New Jim Crow, The
by Michelle Alexander (2010)
The accolades on the back cover are accurate — “Devastating. . . Striking. . . An extraordinary book. . . An instant classic. . . The bible of a social movement” — but they’re not exhaustive. They are missing descriptors such as “outrageous,” “tragic,” “infuriating,” and “morally harrowing,” which would give a somewhat fuller impression of what the book has to offer.
I can’t think of anybody who wouldn’t benefit greatly from reading it. Certainly not any U.S. citizens, nor anyone interested in the U.S. as a world power. In fact it should probably be required high school reading. I’d like it to be, anyway.
The contents of this book — I firmly believe — are known to all us North-Americans on a subconscious level, a sort of vague uneasiness we have when we hear offhand about the racial makeup of prisons, death rows, juries, poverty, etc. We usually feel uneasy in the moment but then sort of shrug it off and push it back into a creaky corner of our mind. We don’t really like thinking about such unpleasantries. It’s one thing, however, to feel it as a foggy discomfort, and another altogether to read of the explicit mechanisms that are being utilized at this very moment to illegitimately marginalize an entire group of people.
That’s what makes this book so important, that Alexander finally and firmly lifts our subconscious misgivings to the conscious level and says, “Here, see this clearly and decide what to do about it.” The subtext of her book-length statement is that after seeing it, we can no longer ignore this moral crime, can no longer shut it up in our mind’s basement, without tainting our own moral authority, without making ourselves hypocrites and abettors. And in that sense the book is absolutely inspiring.
Chapters 3 and 4 are the ones that really hit home for me. Ch. 3 reviews the specific legislation and court rulings that have led us to our current state of affairs, and Ch. 4 describes the lives felons return to after prison. They are both damning and — as far as I can tell — irrefutable. If you can read them and still feel completely at ease about living in the U.S., then frankly I think something is gravely wrong with you.
I could go over some of the critical points Alexander makes, but really there are too many to list and I wouldn’t do them as much justice as if you just read the book. So read the book. If you’re interested enough to read a review about the book you should just read it. It’s that important. It has inspired me to volunteer in an effort to fix this moral crime (and I’m hesitant to record that publicly just because now I feel pressured to actually follow through — it’s a serious urge).
I will say that two of the more valuable points are those she makes to debunk the common held beliefs in “colorblindness” and in the “politics of respectability,” the latter of which occurs when we cheer successful black people who tell their black audiences that they need to be better people. While acknowledging the essential truth of their assertion, Alexander makes a convincing rebuttal proposing that these ideas ultimately serve to let the system off the hook. They are distractions from the real problem.
So yeah: this and universal health care and ending corporate personhood, those are basically the “Big 3” in the U.S. that we need to fix ASAP. Read it. If you promise to, I’ll buy it for you.