It’s no secret that I’m interested in economic injustice. That’s why I wax grumpy and bitter about things like gentrification, fast fashion, clean water, and environmentalism. But I have a lot to learn about the kind of systemic inequality that keeps some people down while others float above.
Alexander’s premise is simple on its surface: since its inception, the War on Drugs has targeted black and brown people at disproportionately high rates. This has led to a new racial caste system in the United States.
But of course, like anything to do with race in America, it’s far from simple. And Alexander seems to realize how far-fetched some might consider her findings because she spends, like, 20% of every chapter going “I know this sounds crazy but seriously, stick with me. Just look at this data.”
While I wasn’t completely ignorant of the racism inherent in our justice system before reading The New Jim Crow I am now completely overwhelmed with new and damning knowledge. The rules of this new and insidious Jim Crow state affect people socially and economically in disastrous, life-ruining ways, through every stage of the justice process from arrest through trial, punishment, and release.
Here’s some of what I learned.
How we screw over ex-convicts
- Travel abroad
- Use or own guns
- Serve on a jury
- Be employed in certain fields
- Receive public social benefits and housing
- Hold office
- Have parental benefits for their children
- Not be discriminated against in the hiring process
So imagine for a moment how fucking difficult it must be to make a living or support a family under those restrictions. Ex-convicts are permanently branded by their convictions even after completing their sentences. Now ask yourself… why? Why are we making it so hard for ex-cons to get by financially?
Is it a matter of keeping the public safe? That might be plausible if it weren’t for the fact that about half of the prison population was incarcerated for non-violent offenses.
Is it to further punish them for their crimes? As likely as that seems, it seems illogical since upon release a felon has served the time imposed upon them by a judge and, legally speaking, they’ve paid back their debt to society.
Or is it just to permanently disenfranchise people, socially and financially, by separating them into a racial under-caste? Michelle Alexander certainly believes so. And she has evidence to back up this explanation.
But all of this forces us to address a larger point: what is the purpose of incarceration? It is either punishment or rehabilitation, and stripping the rights of ex-convicts makes the latter nigh impossible.
“But they’re criminals!”
Setting aside for a moment just how monstrous it is to believe that committing a crime means someone should be stripped of the means of survival and, thus, die… let’s look at some numbers.
About 49% of ex-convicts were incarcerated for drug-related crimes, and 27% of those inmates were locked up for the use, possession, and distribution of marijuana, acts that are perfectly legal in many states today. That’s right: the only thing separating these hardened criminals from your friend who likes to eat Cheetos and listen to Bob Marley is timing.
Oh yeah: and race. Despite being only 13% of the country’s population, black people make up 40% of the prison population.
And this number has almost nothing to do with actual crime commission rates. Rather, it reflects the reality that when a black person and a white person commit the same crime, the black person is significantly more likely to be policed, arrested, convicted, and incarcerated.
Which brings us full circle. Alexander’s primary thesis in The New Jim Crow is that the War on Drugs disproportionately targets people of color, and draconian laws governing their lives post-prison systematically strip them of rights and personhood, thus perpetuating a racial caste system in our country.
“Criminal” has therefore replaced words historically used to dehumanize black people—words I’m not going to repeat here because you all know exactly what the fuck I’m talking about.
When people and politicians invoke their fear, hatred, or contempt for “criminals,” it’s often their way of conveniently invoking the image of black and brown folks while maintaining a plausible deniability that their stance is based in morality rather than racial hatred.
So when you hear the word “criminal” used to argue for the just disenfranchisement of a huge swathe of people, think about what they’re really saying.
Read this fucking book
The reason Alexander spent a good portion of the book justifying even talking about this stuff is because asserting that Jim Crow is alive and well in these United States does sound crazy to most people. Good thing MLK totes solved racism decades ago, amirite?
The strength of Alexander’s work is that she brought alllll the receipts. She is a lawyer and a damn good researcher and by the end even John Lithgow’s character in Beatriz at Dinner would have a hard time arguing with her theory of systematic racial oppression.
Only by understanding the problems with our modern economic system can we fix it. And maybe that means dismantling it entirely! I don’t know! I’m not a doctor!
But I do fancy myself a decent human being from time to time. And it would therefore be irresponsible to sweep this kind of glaring disparity under the rug. Which is why I desperately recommend you get thee to the library and read The New Jim Crow as soon as possible.
It is packed with utterly heartbreaking examples of people who made a small mistake that ruined their lives. People who, painted into a corner and desperate, confessed to crimes they didn’t commit. People who were simply unlucky, unprivileged. And people who were robbed of their rights by mandatory minimum sentences and a lack of any recourse for challenging racial discrimination in the justice system.
Ex-convicts are people. They deserve to be treated with humanity, compassion, and respect. They have served their time and they deserve the chance to prove themselves self-sufficient and useful to society. By what right do we exclude them from those inalienable rights we all take for granted—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? By what right do we brand them subhuman for life? Why is it ok to treat their options for getting ahead like Charlie Brown’s football in the hands of Lucy?
We talk a lot about economic inequality and systemic disenfranchisement here, and I want to make sure this much is clear: going to prison does not make you less of a person. But it does make it systematically, intentionally, institutionally much harder to be treated like one.