Econ Nerd Book Review: The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

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.

Which is why I read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.

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

A brief list of things felons can’t do:

  • Vote
  • 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?

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.

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?

Good thing, huh.

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.

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.

Listen to mother.

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10 thoughts on “Econ Nerd Book Review: The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

  1. You need to check out Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” if you have not already. Similar topic (discussing unfairness in the justice system) and very powerful. It’s a book that literally changed my outlook on life.

  2. THIS POST! Like, what the fuck is wrong with us? We just set people up to re-offend. I have a girlfriend who is a genius, emergency room nurse. The week after her mother died, she had four kids come into her ER ( car crash with a Semi) and they all died that night. She was taking a oxycontin to another patient immediately after this, it fell on the floor and she popped it in her mouth. They are taking away her license, she is facing prison, she lost her job, the hoops she has to go through are almost impossible. She is facing no future because of one human misstep at the end of a terrible night and a 16 hour shift to boot. She often says ” I wasn’t a criminal drug addict before this, but they sure make it tempting to re-offend” Words can’t describe how much this post is needed. Preach bitches, preach!
    https://damngirlgetyourshittogether.com/

    1. Holy shit, that is HORRIBLE. I’m so sorry for your friend. What an impossible situation and what a lack of compassion in the justice system.
      Thank you so much for reading. Your support makes me so happy!

  3. I love your blog! Thank you for going beyond the personal finances covered by most blogs to look at some of the bigger economic issues in society. The New Jim Crow is sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read, but I haven’t yet been ready to deal with such a heavy topic. Clearly I need to make the time and mental space to read it.

    1. And thank YOU for reading. Seriously, you have no idea how much it means to us to hear that we’re taking the right approach here. We’ll keep covering the big stuff. And thanks.

  4. I’ve been looking forward to this one, thanks Bitches. This is one of the biggest and most urgent areas of injustice in America today. I’m sure the author mentions it but in addition to the insane and unconscionable racial disparity in the people caught in the prison industrial complex, the sheer incarceration rate in the US is the highest in the world: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/07/yes-u-s-locks-people-up-at-a-higher-rate-than-any-other-country/?utm_term=.6c4b9249ffc3

    And for some bonus heart wrenching, I just saw this episode of Viceland which talks about how mothers are uniquely victimised by this system: https://www.viceland.com/en_us/video/usa-mothers-behind-bars/574f05930586ce123d8cdbaf

    In the episode, they talk about how women who give birth while incarcerated immediately lose custody of their own children, and have to go to great lengths to get them back. It would be difficult to design a more complete method of systemic oppression.

    1. Thank you so much! I’ve got to steel myself before taking a look at that Viceland episode. Removing children from their families has historically been the American method of cultural genocide.

  5. Thank You AND Ms Alexander for bringing our plight to light. Unfortunately her book is my life. I’m from the Bronx and because of this systematic religion going to Rikers island was a right of passage for a young black man in New York. Herein lies the rub; is your recognition “too little too late..?” This practice has wiped out two entire generations. Go to any place of business and count the blacks you see working, or going to school, or even living in apartment buildings. We no longer exist. Every time there’s a “war” on something (war on drugs, war on crime, etc..), it’s really a war on blacks. You know what’s crazy? This is the first election in a long time that hasn’t made blacks the target of their scorn; but that’s only because we no longer exist…

    1. Thank you so, so much for sharing your story. I really appreciate that you took the time to comment to confirm what I learned from Alexander’s book. I’m afraid you’re right: it is too little too late. From what you say, the War on Drugs has been successful in locking up and disenfranchising entire generations of black men, and that’s horrifying.
      I would like to hear more about how you’re getting by after leaving Rikers, if you don’t mind. What ways have you found to get around the employment discrimination and lack of access to support systems? Do you know of any organizations providing help for men in your situation? And in your experience, what’s the best way for the rest of us to help?

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