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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander
The New Press 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jonathan Taylor, 5/30/2012

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is a major work that definitively documents the racism inherent in the domestic application of the United States’ war on drugs. The historical comparison to the Jim Crow era of entrenched legal discrimination and the contemporary evidence of structural racism in all things police and prison-related are incontrovertible. Consider merely this one fact: black Americans are thirteen times more likely to be incarcerated in state facilities for drug crimes than whites, even though white rates of drug use are equal to or greater than black rates of drug use per capita.

It may seem to many observers that as a country we simply incarcerate everybody associated with drugs, forming a vast psychoactive gulag of drug war prisoners for no discernible purpose other than control, deterrence, and punishment, since rehabilitation is no longer even considered as an ingredient in penalization. Rising or near-constant use rates for many illegal substances indicate that the threat of incarceration is not a deterrent. Yet control and punishment, of a particularly inhumane kind, are still applied. Locking non-violent individuals into overcrowded, desperate conditions for the mere possession of controlled substances is barbaric in itself; but in case that isn’t enough, we also make sure that inmates are subjected to excessive violence and brutality by both each other and prison authorities. The sadistic treatment of prisoners is culturally tolerated and even implicitly sanctioned—note for example the public’s acceptance of popular cultural references to prison rape as a source of humor.

Perhaps underestimated in the public imagination, however, is to what degree a hugely disproportionate number of these prisoners are non-white. Drug use and even drug sales are tacitly accepted by law enforcement in richer, whiter areas, while being harshly cracked down upon in low-income black or Latino neighborhoods. Geographic disparities in police presence, arrests, and incarceration rates break down neatly along racial lines. Black men in inner cities are particularly singled out and scapegoated in the domestic drug war, just as poor, largely brown-skinned peasants in the global South are the primary targets of our international drug enforcement agencies. Everywhere the drug war is demarcated by race. This is statistically proven as Alexander explains; it can neither be dismissed as coincidence nor attributed to some intervening factor such as poverty, though of course the poor of all colors are targeted in the drug war and generally subject to harsh sentences at much higher rates than the wealthy.

The racialization of the drug war has devastating effects on an African American population already suffering from discrimination and economic deprivation. As Alexander demonstrates, the deck is stacked against black defendants every step of the way: from heightened police surveillance, to more frequent stops and searches and arrests, to a far higher rate of imprisonment. On average black men get ridiculously longer sentences, as well. Like other felons, once released, they face a lifetime of reduced rights—to vote, to get college loans, or to live in public housing, for example. As Alexander notes, “The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the Africa American community out of the mainstream society and economy” (p. 13), functioning more as a caste system than justice system. When African Americans have attempted to sue the justice system for these clear racial disparities the courts have thrown the cases out, entrenching racial discrimination firmly into the rule of law.

These are things we should all know, but I had personally never considered them in this light before reading Alexander’s stunning and authoritative work. In particular, the parallels between slavery, the Jim Crow system of racial discrimination, and the mass racialized incarcerations of today are clearly demonstrated. I found it impossible to view Alexander’s contentions and not be overwhelmed by the evidence in support of her general argument. The drug war was born from a “Southern strategy” of getting angry white voters to the Republican Party by targeting blacks using the code words of “crime” and “drugs.” In order for the fiction of black lawlessness and criminality to become successfully enshrined as fact, law enforcement, prosecutors, and politicians would have to intentionally target minorities while convincing the public that they were doing so because minorities exhibit a disproportionate rate of criminal behavior, including drug use. However, numerous studies demonstrate that this is clearly untrue. Nonetheless, this view was cultural embedded and remains naturalized today—Alexander cites a study demonstrating that most people imagine a black man when told to visualize a “junkie”. While obvious racism is less culturally sanctioned now than in the first era of Jim Crow, institutional forms of racism that disenfranchise black men in particular are still encouraged. Thus, the war on drugs.

Along with the racial elements, the drug war helps deny all of us, but in particular African Americans, basic constitutional freedoms. For example the Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure have been eviscerated by a “drug war exception” in which police can essentially search anyone at any time if they suspect drug possession. Starting in the Reagan era, the DEA has now trained more than 25,000 police officers in how to conduct these drug-fishing expeditions. Though local and state law enforcement were initially uninterested in federal pressure to divert their resources to the war on drugs, large cash grants and gifts of Pentagon weaponry, as well as the financial bonanza of asset forfeiture, helped many agencies change their minds. Once arrested, harsh mandatory minimums pressure defendants into accepting plea bargains, even when innocent. This is all the more so for poor minorities with no financial ability to hire legal representation. Upon release, strict rules for parolees mean that many are sent back to jail for what would normally be considered minor infractions or even circumstances that may be out of their control (failing to remain employed, for example). Of course getting (much less staying) employed is particularly difficult for individuals with felony records. Since a drug conviction is sufficient to bar felons from public housing, many who do survive parole end up living on the streets. Barred from any public assistance (including food stamps), these people constitute a new racialized caste of pariahs far below anyone else in our society besides those prisoners indefinitely detained at Guantanamo. In this way, the US is able to permanently subjugate a large segment of our population, excluding them from partaking in our culture, economy, and society.

Clearly the war on drugs is a war on marginalized forms of consciousnesses; so it has always been. But it is a race war, too. In light of the evidence marshaled by Alexander in this powerful book, the word “racist” should from now on be permanently attached as a prefix to the term “war on drugs”.

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