The New Jim Crow, Chapter 3

Richard Johnson and I are blogging our way through The New Jim Crow.  We’re rotating between chapters, posting reflections and the questions this important book is raising for us.  Check out our posts on chapters one and two.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessSo far we’ve seen how Michelle Alexander examines America’s historic racial caste system and the way the War on Drugs has led to its current form: mass incarceration.  In the third chapter she turns her attention to our criminal justice system and shows how, despite what we may hope, justice is not (color) blind.

The chapter begins with a barrage of statistics: in 2000, African Americans make up 80-90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison in seven states; the level of African Americans imprisoned since the War on Drugs began in the 1980’s has increased twenty-six times in contrast to eight times for whites; three-fourths of people imprisoned for drug offenses are either black or Latino.

Why?  What is behind these statistics?  Alexander points out that there is “an official explanation for all of this: crime rates.”  This explanation is reinforced by a media narrative which portrays criminal activity – especially drug crime – as being dominated by non-white men.  Yet studies consistently show that it is white people who are more likely to use and deal drugs even while being far less likely to be arrested or convicted.

Here’s something else worth considering: many of us assume that incarceration rates are simply a result of tougher prosecution of violent crimes while, in fact, incarceration rates have risen irregardless of the rates of violent crime.  Drugs, not violence, is the primary reason for the dramatic increase of imprisoned men.  So, again, why are most of these men black (with an increasing percentage of Latinos)?

“It is difficult to imagine a system better designed to ensure that racial biases and stereotypes are given free rein- while at the same time appearing on the surface to be colorblind- than the one devised by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Two more pieces must be in place before an answer becomes clear.  First, as the author points out, “Drug-law enforcement is unlike most other types of crimes.”  That is, while most crimes rely on someone calling for the police after a crime occurs, most drug crime, because of its consensual nature, requires a “far more proactive approach by law enforcement.”  The second piece is acknowledging the overwhelming perception among most Americans that the typical drug user is black.  Fed by media stereotypes, this perception is at odds with a reality where whites are often more likely to use drugs than blacks.

Put all of these pieces together and it becomes uncomfortably clear why the rates of incarceration are so skewed.  Alexander spends the rest of the chapter showing why these law enforcement tactics are almost impossible to challenge in court.  Examining case after case she shows how the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that racism must be explicit – for example, a written law enforcement policy – for it to have any bearing in a case.  Given what we’ve seen above, this will almost never be the case.  “The problem,” writes Alexander, “is that although race is rarely the sole reason for a stop and search, it is frequently a determinative reason.”  A reason, in other words, that is impossible to prove in court.

Seeing how complicit our legal system is with the current rates of incarceration is a hard pill to swallow.  As someone from the dominant culture I’ve known our courts are imperfect but have wanted to believe equal justice is available regardless of one’s race.  I no longer believe this to be true.

In his post about chapter two Richard helpfully pointed out the difference between the role of individuals and the role of systems when it comes to mass incarceration.  But acknowledging systemic racial injustice also makes this issue all the more overwhelming.  We’ll continue moving through this book in the coming weeks and I hope you’ll stick with us.  What is standing out to you?  I doubt the author is going to give us a lot of easy answers along the way; this is complicated and deeply rooted stuff.  Our first step is simply taking the time to understand the complexities and depth of a system that has ruined too many lives.

3 thoughts on “The New Jim Crow, Chapter 3

  1. thanks for this review.
    I’m really interested in this topic and now I’m convinced that I should buy this book.
    Greetings from the Netherlands.

  2. Thank you so much!! I found it a bit confusing to read the whole book in less than 2 weeks. It was assigned for daily homework and that is a lot of reading. This helps me understand and not forget what I read. Thank you again! (:

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