[Note: The following review appears in Brethren Life and Thought Vol. 59, No. 1 (Spring 2014): 85-86. Reprinted here with permission.]
Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
“Devastating.” It is a word that adorns the back cover of this book, attributed to Forbes Magazine. It is also the word that kept recurring in this white reviewer’s mind while reading through this terribly important book which documents the latest manifestation of societal racism in this country: the mass incarceration of predominantly black men. Its author, Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and professor of law at The Ohio State University, presents a comprehensive and damning account of the complex and interlocking systems of social control that give teeth to this nation’s oldest shame. Her work also reveals that in the age of Obama, we are far from being a “post-racial” society. If anything, she argues, we are regressing.
“Devastating,” then, operates in a range of senses. First, the book leaves the individual reader feeling devastated because of the expansive reach of the systems under scrutiny and their sickening consequences. Next, it devastates those systems in that Alexander’s account pulls back the veil of their alleged purpose (“War on Drugs,” “Get Tough on Crime,” etc.), revealing them to be racist forms of social control. Finally—and this is extrapolating from the text itself to theological and ecclesiological implications—it is devastating to the church in the United States in that we have for the most part stood idly by while this system has been conceived, constructed, and functioning now for over thirty years.
But just what are those systems? Alexander’s central claim is that “something akin to a racial caste system currently exists in the United States” (2). This system flies the banner of the “War on Drugs,” a phrase first uttered by President Nixon in the early 1970s, which became a federally-mandated, institutional reality under the Reagan Administration in 1982. Alexander describes the consequences of this War on Drugs as mass incarceration, a term which explicitly refers to the explosion of the U.S. prison system in the past 30 years, where there are now “more people in prisons and jails today…for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980” (60), and where this nation now has the highest incarceration rate in the world (6). The racial dimensions of this system are what led Alexander to the apt description, “The New Jim Crow,” because of its propensity to lock up a hugely disproportionate number of black and brown people, mostly young men, where now “(t)he United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid” (6). More than simply prison, though, mass incarceration also refers to “the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison” (13). From public housing arrangements, militarized police forces, restrictive employment policies, debt collection, welfare, regressive Supreme Court decisions, to political disenfranchisement—the net result is the creation of an “undercaste” (13), a racially-defined and stigmatized group subject to “permanent social exclusion” (13) through a “closed circuit of perpetual marginality” (95).
This is the New Jim Crow, and Alexander argues that it appears to be more durable than past forms of institutional American racism partly because—as an elitist backlash against the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s—it must claim itself to be colorblind. This has been accomplished by a shift in rhetoric from overtly racist attitudes in publicly stated positions and policies to using “tough on crime” language, which is yet today the lingua franca in Washington when it comes to criminal justice deliberations; no politician—Democrat nor Republican—with a desire to stay in office for long wants to be seen as “soft on crime.” Hence, draconian drug laws have been enacted and functioning for over twenty years, and police have been given carte blanche when it comes to discretion in searches and seizures.
This rhetorical shift to supposed race-neutrality has been accompanied by popular media forms—news reporting and crime shows—that have helped cement the image of “criminal” as that of a young, black male into the American conscious and subconscious social imagination. Now that the War on Drugs and the “criminal blackman” stereotype (107) have become normalized in society, denial has become exceedingly easy. "Many people 'know' and 'not-know' the truth about human suffering at the same time,” Alexander argues, and “(d)enial is facilitated by persistent racial segregation in housing and schools, by political demagoguery, by radicalized media imagery, and by the ease of changing one's perception of reality simply by changing television channels” (182). Or perhaps in the digital age, denial is even easier as we self-select our Facebook and Twitter friends, the blogs we follow, etc. Through the synthesis of social media and the consumer culture of leisure and entertainment, it has never been easier to be blind to systemic injustice.
So where does this leave the church? Sadly, the only place it shows up in Alexander’s book is when families of criminals who are subject to their loved one’s stigma find no place for love and compassion. “Church? I wouldn’t dare tell anyone at church,” Alexander reports one woman saying (166). This should rightly convict those of us in Christ’s body. But Alexander does at times marshal the spiritual fortitude and force of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the final chapter, Alexander calls for a new kind of civil rights movement that takes the new racial realities of The New Jim Crow into account. Her constructive proposals sometimes contain echoes of New Testament teaching, such as love for strange neighbors and enemies, and removing logs from our vision: “We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love” (244).
Would that the body of Christ practice such love in our own fellowships and let that love flow out into work for radical, restorative justice in the age of mass incarceration.