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The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (thoughts)

December 1, 2011

This is one of the most important nonfiction books I’ve read this year, and I urge all of my fellow Americans to read it (to all of my fellow world citizens, this is US-specific, hence my phrasing). Alexander has constructed an intelligent, convincing, passionate but even-handed account of how the current US criminal justice system is responsible for institutionalised oppression of African-Americans. And she goes into it assuming she needs to convince the reader of everything; in fact, in her introduction she charts her own journey from scoffing ridicule at the idea of the drug war as the ‘new Jim Crow’ to a growing realisation of the realties of the situation. Over the past four decades, there’s been a revolution in the prison system: from talk in the 60s and 70s of disbanding it altogether to the current mass round ups with overbooked courts and overflowing prisons. She also explains how the label felon follows someone the rest of their life, affecting everything from their ability to get a job, vote, or be eligible for any government assistance. And she explains the disproportional targeting of African-Americans; while drug dealing occurs among all ethnicities in all socioeconomic areas (studies have shown, for instance, that a drug user almost always buys from a dealer that resembles them, which means the vast majority of white suburban drug users are serviced by white suburban dealers), police focus on black ‘ghettos’ almost exclusively.

I learned so much about the realities of drug use and the ‘war on drugs’ (did you know police departments keep any property they confiscate from drug suspects? you know, like accusers got to keep the property of ‘witches’ who were burned? except in this case, even if the suspect is later cleared of all charges, the police keep the property). And I read about decisions the Supreme Court has based in the past three decades that were so unbelievable I found myself flipping to the book to double-check Alexander’s sources. Surely the bastion of our constitutional protections wouldn’t say that it’s legal for police to randomly pull people over based on their skin colour? Or that the drug war is more important that people’s protection from random search and seizures? Oh but they did. Any illusions I retained about the justice system were completely shattered. But I’m glad I know, because now I can write letters to my representatives decrying policies.

I’m not going to get into all of her arguments here; after all, that’s the point of the book. And as a lawyer, Alexander lays it out much better than I ever could. But suffice it to say that grave injustices are being committed daily, and the greatest losers in the drug war are a minority the US has historically marginalized and oppressed. The New Jim Crow is an eminently readable, quite slim, non-partisan book that anyone who cares about our nation should read.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Courtroom 302 by Steve Bogira (I didn’t blog about this, but Bogira is a journalist who spent one year covering an ordinary Chicago courtroom. The people and cases he presents speak for themselves, and I think with its more personal focus it would be a great companion to the macro-analysis of The New Jim Crow.)
  • Reading is My Window by Megan Sweeney (Another one I didn’t blog about, despite its powerful effect on me. Sweeny is a sociologist, and this is a report on women prisoners and their relationship to books. I especially recommend it because I think it would be a good ‘short cut’ for empathy.)
  • True Notebooks by Mark Salzman (Yay! One I’ve blogged about! Salzman takes a more personal, memoir approach as he describes his first year as a volunteer running a creative writing program in a juvenile detention facility.)
  • BookMarks: Reading in Black and White by Karla Holloway (This is an excellent mix of personal and historical accounts of reading as an African American. I list it here for the chapter “A Prison Library,” but the entire book is wonderful.)

(Note: I welcome discussion, but since I’m on vacation and thus without as much internet access as usual, I’ve changed my comment setting to moderation. I don’t want to check my e-mail and find a flame war has somehow erupted (however unlikely that might be)! I’ll be approving as quickly as I can but no guarantees. I also can’t reply to all comments due to typing pain, I’d like to lay out some ground rules. If your comment is racist, I will not approve it. If you say something to the effect of “Wow, too bad the US has all those problems and is so racist, over in [insert foreign country], everything’s perfect,” I will not approve it. And if you want to share facts/links/etc. arguing with what I said in my first paragraph, I won’t approve that either: Alexander’s book is full of sources for all of her information, which I didn’t replicate in this brief review. So before you start talking about why the book’s conclusions are wrong, go read it. With all of that in mind, comment away!)

28 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2011 9:13 am

    I really appreciate that you bring up important social issues here. This book sounds like a great way to show how institutions and systems perpetuate racism. The argument can be hard to prove, so it is always impressive when there is someone or something that demonstrates it!

    By the way, I would like to sign up to be a member of the “eva rocks” fan club.

    • December 15, 2011 11:29 pm

      You’re so sweet! You rock, I love how you actually WORK for social justice issues.

  2. December 1, 2011 12:42 pm

    Thank you for recommending this very interesting book. However, I don’t agree that it should be strongly recommended almost exclusively to American citizens. There is a lot of rasicm in Europe these days (there’s some good book about Africans illegally travelling to Europe through Mediterranean Sea by Klaus Brinkbäumer, but it seems it was not translated to English) and, though the phenomenon is virtually non-existent in my country (Poland), it is only because there are terribly few people other than white over there. But I think it will be changing soon, and changing all over the world, with people fluctuating all over the place, which will make various governments act in various ways… So I think everyone should read it, particularly everyone from the “affluent North.” Have a nice vacation! :)

    • December 15, 2011 11:30 pm

      That’s a great point Pani! I know there’s a lot of racism in Europe as well, I just didn’t think there was a similar criminal justice/prison system thing. But the impact of racism can transcend the specifics, can’t it? Too bad the book wasn’t translated.

  3. December 1, 2011 3:29 pm

    So glad to hear this is such a fantastic book. I’ve been curious about it ever since first hearing about it on NPR, but have yet to pick it up…that will most certainly change after your review. It sounds so incredibly powerful, and definitely something we *all* need to read.

  4. December 1, 2011 6:00 pm

    I’m glad to hear this book is out. I have supported similar, piecemeal efforts by Students for Sensible Drug Policy ( to point out the many injustices of the “war on drugs.”

  5. December 1, 2011 6:22 pm

    The criminal justice system and the way it handles drugs is possibly the thing about American national policy that upsets me the most. In New York — I’m sure Alexander talks about this! — the police have this thing they do called a stop-and-frisk, where they can just stop anyone and frisk them! Just stop people and frisk them because they feel like it! And, surprise surprise, the majority of people they stop are black or Hispanic men. Ugh.

    Also, here is this article I read today about the privately-operated prisons. Eek. It sucks that this is never going to be a sexy issue for politicians to get behind, because somebody needs to fix this (excuse my language) bullshit.

    • December 15, 2011 11:33 pm

      Booo: I’ve read a bit about private prisons, and it’s so infuriating! Yep, Alexander talks about the frisking thing: such a violation. :(

  6. December 1, 2011 8:06 pm

    I’ve only heard great things about this book, and your review makes me want to read it even more than I did before, which says a lot!

  7. December 2, 2011 5:56 am

    As a public defender, I see this phenomenon in excruciating detail almost every day. My clients, the indigent accused, are the most likely to be taken advantage of in a system that is geared not only towards benefits for the racial majority, but also for the socioeconomic majority (and many times those two things go hand in hand). I am SO looking forward to reading Alexander’s book. I hope it may be under the tree for Christmas.

    Another good read, for those interested in the defense side of the criminal justice system, is Defending the Damned by Kevin Davis. It would probably be a good companion to Courtroom 302, as Davis explores a few cases handled by the public defender’s office, also in Chicago.

    • December 15, 2011 11:34 pm

      Thank you for the reading suggestion! I’ve requested it from the library.

  8. December 2, 2011 11:24 am

    As a non-US citizen (but one who spends a lot of time in the US) I can say that this book isn’t just for Americans. I was absolutely blown away by it and am still trying to figure out how to write a review. Like you, I couldn’t believe much of what I read, even though I already knew some of it… (for example, in one city I’ve worked with when they had to take me to their other office it was always in different ‘city cars’ that came from drug raids…. One of which was a minivan…).

    • December 15, 2011 11:34 pm

      Ok, I shouldn’t have said that in my post I guess! I stand corrected! ;)

      • December 16, 2011 12:09 am

        Eh for someone who never goes to the US maybe less interesting? not sure :)

  9. December 2, 2011 11:27 am

    Definitely sounds worthwhile to read. I will be adding this to list for 2012,

  10. December 2, 2011 7:47 pm

    Interesting review Eva! I’m adding this one to my TBR list because it sounds SO interesting. Thanks for sharing :)

  11. December 3, 2011 10:58 am

    Thanks for reviewing this book. I’ve been thinking about reading it for a while now and after reading your review perhaps I will. Thanks !

  12. December 3, 2011 5:08 pm

    What an interesting book. My brother, the lawyer, would appreciate this book. Thank you for such a informative review.

  13. December 4, 2011 3:52 pm

    Glad you reviewed this, Eva, so more people will be aware. The Drug War has harmed the US justice system far more than most people realize, i fear.

  14. December 4, 2011 9:18 pm

    I’ve been meaning to read this ever since it came out. It’s caused quite a stir in the progressive lawyering community. In New York (and elsewhere, I think) some people have started the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow (details here:

    I second the recommended Defending the Damned. I had to read that for my Criminal Defense clinic in law school, and it’s a good look at the life of public defenders representing death row clients. It’s not about the war on drugs, but it does help show why everyone needs access to representation when they are accused of a crime.

    • December 15, 2011 11:35 pm

      Thanks for the link MJ! And I’m glad to see a second lawyer rec for Defending the Damned. :)

  15. December 11, 2011 8:32 am

    The stop and search policy is just…yeah. And police wonder why everyone gives them the side eye when they walk through the streets. It reminds me of airport security checks which, if you watch them being enforced, always seem to happen to Asian people on the way out of this country. Really interesting bit you’ve pulled out there about what kind of dealers drug users go to.

    • December 15, 2011 11:39 pm

      Irreverent anecdote alert! Every time my mom and I fly together, just the two of us, we’re chosen for the more thorough search at the airport. We joke that since we’re both petite blondes, we’re the ‘exception’ TSA uses to try to prove it’s not racially profiling.

      • December 16, 2011 12:08 am

        ME TOO! No lie, I cross the border what, two or more times a month and of all my trips I’d estimate I’m chosen for extra security about 75% of the time. Hair pat-down, extra scan, bags randomly checked, hand swab, some combination almost every time!

  16. joyweesemoll permalink
    July 12, 2013 4:21 pm

    Thanks for this! I just reviewed this and was pleased to see another book blogger had tackled it, too!


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