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The New Jim Crow

June 9, 2016

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?

19 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2016 4:42 pm

    Thank you for reading this book and writing about it. Off the top of my head, some mercy-full things you can do are:

    – Find out if there’s a college-prison partnership in your area. If there is, join or support it! If there isn’t, start one!

    – Find out if there’s a restorative justice organization in your area. If there is, join or support it! If there isn’t, start one!

    – Find out if there’s an organization that helps people who have been incarcerated get back on their feet through job programs. If there is, join or support it! If there isn’t, start one! This is the organization Emmanuel Church in Boston uses for its janitorial services:

    – Find out the nearest prison or jail facility near you and contact their social services or volunteer services office to see if you can start a card-making program like the one I volunteer at in Boston. If you want more information about that, contact me.

    • June 10, 2016 9:56 am

      Thanks for those links, Joy. You have a lot of things available off the top of your head!
      Where I live is so rural we don’t have any prisons, but we do have a jail. And I’m sure there’s more I can find out about the needs of prisons located in Columbus and Cleveland.

  2. June 9, 2016 5:09 pm

    This is brilliant: “I wish I knew more people who see a need for mercy.” Me too.

    This sounds like a book I need to read, that many, many more people need to read. I have a habit of isolation from news myself (I think many sensitive people do) but clearly we all need to be more proactive if things are going to get better, if we’re going to start being kinder to one another. Thank you for this review.

    • June 10, 2016 10:03 am

      I always liked the way Barbara Kingsolver wrote about why she didn’t watch tv news when her kids were little, in her essay “The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don’t Let Him In” from Small Wonder. Now that my kids are grown and mostly gone, though, I don’t have the same excuse.

  3. CSchu permalink
    June 10, 2016 7:25 am

    Eloquent and thoughtful. Thanks, Jeanne.

    • June 10, 2016 10:04 am

      *crowing like Peter Pan* “I’m eloquent, I’m eloquent!”

  4. June 11, 2016 8:07 pm

    I’ve still got this lurking on my TBR list and have for quite some time — I am a slightly bad reader for letting it lie fallow for so long. But it’s gotten hard to read in a sustained way about the failings of our criminal justice system, which fails so many people in so many different ways and appears to be untestable for its impact on crime. You’re right that people seem less and less inclined to mercy — or put it more broadly, less and less inclined to acknowledge the humanity of someone whose actions they disagree with. It’s a scary trend.

    • June 12, 2016 1:32 pm

      That’s a good way to put it: “less and less inclined to acknowledge the humanity of someone whose actions they disagree with.” I saw this teaching the play The Laramie Project, about the murder of Matthew Shepard, in the early 2000’s–my students wanted to demonize the two murderers, calling them “monsters,” and we had to talk about how that distances them from the crime, does exactly what the Catholic priest says we shouldn’t do (he says, and I’m paraphrasing from old memory, something like we have to own this crime, we have to admit that we raise children to hate like this).

  5. russell1200 permalink
    June 11, 2016 10:25 pm

    Working in the construction industry, I can pretty much tell you that there is no need to frame people for drug offenses. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Folks in cities selling on street corners take the least effort to round up, so that’s who goes to jail. Cops are more lazy than racist.

    • June 12, 2016 1:33 pm

      You’ve definitely got something there–many people are more lazy than racist, including those who are “just following orders.”

  6. June 13, 2016 12:03 am

    Ugh, it drives me nuts when people say they are colorblind. It’s a simple way of saying that all people are like white people. What those who claim colorblindness don’t get is how they will never face certain situations because they are white. Even LeVar Burton, star of Reading Rainbow, released a video describing his process for what he does in case the police pull him over so that he doesn’t get shot.

    • June 13, 2016 8:04 am

      I originally thought my group was going to read this book to understand and talk about more of what it’s like to be a mother of a black child and what the mothers of those children’s acquaintances can do to help keep them safe.The book goes so much farther than that, though.

      • June 13, 2016 11:58 am

        My book group recently read Only Ever Yours, which I just reviewed. It’s funny how I wouldn’t have picked that book up on my own, so I relate to what you were saying about not seeking out this book that you reviewed without the push of a group.

        • June 13, 2016 12:03 pm

          I did help to form the group and decide on the first book to discuss. But yes, I was thinking about this since I read The Vegetarian and wondered if I would have liked it better if I’d had anyone to discuss it with.

  7. June 13, 2016 8:34 am

    I insulate myself too because the news is so disturbing these days. This book sounds thought provoking and great for a discussion. Have you read Dead Man Walking? It points out that the harshest punishments are served on those who use a court appointed attorney – death row inmates are almost all in that category – so I think our justice system divides people by race and socio-economic class.

    • June 13, 2016 9:24 am

      I have not read Dead Man Walking. It sounds like maybe I should, after a bit of a break. Alexander does make the point that our justice system divides people by class. She says that makes it even more insidious, that we can point to President Obama and other successful black people and claim that because they made it, this country must offer equal opportunity.

  8. June 13, 2016 11:55 am

    I see the thematic continuity in tying Brock Turner’s ridiculously light sentence to the ridiculously harsh sentences imposed on some first-time drug offenders, but really, there’s a big difference. I see a need for mercy, but comparing drug possession to raping and unconscious person is really a stretch. By all means, let’s have a conversation about drug laws and about systemic disenfranchisement and about police powers and the latitude allowed to prosecutors and judges and the disparate legal and financial consequences of the same offense, depending on the race and class of the accused. Sure. But let’s not pretend that that’s the same discussion as the question of Brock Turner’s loss of his scholarship and his admission to Stanford being treated as part of his “sentence”. Giving him a sentence less than the “minimum”, in part because he’d already lost a place at a top-notch university, wasn’t….ARRGH. I can’t talk about this case anymore, it seems.

    I do see a need for mercy.

    Right now, I see a larger need for justice, lest mercy only be offered to those who remind those in power, of their younger selves. This works great for the rich, well-educated, white, male, hetero, etc etc etc….especially athletic and/or pretty and/or academically accomplished. Anyone else has a pretty low shot at judicial mercy. We need representative government, representative policing, representative judiciary, etc etc etc. We need enough voices of different experiences, present at high enough powers and positions of influence, that even those who have grown up in the silo of privilege (like me!) come to know something of the lives their decisions impact so strongly.

    Until then, I’d rather advocate for justice than for mercy. From what I see, mercy isn’t likely to be extended to those viewed as Other.

    The “mercy” offered to Brock Turner came at the expense of every rape or sexual assault survivor who ever swallowed her/his story. It was especially an insult to the value of Turner’s particular victim. Turner has yet to accept responsibility, yet to apologize, yet to show remorse for anything other than being caught and having consumed alcohol underage. It isn’t mercy for a former Stanford athlete judge to decide a former Stanford athlete student would be seriously affected by time in prison, so he shouldn’t have to go. It’s trivializing the damage one human did to another. The only person who should have had the right to extend mercy, was the person to whom a wrong was done. The Not-Exactly-Honorable Aaron Persky wasn’t merciful; he was biased. He deserves to be censured, not praised.

    • June 13, 2016 12:01 pm

      What you say makes sense.
      I was trying to refer to articles that compared Brock Turner’s sentence to Corey Batey’s sentence.

      • June 13, 2016 8:02 pm

        I will read more! Also, I didn’t mean to *yell* at you. I don’t know if that was apparent in my comment.

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