Saturday, March 11, 2017

The New Jim Crow

I recently finished The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.  It's one of the best books I've read in years.  The author has impeccable credentials and has done extensive research, which is fully cited in the book.  The basic idea is that the War on Drugs has been used as a system of oppression against people of color, particularly African Americans.  Although African Americans use drugs at similar rates to whites or society at large, they are much more likely to be arrested and get criminal records as a result of their drug use.  This has led to an explosion in the US prison population since the 1970s.  It has also broken up families, and made it much harder for people with records to re-integrate into mainstream society.  A criminal record opens the door to all kinds of legal discrimination, from denying people employment to denying them voting rights, to denying them public assistance, to denying them the right to serve on juries.  Remember, this denial of rights is targeted at African Americans.

Alexander puts this system of racial oppression in historical context with the other two major systems of racial oppression against African Americans in American history: slavery and Jim Crow (legalized segregation).  She tackles our tendency to think of ourselves as beyond race and as living in a colorblind society.  Although we have de-legitimized overt racism (thanks to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s) and individual black people have risen to new heights (e.g. President Obama), this doesn't mean we live in a post-racial society.  There are still massive disparities in our society in terms of who is poor, who is locked up, and who is locked out of the good life that have clear ties to race, if only we are willing to look.

One of the most powerful messages in the book is we need to be conscious of race, conscious of our history, conscious of the disparities that still exist and willing to care deeply about the plight of African Americans who are caught up in the War on Drugs.  We need money for jobs, health care, housing and education, not for incarcerating drug users who are only harming themselves.  Furthermore, we need these things with a full consciousness that our criminal justice system has targeted people based on race, based on conscious and unconscious biases.  We need to dismantle this system of racial oppression with a full awareness of the fact that this IS about race.  Otherwise, we leave ourselves vulnerable to a new system of racial oppression that we cannot foresee.

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