Michelle Alexander is a law professor and former lawyer who has written the very popular book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Alexander believes that due to the targeted mass incarceration of people of color, we are now living in a “New Jim Crow.” Alexander explains that because so many young black men have been through the prison system, they are legally being discriminated against in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were under slavery and Jim Crow laws. Alexander describes the black community as being in a “caste” system, helpless to further their status as long as this “New Jim Crow” system is in place. Her solution is to build a “major social movement” to dismantle the “caste” system. Alexander however, is wrong in this strangely worded, hyperbolic, and confused book.
One of the most important steps in understanding Alexander is looking at the language she uses in her book. Alexander constantly refers to the prison system as “racialized social control” resulting in a “caste” system. She emphasizes the word “caste” instead of class, to try to convey the helplessness of the black community from staying out of prison. This is absurd for many reasons, mainly because in order to be born into a caste system you must have no control over your status. But, one obviously has much more control over his or her status of being a convicted felon or not. Another problem is the message this sends young people. Convincing someone that no matter what he or she does in life one is destined to be in a criminal “caste” (especially when it’s not true) will most likely have a negative effect on that person.
Alexander strangely refers to convicted felons as being “branded” or “labeled” “criminals.” Yes, “criminals” with quotation marks. This leads one to believe that convicted felons are not really “guilty” per se, they have actually just been “caught up” in the system of “racialized social control” known as handcuffs. She must have been a good lawyer.
With a straight face Alexander decries the plight of probationers and parolees being at an “increased risk of arrest because their lives are governed by additional rules” like associating with other felons and meeting probation officers which can “create opportunities for arrest.”
Of course, Alexander’s biggest problem with language is describing the justice system as the “New Jim Crow.” It simply isn’t. Jim Crow was a system created based on race regardless of individuals actions. Being incarcerated is a direct result of an individuals illegal actions. One punishes the innocent, the other punishes the guilty to protect the innocent. There is no similarity, no metaphor, nothing analogous; they are the opposite. Comparing modern day felons to the courageous victims of Jim Crow is inexcusable. From cover to cover, Alexander engages in a dangerous hyperbole that rapes the true meaning of Jim Crow. There is no need to discuss the problems with our justice system by comparing it to Jim Crow, it may get attention, but it solves nothing.
Demographics not Race
Alexander explains that the justice system is targeting people of color:
“… the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history. And while the size of the system alone might suggest that it would touch the lives of most Americans, the primary targets of its control can be defined largely by race.”
The explanation for this emergence: “Most of that increase [of the rates of incarcerated men of color] is due to the War on Drugs, a war waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color.” This is true, but again it can’t be blamed squarely on racism. One of the main reasons for the discrepancy of incarceration rates between races is because of the discrepancy of punishments for powder cocaine and crack cocaine (the former being popular with white drug users and the latter being popular with black drug users). Of course Alexander explains that the crack/powder discrepancy was devised by racists.
The explanation of the crack/powder discrepancy was said to be that crack was more dangerous. As evidence was produced that this was not the case, the racialists had their “proof” that racism must therefore be the reason people made that original claim. The truth is, yes, people did want to target “poor communities of color.” They saw these areas as needing to be cleaned up much more than the white suburban powder cocaine users. The crack culture in some of these poor areas created horrible violence and was destroying the community. This is why members of The Congressional Black Caucus supported so much of the War on Drugs. They supported cleaning up specifically black neighborhoods, and they supported the crack/powder discrepancy (and even pushed for a wider discrepancy). Many people thought that it was racist for the police to sit by and let these black communities destroy themselves. Now people think its racist for the police to fight hard to clean up these areas. Racism seems to be the explanation no matter what.
At the heart of her absurdity is the premise that incarcerated black people have not done anything wrong. She believes that black men are being treated differently than their white counterparts. Her evidence: blanket statistics that compare drug use to drug arrests. Alexander explains that because the percentage of whites and people of color who have admitted to doing drugs is roughly the same, the reason there is a discrepancy in drug related arrests is due to racism. This is the automatic conclusion of almost all racialists. Racialists with an agenda compare two groups of people and leave out all those pesky variables(like the frequency of drug involvement), but instead focus on race. Alexander’s statistics count a teenager who has tried marijuana once and a drug dealer who is in a gang as both simply being one drug user, when clearly one is more dangerous than the other.
According to a 2007 National Youth Gang Center study, 84% of gang members are people of color while 9% are white. It should comes as no surprise that law enforcement is paying more attention to gangs. This discrepancy will throw off any statistic that compares crime committed by whites and people of color. Gang reduction is a real goal that we can work towards that would help everyone, no hyperbole needed.
The largest oversight she commits in her book is that she looks at race as the biggest factor instead of demographics. Demographics is everything, especially when looking at young men committing crimes. Look at any country at any time in history and you will find the same demographics committing the majority of the crimes. They are almost always young for example. Black Americans have a considerably younger population than the rest of America, an average of 7 years (2000, U.S. Census Bureau). But the biggest demographic one needs to pay attention to when looking at crime rates is the family structure. When a boy does not have a father, regardless of poverty, they are much more likely to become a criminal. In fact the Progressive Policy Institute, which is not a conservative group, to say the least, says “It is no exaggeration to say that a stable, two-parent family is an American child’s best protection against poverty.” and the “relationship between crime and one-parent families” is “so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low-income and crime. This conclusion shows up time and again in the literature.” This means that when a white boy and a black boy are in similar family structures their incarceration rates are identical. Tragically, in the black community there is a fatherless rate of 70%, and only 25% among whites. The fatherless rate alone has skewed the racial disparity in incarceration rates. This is a concept that is reinforced by common sense. When a young man does not have a stable home with a father figure, they are worse off. This also explains the discrepancy in gang involvement.
The Source of the Problem and Stage One Thinking
Alexander has a problem with her “New Jim Crow” narrative: she ignores cause and effect. Alexander begins the book by describing Jarvious Cotton. She describes how Jarvious cannot vote just like his ancestors could not vote. But Jarvious’ inability to vote was caused by something, and it was not being “labeled” a felon as Alexander writes. The cause was committing a felony. If Jarvious truly longed to take part in representative democracy, and to sit on juries, then he very well could have. Describing him as being somehow helpless to his condition is both demeaning to Jarvious but especially his ancestors, who could not vote because of slavery and the KKK. To Alexander, Jarvious couldn’t do any better, and is just as innocent as his grandfather who endured Jim Crow. Thinking like this will inevitably lead to moral confusion. To accurately solve a problem we need to accurately diagnose the cause.
In terms of solving these problems Alexander only gives a few hints. The only thing really concrete is when she touches on the need to reduce jail time. Unfortunately, she commits what Thomas Sowell describes as “Stage one thinking.” When one decreases the penalty/deterrence for something, what happens next? It is very likely that that behavior will increase. She also believes that the “labeling” of felons is unfair and creates a stigma when they look for housing, employment etc. Yet what if we did away with having felons disclose their past felonies? Do you want a person with a history of theft working your cash register at your store? Do you want a convicted burglar fixing your cable? Of course not, these “labels” are meant to protect innocent people. If society does not look down on committing crimes then there is more incentive to commit crimes. Reducing sentences does not reduce crime, which is the root of the problem.
She explicitly does have one solution, which is to create a “major social movement” to dismantle the “caste” system. If Alexander simply was wrong about everything in the book but then had some insightful and helpful ideas to change our justice system then that’s fine. But she instead has a misplaced goal with no concrete steps to accomplish it. This will result in nothing being accomplished except for the occasional rally or conference to rehash the precepts of her book. It does nothing to get at the heart of the problem. Instead, it perpetuates the falsehood that the problem with our justice system revolves around race, and if we just weren’t so racist we would live in an egalitarian crime-less utopia.
Alexander goes to great lengths to convince the reader that they live in a racial “caste” system that is targeting black men for the hell of it. But one only needs to look around in their own lives to realize that, generally speaking, certain people make certain choices in their life that either result in success or failure. Individuals make their own choices, no one decides for you that you are going to be a convicted felon, and suggesting otherwise is absurd. Strengthening our families and reducing gang involvement is an actual goal society can work towards. Fighting against a vague, made up, and absurd edifice will do nothing but sell books and make susceptible college students swoon.