Thursday, December 16, 2010

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The New Jim Crow book jacketIf this important and powerful book were a car, it would have the bumpersticker that says "IF YOU'RE NOT OUTRAGED, YOU'RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION."

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2009), Michelle Alexander describes War on Drugs juggernaut that has filled our prisons, mostly with people of color.

The statistics are staggering. In the last 30 years, the U.S. prison population went from about 300,000 to more than 2 million. Although President Reagan was the President who declared the War on Drugs (with the concomitant political and media rhetoric about the "scourge of crack"), the greatest increase in incarceration rates was during the Clinton Administration.

Is this a racial problem just because African Americans are more involved in drugs? No. Alexander cites study after study indicating that the percentage of people who use illegal drugs is about the same in all racial groups. Since drug users tend to get their drugs from dealers of the same race, there are plenty of white dealers. White teenagers are even a little more likely than black teenagers to deal drugs. Emergency room statistics show more whites than blacks with overdoses.

So why are most of the people in prison for drug use black? Alexander exposes the myriad ways the system works against them -- for example, law enforcement stopping people based on race, raiding black neighborhoods, and relying on informants who only know people of their own race; prosecutors exercising their discretion to "load up" charges to get plea bargains; inadequate public defender services; and mandatory minimum sentences and three strikes rules creating incredibly long sentences.

The damage lasts well beyond the prison term. Alexander devotes a chapter to all the ways that a felony record (even for possession of a few ounces of marijuana) can constrain a person's life: employment, housing, voting.

Alexander was at the law school last spring. In the law school's multimedia gallery, you can find a transcript of her presentation, as well as video and audio recordings.

The publisher's page about the book is here. The library's copy is at HV9950 .A437 2010 at Classified Stacks. (It's checked out as of this writing, but won't always be -- and it's available in other libraries, too.)

1 comment:

Nostromo said...

Nixon declared the War on Drugs, not Reagan. Check it out here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9252490