- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
When the NBC television series Law & Order ended its twenty-year run in 2010, it left a lasting impact not simply on fictional police procedurals, but also on our real-life concepts of crime itself. Focusing almost exclusively on the violent criminals who only make up a minority of the incarcerated, the show and its numerous spinoffs depicted a criminal populace that evokes disgust instead of sympathy. Frequently casting criminals as pathological, the show bore little resemblance to the racializing of criminality that affects every part of the criminal justice system, including our mainstream discourse. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander focuses her attention on the system of mass incarceration that has disenfranchised millions of African Americans and Latinos and relegates them to second-class status even after they leave prison. The most valuable asset of Alexander’s brilliant, unsettling book is its accessibility, a term that typically sends out alarms that it is not as academically rigorous as other works. Such is not the case here. Alexander nimbly [End Page 466] uses the vast research she has done to great and persuasive effect without falling prey to excluding a mainstream audience in favor of a small and learned group. Alexander’s noticeably sparse use of Obama, who has been an organizing figure for those seeking to bridge the critical/popular divide with regard to race these days, positions him as both the potential realization of full democratic promise and the shield from efforts to dismantle institutional racism. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the mainstream’s obsession with the postracial against a disproportionate number of imprisoned minorities forms the center of Alexander’s book. While slavery and segregation required explicitly racist policies to maintain a separation of the races, the post-civil rights world has virtually abandoned race-specific laws, which has cloaked the rollback of civil-rights legislation and ideals. Alexander’s book looks beyond the rhetoric of colorblindness and exposes a systemic pattern: one that relies on an arbitrariness that easily falls victim to the stereotypes and preconceptions that continue to surround race and remain geared toward sustained white privilege and hegemonic order.
To many, the first chapter of Alexander’s book may not seem groundbreaking. Yet she provides the vital historical context and draws the clear parallels between the periods of slavery and segregation, the post-Civil War and civil rights moments. By tracing the country’s tradition of using the law to target blacks and privilege whites, Alexander situates the mass incarceration of African Americans as history repeating itself. In the intervening years of both Bacon’s Rebellion and Reconstruction, the fear of multiracial coalitions between African Americans and whites led to the exploitation of racial fears in the name of restoring order. Similarly, the multiracial coalitions that emerged during and shortly after the civil rights movement were stymied by the Reagan era’s recovery of white privilege by initiating the War on Drugs before the crack epidemic arrived. In one of the most engrossing parts of the book, Alexander challenges us to consider the racial undertones of Reagan’s unprovoked and, according to Alexander, unsuccessful war that centered almost exclusively on African Americans.
If the first chapter lays out the what, the second chapter begins the process of providing the how. Alexander’s second chapter disarms us by challenging the inequities of the criminal justice system on legal grounds alone. Her exploration of the erosion of the Fourth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments dismantles the legal justifications given for these blatant misuses of power. In particular, the book returns to the erosion of the Fourth Amendment and the use of “pretext stops” and “consent searches.” The virtually unlimited invasion of that has not only upended one of the fundamental tenets of American democratic identity but has also played a key role in the contemporary practicing of racial profiling, police harassment, and recent state immigration policy. The third chapter, then, stands as the book’s seminal effort, as...