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The New Jim Crow

By Michelle Alexander

In New York, as in many cities around the country, it is not uncommon, upon leaving or entering a subway, to encounter one or more Black men either asking for money or asking for use of someone’s “unlimited” bus pass.  This happened to me the other night. It was around 12:00 am, and the temperature in the subway and outside was in the lower 20s.  The group of five men was larger than usual.  I remember thinking more than likely they were homeless, and could have been seeking a seat on a train to escape the bitter cold.  It was not the first time I had seen some variation of this.  However, this time, I saw it through different lenses because I had read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow.

In it she explains that scenes like this are part of a much larger and ugly global reality most of us see and don’t see. Somewhere in our collective consciousness, we know that something is wrong.  For example, we know something is wrong every time we pan across a group of high school graduates and notice the imbalance of Black male to female graduates. We see it again, when in any given college class, there may be five men to 20 women. We may remark about the absence of Black men from employment sites, churches and polling places, and the increase of their presence on the streets, begging.  At some point, we may also suspect that it is odd Black men are so frequently “patted down” in Black neighborhoods and carried off in “paddy wagons.”

However, Alexander points out what we see and don’t see is that the majority of Black men, particularly younger ones, are now on a virtual “lock down.”  Most are now segregated from mainstream society; in a complex legal framework she calls,The New Jim Crow—euphemistically referred to as the “War on Drugs.” Being incarcerated or having been, means they cannot get jobs, cannot vote, are not qualified for public housing, and cannot get public assistance, mostly due to prison labels that permanently assign them to the bottom of a racialized caste system.  It is a system not unlike the one Black people faced decades following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The statistics Alexander presents are startling.  In less than three decades, the number of incarcerated people has grown from 300,000 to two million (6). Drug offenses account for two thirds of this rise in federal prisons (59).  Those jailed for drug offenses rose from 41,100 in 1980 to half a million in 2000, an increase of 1,100 percent (59). Moreover, most of the people in state prisons have no history of violence or of significant selling of illegal drugs.  In fact, most of the imprisoned were caught with marijuana (59). However, amazingly, African Americans constitute only 15 percent of drug users in the United States (103), but are imprisoned for it more than 13 times higher than White men (98).  Whites comprise the largest number of illegal drug users in major cities. However, the percentage of African American men with criminal records related to drugs is as high as 80% (7).

For young African American men, the statistics are even more startling.  One in every 14 was behind bars in 2006 (98) and one in nine between the ages of 20-35 were imprisoned by that time. However, White students use cocaine seven times more frequently than Black students; use cocaine eight times the rate of Black students and heroin at seven times the rate of Black students. About the same percentage of Black and White high school students use marijuana (59), but the rates of imprisonment for Black people in general is more than 13 times higher than that of White people.

The book illustrates how the point of entry is racially profiled arrests, and a racialized criminal justice system determines the nature of the assigned offense, the quality of the defense provided, the length of incarceration and the quality of life upon release. Once given the prison label, Black men can no longer participate in society. They are “out of sight” and “out of mind,”  likely to return to prison in a never-ending cycle of recidivism, or not survive at all.  Moreover, Alexander found that they are not likely to get help from families and churches because their plight is hidden under an “eerie silence” of shame.

Alexander traces this current racialized caste system back to slavery and the “Jim Crow” era and explains how it has resurfaced in different forms throughout the history of African Americans in this country, becoming more and more difficult to dismantle as time passes.  She illustrates how a permanent dismantling of the current caste system supported by mass incarcerations can only be permanently dismantled by a mass movement.  This mass movement cannot ignore the role of race in mass incarcerations.  Moreover it cannot restrict itself to tactics used to achieve Civil Rights and Affirmative Action.  She calls for a paradigm shift in thinking supported by a mass movement led by the people most affected.

The SDPC Book Corner highly recommends this book for study in local churches, particularly by Social Justice and Prison Ministries.  It would be particularly useful in beginning conversations that eliminate the “eerie silence” Alexander mentions.  It is a silence within churches and families that if continued, makes it unlikely these men and their families can reflect and act together to address this current crisis.  The book can be ordered through the publisher, The New Press, in New York, or online through Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and other websites. The book also can be secured through the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.  This year Michelle Alexander was a featured presenter at the Proctor Conference.

Who Reviewed the Book

Dr. Colleen Birchett teaches English at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York.  She is the author of a series of thematic Bible Studies, Family Ties: Restoring Unity in the African American Family and editor of over ten books. Her books include Africans Who Shaped Our Faith, How I Got Over, Falling in Love with God, Biblical Strategies for a Community in Crisis When Black Men Stand Up for God and God’s Power to Help Hurting People. She is an alumn of Union Theological Seminary in New York and has earned a Ph.D. in Instructional Design from the University of Michigan.


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