Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D
Professor of Sociology
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York: The New Press, 2010, 2011, pp. 312, $19.95, Paperback.
The long history of African Americans in the United States since President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to end chattel slavery in 1865, is that of living a life of excruciating, oppression, emotional torture and uncertainty the likes of which ought to devastate them and usurp their souls. Just after 1865 during Reconstruction, African Americans experienced brief periods of hope of freedom, euphoric potential for genuine emancipation, and finally achieving equality and dignity as human beings as proselytized in the preamble of that great document called the American Constitution. Then there was what should have been the predictable backlash from the white dominant group that quickly created the Jim Crow laws which were accompanied with absolute continuous terror and degradation of African Americans. So the oppression and discrimination went on until the 1954 Supreme Court decision known Brown vs. the Board of Education. The decision declared that racially separate schools between blacks and whites were not only wrong to be separate but they were not equal.
School Integration and Civil Rights Movement
The enforcement of school integration gave African Americans hope momentarily that they could finally get a decent education. There was hope that racially integrating schools may slowly eliminate racial hostility, prejudice, and discrimination of whites against blacks. The vast majority of whites resisted racial integration some violently. The biggest hope of freedom and racial equality for African American was the aftermath of the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In the 1970s there was some potential for racial progress as African Americans, women, and other minorities made some gains in upward social mobility Then the 1980s started the era of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration or imprisonment of African Americans.
In the introductory chapter, the author explains how she painfully came to the conclusion that a New Jim Crow existed in the form of mass incarceration of African Americans. Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” does an excellent job in the 6 chapters to first briefly but systematically describe how the enslavement of Africans started. She explains how plantation slave owning whites created an alliance with poor whites against the black slaves. In the first chapter she addresses “The Rebirth of Caste” with subheadings such as the “The Birth of Slavery”, “The Death of Slavery”, ending the chapter with “The Birth of Mass incarceration”. In Chapters 2 and 3, she addresses what might be the heart of the book: how the Reagan administration started the War and Drugs, how the Justice System and the myth of the color blind Justice System, harsh drug laws, the role of the media, the political system, and legislation in Congress, policing, prisons, and parole: all worked in tandem in the drive toward the massive incarceration or imprisonment of African Americans. Discussing racial disparity of incarceration, Alexanders says:
Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino. ….There is, of course, an official explanation for all of this: crime rates. This explanation has tremendous appeal – before you know the facts — for it is consistent with, and reinforces, the dominant racial narratives about crime and criminality dating back to slavery.” (p. 99)
Chapters 4 and 5 are probably the most disturbing as the author in Chapter 4 under the title “The Cruel Hand” discusses parallels in the African Americans between post Reconstruction Jim Crow racial victimization and now the devastating consequences of the miserable life of suffering African Americans lead after they get out of prison. Discussing what Fredrick Douglass at the National Colored convention of freed slaves said in 1853, Alexander says:
“Blacks were finally free from the formal control of their owners, but they were not full citizens – they could not vote, they were subject to legal discrimination, and at any moment, Southern owners could capture them on the street and whisk them to slavery.” (p. 141)
Alexander then makes the connection to the present day African Americans in the era of mass incarceration: “Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or black person living “free” in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow”. (p. 141)
The New Jim Crow
Chapter 5 describes “The New Jim Crow” under such subheadings as “States of Denial”, “How it Works”, “Political Disenfranchisement,” “Exclusion from Juries’, “Black Support for “get tough” policies. Chapter 6 has surprising conclusions and recommendations looking forward. The main point she makes is that finding solutions to the mass incarceration of African Americans is not going to be simple. According to Williams (2007), in 2005 an estimated 2.2 million men and women were incarcerated or imprisoned in the Unites States. Of these imprisoned people, 547,200 were African-American males representing 40% of those imprisoned, while whites were 35% and Hispanics 20%. While African Americans constituted only 12.7% of the population according to the government census in 2005. “Moreover, African American males aged 25 to 29 years had the highest incarceration rate when compared with other racial and ethnic groups. In 2005, 8.1% of African American males in this age group were incarcerated compared with 2.6% Hispanic and 1.1% whites.(Harrison & Beck, 2006)” (Williams, 2007:255)
The high levels of incarceration of African American males is an unprecedented complex problem that will require radical comprehensive solutions over a long period of time as there are so many parts to the difficult problem. This quote probably best encapsulates the serious problem:
“Although it is common to think of poverty and joblessness as leading to crime and imprisonment, this research suggests that the War on Drugs is the major cause of poverty, chronic unemployment, broken families, and crime to day…….imprisonment has reached such extreme levels in many urban communities that a prison sentence and/or a felon label poses a much greater threat to urban families than crime itself.” (Alexander, 2011:p. 237)
This reviewer came to an alarming and pessimistic conclusion after the reading the book. All the while living under the invisible heavy chains and dark shadow of the American racial caste system, the white dominant group continuously creates reasons to ideologically justify the racial oppression directed at African Americans at every turn in the life of America since emancipation in 1865. This cycle will never end so long the racial caste system directed at African Americans is structured into and deeply embedded in the American society’s DNA. This makes the author predict that as judicial reforms are widely being discussed now, the nervous white majority will find another justifiable means of keeping African-American oppressed: who would have predicted the Drug War and the mass incarceration of African Americans? One can only wonder, “What will be next in systemtic and predictable mass discrimination and oppression of African Americans in America?”
- Natasha Williams, “Prison Health and the Health of the Public: Ties That Bind,” in Anna Leon-Guerrero and Kristine Zentgraf (Eds), Contemporary Readings in Social Problems, Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press, 2009.