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Arts and Entertainment

A high-brow examination of Jim Crow
Published Thursday, February 18, 2010 8:00 am
by Terri Schlichenmeyer

“The New Jim Crow”
by Michelle Alexander
The New Press       
290 pages

Bang. Click.

Those are the sounds you’d hear. The first, a judge’s gavel coming down, sealing your fate for life. The second, the sound of handcuffs going around your wrists, leading to a chain around your waist.

That’s what you’d hear if you were convicted of a felony. Maybe you’d be guilty. Maybe you’d be innocent. For sure, you’d be scared.
In cities all over the country, African Americans – particularly men – face unbalanced rates of incarceration when compared to prison time served by whites. In the book “The New Jim Crow,” author Michelle Alexander likens this travesty to slavery and more.

In 48 of the 50 United States, if you are convicted of a drug felony, you lose your right to vote. Discrimination of felons is legal, so getting or keeping a job may be nearly impossible. Good luck finding an apartment because you automatically become ineligible for public housing and food stamps. Because you’ll be newly homeless, chances are that you’ll lose your kids, too.

In her job as a litigator, Alexander began to pay attention to this.

“I came to see,” she says, “that mass incarceration… emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control… strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

Her finger points almost directly to the War on Drugs.

Research shows that all races use and sell illegal drugs at the same rate, but African Americans are arrested and convicted at much higher rates than are whites; in fact, over 13 times more black men have been sent to state prisons on drug charges than whites.
Surely, much of the problem can be attributed to poverty and lack of resources, but Alexander also believes that racial profiling is at fault. Officials appear to be targeting African Americans when it comes to drugs and crime, and judges often seem uncomfortable with unfair sentencing laws.

So what can be done?

Alexander says that we don’t want “colorblindness”; rather, we need to follow the teachings of Dr. King by learning to recognize and accept differences. Non-complacency, solidarity, and being vocal in opposition to this old-new way of discrimination can definitely make change.

Using heart-wrenching stories and hard, solid facts, author, advocate and litigator Michelle Alexander makes an excellent argument. Her war on the War on Drugs is compelling and her call for a large overhaul of police departments, laws, and court systems makes total sense. No doubt, this book will make readers impassioned and hungry for action.

The problem – and Alexander admits this in her introduction – is that this book is not for general audiences. The material is steeped in legalese and statistics and you will find most of the book is pretty dry for the lay-person.

If you’re interested in social justice and want to make a difference, this book is definitely worth trying. Beware, though, that it’s not a relaxing Sunday read, by any means. While “The New Jim Crow” is a bang-up book, for most casual readers, it just won’t click.


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