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Explosive book on race and incarceration reverberates beyond US

Published: 
Thursday, October 20, 2011
Book Review
The front cover of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness.

Jim Crow. Two words that strike terror into the hearts of African Americans—yesterday, and today. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness, is an explosive historical and contemporary commentary on politics, policies, policing procedures, and the judicial process as they affect African Americans, in particular young black men. Alexander is an attorney and her work is thoroughly researched. This is important, for her charges will rattle, and vindicate, depending on the audience.

She does not labour on the aftermath of slavery and the dehumanisation of Jim Crow laws. That was decades ago—down South as they say. She is judicious in not making this a historical review. What she does, however, is chronicle a systematic assailment (and worse) of the legal system against black people. Today, she argues, Jim Crow with its law and order mandate has been reconfigured—almost made more palatable, as it disguises its racist underbelly—only to resurface under the political slogan, “War on Drugs.” Or better said: “War on young black men.” Alexander goes further. She asserts that America’s new assault and mass incarceration of the black male has create a new caste, marginalised and shut out from the system (political, economic, and social restrictions on a state and federal level) years after release. But why the disproportionate percentage of incarcerated blacks (overwhelmingly for marijuana offences) when statistics confirm the prevalent use of drugs among whites? The answer is troubling!

Her thesis is unyielding as she rails against “stop and frisk” police procedures (only in poor neighbourhoods), a violation of the fourth amendment. She questions the militarisation of police powers and tactics (a perversion of the Comitatus Act) and opts to be anecdotal at times. “Alberta Spruill, a fifty-seven-year-old city worker from Harlem is among the fallen,” she writes, as she describes a New York City Swat team storming into Spruill’s apartment with flash bang grenades. No drugs or arrests, and no indictments. Just a dead occupant from cardiac arrest. And further, due process under the law is perverted with mass plea bargains and the absence of “full blown trials of guilt or innocence.”

While well-intentioned policing can go awry (after all, we are all prone to mistakes), the following may just drive home the author’s point that the war on drugs disproportionally targets, incarcerates, and ostracises one particular community. The author cites a report from the Village Voice on hearings by Manhattan Borough president C Virginia Fields on SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) practices: “Dozens of black and Latino victims—nurses, secretaries, and former officers—packed her chambers airing tales, one more horrifying than the next…They describe police ransacking their homes, handcuffing children and grandparents, putting guns to their head and being verbally abusive.”

We get the picture. But the author has to connect the dots and prove that a definitive agenda exists to corral and control young black men under the guise of law and order. More so, prove that the overall aim is to put blacks in their place whenever they show signs of thriving socially and politically. It is a painstaking task, and she manages to follow a damning trail that begins with slavery, meanders through the period of Reconstruction, the Jim Crow period, the Civil Rights era, and finally to the present scenario. What we discern is intriguing. The term “law and order” is really a racist code that has surfaced, then submerged, only to resurface, depending on racial and political sentiments. Society’s problems always seem to boil down to that community—the blacks.

Alexander recycles: “If blacks conduct themselves in an orderly way, they will not have to worry about police brutality,” by the late Senator Robert Byrd. It is a pernicious pattern that jolts and provokes the open minded reader. Yes, one can be dismissive, and Alexander predicts that much in her introduction. Then again, racist sentiments are akin to an incurable disease. Neither Democrat of Republican is spared by the Alexander’s pen. She questions the timing of Reagan’s War on Drugs policy, with a reference to the sudden proliferation of crack cocaine in black neighbourhoods in the 80s. Law and Order are the magic words today, as they were for the virulent KKK organisation that in 1990 announced its intention to “join the battle against illegal drugs,” by becoming the “eyes and ears of the police.” Here, Alexander is compelling.

She later dons a sociological lens, explaining the intra-racial violence besetting inner cities. Poor education, deindustrialisation, rampant unemployment, she writes. However, this is insufficient to quell her detractors. Black transgressors will only fuel support for the “get tough on crime” agenda. Meanwhile, throw effective political ideas and leadership out the window. And oh! a black president of the US—an inconceivable thought years ago. Sadly though, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Rating: *****: Essential

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colourblindness by Michelle Alexander
The New Press, New York, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-59558-103-7