The New Jim Crow
My friend Joy told me that The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, was a good book, so it had been on my list for a while, but it took the impetus of actually forming a book group and setting a date to discuss it to get me to finish reading it.
I used to read The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Washington Post and then The Columbus Dispatch when they were delivered to my house in the mornings. I never watch TV news and I rarely turn on the radio when I’m in the car. So now that there are fewer and smaller and less-often-delivered newspapers, I don’t always follow all the current stories in the news.
It’s easier that way, you know. It insulates me from so much unpleasantness, except for when I have people on my Facebook feed indulging themselves in anger about how some white kid is not getting the full punishment he deserves for whatever heinous crime he committed. Sometimes I get this in real life—a friend sitting beside me, her face contorted with righteous indignation and eyes narrowed in rage, shouting that a young white boy who raped an unconscious girl should be punished more than the sentence he received, however unfair it is in comparison to the much harsher sentences handed down to black rapists. Why do we demand such harshness?
The New Jim Crow is about the harshness of mandatory drug sentencing laws, and how they almost exclusively target young black men, who then have a felony conviction and can never find good jobs or vote again. It’s about how we’ve passed laws to make us feel “safe” and how cruel the effects of those laws have turned out to be.
The book club members talked about what we could do. We could vote to legalize marijuana. We can try to expose our children to people who don’t live lives of privilege, which doesn’t often happen by itself even with the children in rural public schools, since they take special honors courses and go on to expensive private colleges. One thing we didn’t talk about but I subsequently discovered, is that I can contribute to the local organization that supplies books to prisoners every time I go to the grocery store.
Alexander’s book has been criticized for not giving enough historical background or quoting other black civil rights leaders, but as she says in her preface, she writes for “people who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration.” The book is a wake-up call for people like me—and people my age, because it is during my lifetime that all black people were finally able to vote (1965), only for many of them to be then kept from it by the 1994 mandatory drug laws which included, in addition to the loss of the vote, the imposition of “a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, as well as a permanent, lifetime ban on eligibility for welfare and food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense—including simple possession of marijuana.”
The main problem Alexander points out is that “thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence. The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch. Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time. And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences—sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murderers.”
And it’s not just the harsh sentences for “criminals.” Alexander’s book also points out that the militarization of the police and the employment of an increasing segment of the population by for-profit prisons results in even more harshness and cynicism, as more of us get used to the brutality that we believe is justified when dealing with the poor and desperate. “Ultimately,” Alexander says, “these stop-and-frisk operations amount to much more than humiliating, demeaning rituals for young men of color, who must raise their arms and spread their legs, always careful not to make a sudden move or gesture that could provide an excuse for brutal—even lethal—force.”
Even after a sentence is served, “many people are thrown back in prison simply because they have been unable—with no place to live, and no decent job—to pay back thousands of dollars of prison-related fees, fines, and child support.”
“The genius of the current caste system,” Alexander argues, “and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes….Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses.”
What is it about the present day that makes otherwise-nice people froth at the mouth about the need for harsh punishments, even for a mother who might have let go of her child’s hand for a second before he fell in a gorilla enclosure? Why do so many of us believe that ever-more-extreme penalties will keep us safe? I wish I knew more people who see a need for mercy.
Maybe then we could stand to see our children fail and learn how to start over. Offering rehabilitation to prisoners is not so different from offering mercy to ourselves, revealing to others the ways we don’t measure up rather than hiding it most of the time. Many of the Americans I know claim to be “colorblind,” and “yet we rationalize the systematic discrimination and exclusion and turn a blind eye to the suffering” of “hundreds of thousands of people of color” each year.
The first step, then, for someone like me, is simply to stop insulating myself. The next step for any of us might be to find out how your neighbors are treated if the car breaks down at night. Then to object when your children’s school searches their lockers on the basis of a rumor. Maybe you could talk to someone who volunteers in a prison, or find out how to donate books to a prisoner near you.
What other acts of kindness might help more of us think less about justice and more about mercy?