Sometimes, a book is just the thing: a clear explanation running several hundred pages, written by an expert, vetted by other experts, building a powerful case to its logical conclusion. Several years ago, an associate professor at The Ohio State University wrote a book, a history, a manifesto based upon a dangerous idea. Her name is Michelle Alexander and her book, republished a year or so ago with a new forward by Cornel West, is entitled The New Jim Crow. The subtitle just begins to suggest the storyline: “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
Often, when I read a nonfiction book, I dog-ear the parts I want to remember. I’ve dog-eared a third of this book. Here’s part of a dog-eared page, written by an American Bar Association task force and quoted by the author:
[The] offender may be sentences to a term of probation, community service and court costs. Unbeknownst to this offender, and perhaps, any other actor in the sentencing process, as a result of his conviction, he may be ineligible for many federally-funded health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, and federal educational assistance. His driver’s license may be automatically suspended, and he may no longer qualify for certain employment and professional licenses. If he is convicted of another crime, he may be subject to imprisonment as a repeat offender. He will not be permitted to enlist in the military, or possess a firearm, or obtain a federal security clearance. If a citizen, he may lose the right to vote; if not [a citizen], he may become immediately deportable.”
On the surface, this may sound like get-tough-on-crime, perhaps stronger than some would like it to be, maybe not so surprising.
…the system of incarceration operates with stunning efficiency to sweep people of color off the streets, lock them in cages, and then release them into an inferior second-class status.”
For the most part, she explains, incarceration is not due to violent crimes. Instead, mostly, incarceration is due to relatively small amounts of drugs, often found as a result of policies, rules, laws, and Supreme Court judgments that encourage law enforcement to focus their attention on minority (most often, Black) people, even though drug sales and drug use tend to be about equal among all racial and ethnic groups.
It’s one thing to understand the problem as a social issue. It’s another when you “Imagine you are Erma Faye Stewart, a thirty-one year old, single African American mother of two who was arrested as part of a drug sweep in Hearne, Texas. All but one of the people arrested were African American. After a week in jail, you have no one to care for your two small children and are eager to get home. Your court-appointed attorney urges you to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge, saying the prosecutor has offered probation. You refuse, steadfastly proclaiming your innocence. Finally, after almost a month in jail, you decide to plead guilty so you can return home to your children. Unwilling to risk a trial and years of imprisonment, you are sentenced to ten years probation order ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, as well as court and probation costs. You are now also branded a drug felon. You are no eligible for food stamps; you may be discriminated against in employment; you cannot vote for at least twelve years; and you are about to be evicted from public housing. Once homeless, your children will be taken from you and put in foster care.”
Turns out, the entire sweep was based upon a lie. Eventually, a judge dismissed all cases against the defendants–except those who pled guilty. “You, however, are still a drug felon, homeless, and desperate to regain custody of your children.”
Sure, we see stories like these all the time, mostly on TV, sometimes in the movies, but their truth, and the reasons behind their truth, are disturbing because we (all of us, that is) must face one of two nasty realities:
(1) We are comfortable with the system that we our society has in place, even though it is often severe and places a very high percentage of Black citizens into the system; or
(2) We are comfortable with the system because American continues to support a racial divide with unequal rights, and severe lifetime punishment for a large number of people who live in the United States.
I suppose most people are only vaguely aware of the issue–that was my excuse–but this book removes that defense. The legal system is ferociously complicated. We must be fair but we must also be safe. You know the arguments, but that’s not much of a starting place to make things right.
One positive step is to bring this important topic to a study group. There is a free study guide available for groups willing to engage. Details below:
Drawing from and expanding on the themes of Michelle Alexander’s acclaimed best-seller, The New Jim Crow, this in-depth guide provides a launching pad for groups wishing to engage in deep, meaningful dialogue about race, racism, and structural inequality in the age of mass incarceration. The Study Guide and Call to Action spans the entirety of The New Jim Crow, engaging the critical questions of how we managed to create, nearly overnight, a penal system unprecedented in world history, and how that system actually functions — as opposed to the way it is advertised. This important new resource also challenges us to search for and admit the truth about ourselves, our own biases, stereotypes, and misconceptions, and the many ways in which we might actually be part of the problem.
This is one of several video recordings of Dr. Alexander’s speeches. This one was delivered at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. You can find others on this page.