The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A little bit of honesty here:
This is an extremely important book that too few people will read.
Because it tackles the systemic institutional racism issue and breaks down all the many aspects that turn it into a full-blown machine.
"Wait. Huh? Why wouldn't people want to have that?"
Because it's understandably complicated and people are afraid of complicated.
But this does not mean it shouldn't be read. Indeed, I think everyone should read it and understand it.
I've personally been reading about things like this for ages. Bits and pieces. Never the whole picture. And this one ISN'T the whole picture because no short-ish book can tackle it all. But this one DOES tackle a rather large portion of it.
I won't be able to mention them all here, but I'll do some:
Alexander brings up the historical aspect in brief and specifically how, during the race riots 50-60 years ago the whole idea of even mentioning race became a taboo subject. I think this is very important. If racism is at all to have a future, it must be couched in innocuous terms, and deniable policies or the "obviousness" of it would get all kinds of human rights violations thrown at them. The whole point was to create a new system where they could create a permanent underclass while avoiding racial terms while ALSO making it mostly about race.
Solution? Make a drug war. Ignore the fact that drug-related offenses were going down. Find something everyone can unilaterally agree upon during the '80s, hype it up WAY out of proportion to the actual problem, and turn it into a class/race specific issue without directly calling it a race thing.
The author backs up everything with all kinds of proof, easily verified with 20/20 hindsight, but the vast majority of drug users were white. Crack cocaine was only as addictive as regular cocaine. Alcohol abuse is MUCH worse than cocaine, crack, or especially marijuana, but since crack was actually unloaded upon black communities SPECIFICALLY, shortly after America's involvement in the drug cartels in the '80s, it was fair game to focus almost ALL attention on crack, and specifically, the horrendously pervasive narratives about its danger.
Anyone alive during the time will remember a deluge of ads, focus groups, MILITARY HARDWARE being gifted to police departments everywhere, and new laws that specifically allowed the seizure of property, homes, and vehicles on only SUSPECTED drug use.
Think about it. If someone calls a tip line saying you're up to no good, and you're black, this is all they need to blast down your door, freeze your bank accounts and take all your property. This is not PROOF of wrongdoing. And guess who gets the property? The cops are allowed to keep it all to fund the war on drugs directly.
Add to this that racial profiling is VERY much a proven thing and that it is pervasive, with sometimes more than 4 times as many blacks getting subjected to this and most of them too poor to buy off the racket, it means widespread poverty with no recourse.
And then we get to the good stuff. The prison system. Since the '80s, the prison system grew to an unimaginable size with MOST of the people in jail being black men. Why? Because most of them are there because of draconian laws on drug possession. Even though alcohol is objectively worse across the board, it is relatively light and is almost always focused on treating the problem. In other countries, sentences are described in terms of months, not a minimum of 5 years for possession. And yet, the whole IDEA of being TOUGH ON CRIME seems too GOOD to be TRUE, right? Well, yeah. It IS too good to be true.
The collateral damage is pervasive. Already poor people who have suffered "soft" segregation and housing issues are villainized further with all the same arguments made by plantation owners against their slaves. The forward-looking politicians of either side embraced these narratives equally. On the surface, it FEELS right. And that's the point. Let's not look at the conditions that keep an entire people in fear of losing everything, let's blame the ones who already have practically nothing for being angry that they have practically nothing. And then wonder why they're upset.
Oh! Let's send in more cops to clean up the streets! (Meanwhile more folk lose their houses whether or not they're actually guilty of anything. Take the case of the grandparents who lose their house because a grandchild was caught smoking crack two blocks away. Multiply truly egregious cases like that by thousands, and you might get a better idea.)
And then we come to one of the worst aspects of all this. Post-incarceration.
We all know that felons are massively discriminated against. It's almost like it's a law. Denied jobs, denied schooling, denied housing, denied hope. It's a perpetual system of punishment going on far, far longer than a prison sentence. Basically, the feeling goes, if you do the time, it'll be permanent. Permanent underclass.
So let's look at the judicial system a bit. Most cop dramas are pure narrative. And what I mean by that is that they are NOT accurately portraying the system we have. If a poor person gets a lawyer (and predominately, those arrested are black) they are generally always pressured to plea bargain. This means that whether they actually INNOCENT or not, they're pressured to do the time because the free lawyers are extremely overworked and don't have the time to do anything else with an overburdened system designed to target blacks. Again, the author does her homework and because there are so many obvious cases like this, it's become something of a dark joke.
What isn't clear to most people put into this position is this: once you're branded a felon, you stay one for the rest of your living life.
Most get their driver's licenses revoked. Their right to vote is revoked. Many of these aspects are done in such a way as to be a "soft" prevention, such as needing to pay, in perpetuity, legal fees, probation fees, even whopping $750 fines to just be allowed the right to vote again. When 100% of your paycheck can be garnished to pay for the legal costs (and many, many incidentals) after your getting out of prison, you are permanently locked into a no-win situation with no way out.
Now, combine this with tough on crime laws that target blacks WAY more than anyone else, who pull you over for minor traffic violations and then rifle through your vehicles, maybe finding a dime bag of marijuana, getting arrested, put through the plea-bargain machine, do several years, and then been way below the fact of poverty and be turned away ANYWHERE you go afterward... because you smoked marijuana while being black.
All of this is compounded as a huge social issue happening to millions and millions of people all the time. At one point, the prisons were 40% filled on drug possession charges. And afterward, after the meat-grinder of the justice system is done with you, all your prospects for a decent life dry up.
No, of course not, we don't call this racism now. It's NOT about race. It's about being tough on crime. In a perpetual punitive system that just HAPPENS to focus on mostly black people.
The whites who tend to USE the drugs more is just a weird fact. For all those whites that go to jail under the same rules, it's considered collateral damage. But since the ones that are hurt the most are the ones who are already poor, too, it doesn't really matter. Right? Because, if they could have afforded a good lawyer in the first place, they would have FOUGHT this travesty from the first arrest.
Note that rich drug kingpins and rich people, in general, tend to get out of the penal system. The war on crime doesn't care about getting the drugs off the street. They're too busy making sure that informants keep the seizure machine well oiled, fully funded, and that means making sure that the targets of these attacks are never organized, always politically in-fighting, and physically hurting themselves. It's also classic psychological warfare.
So yes, I don't go into everything that's in this book, but the primary points are here in this review.
I absolutely recommend reading the actual book for a much more detailed analysis. It's not really enough just to know about individual aspects of these problems.
We must see the whole forest, too, and not just the trees.
I *especially* recommend this book if you want to know the fundamental reason why "Defund the Police" is trending. Bazookas? REALLY? IS THIS WHAT WE REALLY NEED?
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