costs is resonating even with people who disagree with her politics.
Rick Olson, a state representative in Michigan, was one of the few whites and few Republicans in the room when Professor Alexander gave a talk sponsored by the state’s black caucus in January. “I had never before connected the dots between the drug war, unequal enforcement, and how that reinforces poverty,” Representative Olson said. “I thought, ‘Gee whiz, let me get this book.’ ” Reading it, he said, inspired him to draft a bill decriminalizing the use and possession of marijuana.
To Professor Alexander, our criminal “caste system,” as she calls it, affects not just the 2.3 million people behind bars, but also the 4.8 million others on probation or parole (predominately for nonviolent offenses), to say nothing of the millions more whose criminal records stigmatize them for life.
HMJ hopes all Greenies will familiarize themselves with this interesting argument and add this to their arsenal of ideas about why we must help bring an end to the war on drugs. Image and the full story at The NY Times.
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