Book Review: The New Jim Crow

Figure 1A: The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander's first book.

Figure 1A: The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s first book.

Initially, I did not believe this was going to be a good book at all. Most texts that treated the topic of incarceration in the United States never dealt with the racial dimension and also how this was used to continue slavery.

When I noticed that the author had made these connections and more, I immediately made this book part of my library. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is like aiming a cannon at a crowd of people at a concert. Someone will get hit and get the message while most scatter, try to get out of the way or get nailed with shrapnel. I was pleasantly surprised when through research I came to know that this book was a bestseller. This means that many people have read the said text, not just literary critics.

The New Jim Crow cuts a strong image, beginning with a discussion on slavery and its’ long lasting impact. Slavery ends and the Reconstruction Era begins, which is met with hatred and fear by whites in the South (the US) who witness the rise of entrepreneurship among the former slaves. The author, Michelle Alexander, to her incredible credit, makes the stunning assertion that black is not a race but a construct that was created, much the same way that white is a construct that was created, which she follows up with a quote from Lerone Bennett, Jr.

She then goes on to explain how these constructs were used to create the segregationist policies that were later named Jim Crow, which was a character from a minstrel show. This followed on from the false assertion made by Abraham Lincoln regarding the freeing of the slaves which was nothing more than a restructure. This restructure came in the very amendments to the US Constitution.

It was made possible to continue to system of slavery and Jim Crow, but using the model of prison. One who should read the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments and then take a look at the prison system will understand the shift. To make the reader’s eyes burn, Alexander quoted the example of a man who was in prison, his father was in prison, then his grandfather was a slave. This shocking family tree of servitude helps to lay the groundwork that the author builds on for the rest of the book.

Michelle Alexander ties together slavery, Jim Crow and the prison system by also critically examining the judicial system’s attitudes to black drug crime, sentencing guide lines and stop and search policies. The shift from the War on Drugs to the War on Gangs is put under the microscope to show that the attitude of getting tough on drugs and crime is subliminally race based and caters to a certain thinking which makes it possible to not have to discuss race while at the same time continuing policies centered around it.

From start to finish, The New Jim Crow is balanced with evidences, anecdotal remarks and rhetorical flourish that demonstrates the brilliance of the writer. Not just a condemnation of racism that continues perniciously into the 21st century of the Gregorian calendar, Alexander even holds to the fire the feet of the Civil Rights groups who she chastens for failing to connect the dots, put the pieces together and rightly target the real challenges facing minorities in the United States.

The accepted narrative of Civil Rights action has been focused on those who acknowledge and accept the legitimacy of the system but require further upward mobility. This includes the beginning of the Alabama boycotts. Rather than use the first two black women who refused to vacate their seats to someone white (the first was Claudette Colvin , a 16 year old who had given birth to a child out of wedlock with an older man while the second was Mary Louise Smith, whose father was rumoured to be an alcoholic and to boot both were dark skinned), a mulatto who was in complete agreement with the system and minty fresh from any other disobedience to the wider white society was selected (Rosa Parks).

This process continues today with the Civil Rights organisations refusing to look at cases of felons who are being mistreated in the system. This is due to the fact that they are wearing an invisible brand, brand which are not physical but legal. Alexander tantalisingly touched on the topic of legal versus physical brands without going into more detail, leaving the reader with a palate waiting for more. I understand why she did not go further into it as this might take the book further away from its’ intended wider audience and focus more on legal jargon. Further to this, the topic of legal brands was already intimated in the text without need for more detailed discussion.

The point about the Civil Rights movement choosing in most instances lighter skinned advocates with more angular, white features really made me sit up and take notice. The book ends with a call to seriously challenge the structure in place in the United States from the most fundamental level, to the point that perhaps prisons should be eliminated, from both discussion as a punishment and also as a physical institution altogether.

I wonder if she is preparing a more expanded version in light of all the new developments, with police being videotaped killing prisoners and schoolchildren in a way that had never been done before in the United States. I look forward to any further treatment of the subject that she might offer.


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