|Guest of the week.
"Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control -- in prison or jail, on probation or parole" than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
The book is called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and you've probably seen some discussion about it (and the issues it raises) around these parts the past few years. Here's the about page from the booksite:
~NPR interview with author Michelle Alexander
The New Jim Crow is a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status"denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement. Since its publication in 2010, the book has been dubbed the "secular bible of a new social movement" by numerous commentators, including Cornel West, and has led to consciousness-raising efforts in universities, churches, community centers, re-entry centers and prisons nationwide. The New Jim Crow tells a truth our nation has been reluctant to face.
Lots of stuff -- review snippets (including one from Daily Kos), study guides, excerpt, a substantial "Take Action" page -- at NewJimCrow.com. And there are huge numbers of reviews & related articles out there on the net. Here's Kirkus:
As the United States celebrates its "triumph over race" with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of black men in major urban areas are under correctional control or saddled with criminal records for life. Jim Crow laws were wiped off the books decades ago, but today an extraordinary percentage of the African American community is warehoused in prisons or trapped in a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights" including the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. Today, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. Yet as civil rights lawyer-turned-legal scholar Michelle Alexander demonstrates, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against convicted criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once labeled a felon, even for a minor drug crime, the old forms of discrimination are suddenly legal again. In her words, "we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it."
Alexander shows that, by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.
The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community"and all of us"to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.
A civil-rights lawyer"s disturbing view of why young black men make up the majority of the more than two million people now in America"s prisons.
It was re-released in paperback in January (revised edition, with a forward by Cornel West) which is probably why it was written up in the NYTimes in March. Could also have been all those awards she's been picking up, too. Here's a taste of that NYTimes article:
In this explosive debut, Alexander (Law/Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity) argues that the imprisonment of unusually large numbers of young blacks and Latinos"most harshly sentenced for possession or sale of illegal drugs, mainly marijuana"constitutes "a stunningly comprehensive and well-designed system of racialized social control." The "warehousing" of inner-city youths, she writes, is a new form of Jim Crow under which drug offenders"in jail or prison, on probation or parole"are denied employment, housing, education and public benefits; face a lifetime of shame; and rarely successfully integrate into mainstream society. The author blames the situation mainly on the War on Drugs, begun by Ronald Reagan in 1982, which grew out of demands for "law and order" that were actually a racially coded backlash to the civil-rights movement. The situation continues because of racial indifference, not racial bias, she writes. Many will dismiss the author"s assertions; others will find her observations persuasive enough to give pause. Most people who use or sell illegal drugs are white, but in many states 90 percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses are black or Latino. Police departments, given financial incentives"cash grants and the right to keep confiscated cash and assets from drug raids"to focus on drug enforcement, find it easier to send SWAT teams into poor neighborhoods, where they will face less political backlash, than into gated communities and college frat houses. Also, most people do not care what happens to drug criminals, feeling that "they get what they deserve." So what"s to be done? Alexander writes that civil-rights leaders, reluctant to advocate for criminals, remain quiet on the issue; President Obama, an admitted former user of illegal drugs, is not in a position to offer leadership; and policymakers offer only piecemeal reforms. She hopes a new grassroots movement will foster frank discussion about race, cultivate an ethic of compassion for all and end the drug war and mass incarceration.
Alarming, provocative and convincing.
Garry McCarthy, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, did not expect to hear anything too startling when he appeared at a conference on drug policy organized last year by an African-American minister in Newark, where he was the police director.
It goes on to mention a white (and currently Republican Michigan State Senator who was motivated to consider decriminalizing marijuana after hearing Alexander,and then talks about "some of the book"s detractors". Specifically, James Forman Jr., a clinical professor at Yale Law School and a former public defender, in this review (my emphasis):
But then a law professor named Michelle Alexander took the stage and delivered an impassioned speech attacking the war on drugs as a system of racial control comparable to slavery and Jim Crow " and received a two-minute standing ovation from the 500 people in the audience.
"These were not young people living in high-crime neighborhoods," Mr. McCarthy, now police superintendent in Chicago, recalled in telephone interview. "This was the black middle class."
"I don"t believe in the government conspiracy, but what you have to accept is that that narrative exists in the community and has to be addressed," he said. "That was my real a-ha moment."
...For many African-Americans, the book -- which has spent six weeks on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list -- gives eloquent and urgent expression to deep feelings that the criminal justice system is stacked against them.
"Everyone in the African-American community had been seeing exactly what she is talking about but couldn't put it into words," said Phillip Jackson, executive director of the Black Star Project..
The book is also galvanizing white readers, including some who might question its portrayal of the war on drugs as a continuation of race war by other means.
"The book is helping white folks who otherwise would have simply dismissed that idea understand why so many people believe it," said David M. Kennedy..."It is making them take that seriously."
...But Professor Alexander...said in an interview that the more provocative claims of her book did not come easily to her. When she first encountered the "New Jim Crow" metaphor on a protest sign in Oakland, Calif., a decade ago, she was a civil rights lawyer with an impeccable resume -- Stanford Law School, a Supreme Court clerkship -- and was leery of embracing arguments that might be considered, as she put it, "crazy."
"It's easy to be completely unaware that this vast new system of racial and social control has emerged," she said. "Unlike in Jim Crow days, there were no "Whites Only" signs. This system is out of sight, out of mind."
In conversation, she disputes any suggestion that she is describing a conspiracy. While the title is "provocative," she said, the book contains no descriptions of people gathering secretly in rooms.
"The main thrust," she said, "is to show how historically both our conscious and unconscious biases and anxieties have played out over and over again to birth these vast new systems of social control."
Whatever Professor Alexander"s account of the origins of mass incarceration, her overall depiction of its human costs is resonating even with people who disagree with her politics...
In her account of the prison boom, Alexander employs a rhetorical strategy common to critics of mass imprisonment: she speaks almost exclusively about the war on drugs. This avoids drawing our attention to the less sympathetic violent offender....But it is ironic that Alexander should concentrate on the most sympathetic defendants, for she criticizes civil rights organizations like the early NAACP for avoiding criminal cases unless the lawyers were convinced of the defendants' innocence. In her view, "Challenging mass incarceration requires something civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to do: advocacy on behalf of criminals." Just so. And not only the drug kind.
Well, I haven't read the book, and I'm not even an amateur-expert on the topic. I think that Federal/State differences there might be worth looking into, though, and Forman seems to assume that no non-drug offenses are in any way related to drug-war issues. Also, he doesn't discuss false convictions/imprisonment, though he mentions the Sentencing Project in passing:
The war on drugs is an unmitigated disaster, and The New Jim Crow makes that case better than anything else I"ve read. But ending the drug war is only a partial response to the problem of mass incarceration. Our prison system has become so enormous not only because of the drug war, but also because we send non-drug offenders to prison more often and for much longer periods of time than virtually any nation on earth.
Most of America"s 2.3 million inmates are held in state prisons. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 49 percent of state prisoners are serving time for violent offenses, 21 percent for drug offenses, 20 percent for property offenses, and 10 percent for public-order offenses. In federal prison half of the prisoners are serving time for drug offenses, but federal prisons hold many fewer people overall -- 200,000 in 2008, while state facilities held 1.4 million. In jails, which hold about 750,000 people nationwide, the split among the four major categories (violent, drug, property, and public order) is roughly even. Thus, more prisoners are locked up for violent offenses than for any other type, and just under 25 percent (550,000) of our nation's prisoners are drug offenders. If every person in prison and jail for a drug offense were released tomorrow, the United States would still have the world's largest penal system.
Turning our attention from drug offenders to others (including violent offenders) requires that we confront issues that do not arise when we talk about the old Jim Crow. Blacks in the era of segregation did nothing to incur the treatment they suffered. But the same cannot be said for all blacks affected by today"s system of mass incarceration. Alexander"s account blurs this distinction......Cotton is like his ancestors in that he cannot vote. But, unlike his ancestors, he was convicted of murder. Alexander"s passive construction "Cotton "has been labeled a felon""suggests that he had no choice in the matter. The compelling arguments against felon disenfranchisement would lose none of their force if Alexander were to acknowledge Cotton"s crime, but she never does...
Alexander claims that mass imprisonment's true targets are blacks, and that incarcerated whites are collateral damage. But that"s a lot of collateral damage. And in strategic terms, it is clear that this approach to mass incarceration has costs. ...Thus the Jim Crow analogy threatens to undermine a goal that Alexander and Perkinson share: forging a multiracial grassroots movement against mass imprisonment.
Tactics! An activist/social-dynamics issue I'm (all too) familiar with! Yay!
Advocates for a smaller, less harsh prison system must approach the problem in a way that crosses racial lines. The Sentencing Project recently did this... And the ACLU has taken a multiracial approach...
Ahem. Anyway, I felt the NYTimes account over-emphasized Forman's disagreements with Alexander, despite including this:
In a telephone interview, Professor Forman, a son of the civil rights leader James Forman, praised the book"s "spectacular" success in raising awareness of the issue. And some activists say their political differences with Professor Alexander"s account matter less than the overall picture she paints of a brutal and unjust system.
Anyway. Looking forward to this interview. And keeping my eye on this:
It's already up from #211 the first time I checked. Wonder if we'll get to see the Colbert Bump in action...