The New Jim Crow: Worth the Read!

By: Maria Hibbard

As I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (a book off our PSLawNet summer reading list!) on the metro and bus this past week or so, I was acutely aware of passers-by glancing at the provocative title. The new Jim Crow? The old Jim Crow laws are known as sad and embarrassing time in our nation’s history; who would dare suggest that the same kind of discrimination exists today?

In her book, Alexander addresses head-on the proposition that instead of the direct “Jim Crow laws” that have long been eradicated, the war on drugs and mass incarceration of African American males throughout the 1980s and beyond has in effect created a similar type of “caste” system and had the effect of creating continuing the cycle of discrimination. Like the fellow commuters who glanced at my book, I too approached this hypothesis with skepticism; throughout the narrative, however, Alexander systematically lays down the history of Jim Crow laws and the effect mass incarceration has had in creating similar effects.

Because I was still in diapers at the beginning of the “War on Drugs,” I was initially startled by Alexander’s analysis of the way in which federal funding and incentive motivated local police officers to severely ramp up drug arrests. These searches targeted ghettos deemed likely to have more possible offenders and resulted in searches that may have stretched the limits of the Fourth Amendment. Most African American males incarcerated during this time period were not arrested for violent crimes, but for possession of drugs that were found at a traffic stop. Alexander next moves on to an analysis of the effect of this incarceration on felons once released. Convicted felons are not eligible for housing assistance or food stamps, and the effect of having to check the “felony box” on a job application can be detrimental to a recently released individual trying to support himself. Sooner or later, Alexander predicts, this same individual ends up back in jail. Alexander admits that Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration are not exactly alike, though, stating, “we have witnessed an evolution in the United States from a racial caste system based entirely on exploitation (slavery), to one based largely on subordination (Jim Crow), to one defined by marginalization (mass incarceration).”

Through shedding new light on the ways in which the War on Drugs has resulted in “legalized discrimination,” Alexander faces a topic that may be too often brushed aside in our “colorblind” society. Although somewhat repetitive and generalized, Alexander’s book is worth reading for the very reason that it addresses an important idea about access to justice not often taught law school. Alexander prefaces her book by saying “This book is not for everyone”–I can disagree. Even if you think it isn’t for you, The New Jim Crow is worth a read just to be able to think through its challenging propositions.

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