Book Review: The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, with thoughts about an old friend

Andy goodson mounts 2

I dreamed about an old friend last night. Angus Goodson – whom we always called “Andy” to distinguish him from his father, also Angus Goodson – died last year. But I wasn’t aware of that fact in my dream. I was having a dream I often have, where I’m wandering around a city that I know well (sometimes it’s an airport) and trying to find my way somewhere. This time, it was Eugene, Oregon, where I spent my high school and college years, and, with my kids, I was trying to get to my father’s old house at the southern edge of town by bus. It was always a long and winding bus trip, and in the dream the number of changes and wait times were exaggerated (I also call this the “frustration dream”). This time I found myself sitting in the downtown bus mall, for about the third time, waiting for the next bus, when I saw a small art gallery. I went inside, and there was Andy working on a drawing. He had a bunch of different kinds of artwork posted around him. Some of it had religious content – Andy was a Baha’i, so Persian themes – and some were impressionistic landscapes. I said “I didn’t know you were an artist, this stuff is good.” Andy replied that he had taken up art lately. I bought one of his drawings and went outside, only to find that my bus had come and gone and my kids had gone with it. I went back in and asked Andy if he could take a few minutes to drop me off at home and he said he would. Then I woke up.

The Iroquois Indians, from whom I am, in very small measure, descended, believed that dreams were messages from the spirit world carrying important messages for the living. Whenever an Iroquois would have a memorable dream, he would recount it to everyone and huge discussions would result about its meaning, what the dreamer should do or refrain from doing., etc. It occurred to me after I woke up that Andy died of kidney failure, a consequence of dysentery he caught while working on a State Department contract in Africa. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, or so they say. So maybe he’s trying to tell me to be more careful about what I eat and drink here.

I also took my Mefloquine yesterday. Mefloquine is one of the drugs used to prevent malaria. It only needs to be taken once a week and has fewer physical side effects than the other common prophylactics but it does have a psycho-active effect. I have always tolerated it well but this was no doubt a Mefloquine dream. Those Iroquois guys would sometimes take psychoactives to help them communicate with the spirit world, too.

More likely, though, since Andy was very concerned throughout his life about justice, and the night before I finished reading an important book about justice, the dream was a commentary on my reading list. Andy was a Baha’i, which means he was a pacifist. He joined the faith as a teenager and, as a member of a well-known peace church, he qualified for conscientious objector status under the draft laws in force during the Vietnam conflict. But he didn’t take advantage of that by staying home, instead he opted for non-combatant service as a medic. He cared about other people and about healing the broken world. As such, he would have cared about the situation described in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012).

Actually, Andy read enormously and may well have read this, it came out originally in 2010 so he had several years to get around to it. It took me several years to get around to it but when I saw it on the shelves of the American Embassy library I knew this was my chance.


Alexander’s thesis is that the astoundingly high rates of imprisonment and post-prison supervision for men of color, especially black men, in America are not an accident or a product of astoundingly high rates of lawlessness in these populations but instead a new system of racial exclusion cleverly designed to replace the old, color-defined Jim Crow with a new, superficially colorblind version that achieves the same goals. The goals of the system, according to Alexander, are to mobilize poor and rural whites behind a political vision that gives them a sense of superiority (as non-criminals, now) while continuing to deny them a share in the wealth and privilege enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful.

The system grew out of the brief attempt at racial justice that the US made in the 1960s after the achievements of the Civil Rights movement. For a short while, there was a danger that poor whites and poor blacks would unite to actually address the problems of poverty and exclusion in American life. This is what Martin Luther King was pushing for towards the end of his life, with his Poor People’s March on Washington, for example. This is also what Lyndon Johnson was pushing for in his War on Poverty programs. But with their focus on “law and order” and the “war on drugs”, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were able to refocus the debate on the difference between criminals, largely non-white, and the “law-abiding” majority, very white.

The way Dr. Alexander tells it, at each stage in the process from crime to punishment, especially when the crime is drug-related, the system exercises an enormous amount of discretion. And overwhelmingly, statistics show that discretion is exercised to the disfavor of non-whites. So white and non-white people commit drug crimes at about the same rate – this has been shown in plenty of surveys and is pretty much established. In fact, the highest rates of illegal drug use are found among upper and middle-class young white men – they can afford the drugs and they feel little fear of punishment because the “war on drugs” isn’t being waged against them. In the inner cities, on the other hand, the police are omnipresent. There are all sorts of laws and Supreme Court decisions empowering the police to stop and search anyone they want.

A side note: the searches often used by the police to find drugs on young black men are what are called “consent searches”. Police ask, often forcefully, hands on guns, if they may look through the suspect’s possessions. People very often say yes to whatever the police ask because they fear being shot. Police, of course, as we know from all sorts of recent cases, are pretty much empowered to shoot whoever they want without fear of punishment. So the suspects “consent” to a search. First rule, for any young black men in America who are reading this, and I’m related to two (hi kids!): never consent to a search. Don’t make any fast moves, don’t reach for your wallet or anything, keep your hands up, but say “no, I do not give consent for a search of my (car, bag, person).” If the cops insist, say “I do not give permission but you have guns and if you are giving me the alternative between being shot or opening my bag I will comply under protest.” And then you ask if you are under arrest or if you are free to go. If they deny that you have been arrested, leave.

So the young black man who has some drugs on him is much more likely to be caught than the young white man. Then, when they get to the stage of being referred to a prosecutor, their treatment is statistically very different. White drug offenders are often referred to drug treatment, sometimes as a sentence for the drug crime but sometimes before charges are even filed. Prosecutors are more likely to be open to arguments that the white kid’s drug habit is a medical problem, while the black kid’s drug problem is seen as an element of his basic underlying criminality. Dr. Alexander argues that this is a product of cultural demonization of black drug crime by media, politicians, and popular culture, including the black culture of “gangsta”, cultural demonization that grew up in the 80s along with the drug war. She addresses the role of “gangsta” and compares it to minstrelsy in the Jim Crow era – a way for some blacks to make a living off the stereotypes directed at them, but also part of the apparatus of cultural demonization and control. So once arrested, black drug criminals are much more likely to be tried. They are also more likely to be convicted; for socioeconomic reasons related to poverty in inner cities and political reasons related to under-funding of public defender offices (why public defenders have lower budgets than public prosecutors is a whole ‘nother story), black drug defendants have much poorer legal representation. Almost all drug defendants plead guilty – nobody goes to trial any more, Law & Order to the contrary notwithstanding – but without meaningful legal representation the deal the poor black drug defendant gets from the prosecutor is going to be a lot worse than the deal the white defendant gets. This is another place where white drug criminals are siphoned out of the system, by being sentenced to drug treatment with the deal that criminal charges will be wiped from their records if they complete treatment and remain drug-free for a certain amount of time.

And then, having pled guilty to a felony drug crime, the young black man enters into the New Jim Crow. While in jail, he is living in a very highly segregated environment. Even after he finishes paying his ‘debt to society’, the segregation and discrimination remains. All the forms of discrimination that existed under Jim Crow – exclusion from many categories of jobs, exclusion from government benefits, exclusion from housing, exclusion from schools, loss of the right to vote etc. – are all still legal in this country if they are applied to “felons”. And enormous numbers of black men are “felons”, thanks to the racial disparities at each stage in the “war on drugs”. There are also white drug felons, of course. I actually know a couple. If 100% of the people subject to this system were non-white, America would see it for what it is, a system of racial exclusion, and the ideas of the Civil Rights Movement would come to the fore. On the rare occasions where somebody in the system expresses an explicitly racist idea – cops stupid enough to get their pictures taken with the Confederate flag or what have you – public opinion cracks down, and the offending cop or prosecutor has some sanction as a “bad apple”. But thanks to that cultural demonization, we are prepared to believe that 80 or 90 percent of drug felons are blacks or Latinos even though those groups make up something less than 1/4 of all Americans.

Speaking of cultural demonization, Alexander suggests a thought experiment – when you read the words “drug criminal”, what image pops into your mind first? I should say that for me, it was one of those white guys I know. He’s probably a very distinguished middle-class professional now, so I won’t use his name, but back in my college days he was a somewhat sleazy drug dealer who lived just south of campus and provided me and my friends with small amounts of marijuana as a way to pay for his college education. And, of course, he was never caught and was in no particular danger of being caught. Maybe I’m just weird, though. For most people, it is probably some “gangsta” rapper or somebody they saw on TV, most likely black.

Alexander points out that this system operates without explicit racial lines being drawn, probably not even in most people’s heads. Over and over, white people, including people who work in the criminal justice system, tell pollsters that they don’t want to be racist, they don’t think of themselves as racists, they are opposed to racism. The system grew out of Jim Crow, but the essential difference is that it cannot be explicitly racist. Just like Jim Crow grew out of slavery, but the difference was that it could not assign ownership rights over specific black people to specific white people. The racial exclusion and marginalization continued to exist, but under a different guise.

Another important difference between Jim Crow (and slavery) and our current system is that the previous systems were ways to organize and exploit the labor of people of all colors. Slavery and Jim Crow promised a psychological benefit to white workers to make up for their lousy wages and working conditions (especially in the South). And slavery and Jim Crow reserved certain occupations (the more difficult and dirty ones) for blacks and thus ensured that those functions would be performed at a low price. Our current system, though, doesn’t have any place for poor black workers, as detailed in William J. Wilson’s When Work Disappears, a very important book. Increasingly, white working class people have less and less role in our economy too. The psychological benefit of non-criminal status is offered to white working class people to help them adjust to permanent under-employment, alongside, but separate from, the permanently unemployed black “felons” of the inner cities.

Alexander’s conclusions are somewhat depressing, I might add. She points out that the profound revolutions in American society that destroyed the last two systems of racial control did not destroy racism. The Civil War killed around a million Americans, destroyed slavery, but allowed it to be replaced within a few decades by Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement and the 60s saw the destruction of Jim Crow, at a much reduced cost, thank God. But they did not see the end of racial controls. To destroy racial controls, we have to have a sense of solidarity and common purpose that transcends the lines drawn between races. Changing hearts is always more difficult than changing laws and institutions – the lesson of Reconstruction, America’s failed revolution (also the title of a mighty fine book by Eric Foner), and also of the Civil Rights era.

One criticism I have of the book is the almost-exclusive focus on black men as victims of this system. She often refers to non-whites, but there is little discussion of the role of Latinos, native people, and others in this system. They suffer under some of these problems, but have escaped others (like, for Latinos, the problem of pervasive unemployment for their men). Also, while several very articulate black women are quoted, and the author herself is a black woman, there is almost no attention to the gender-specific nature of this control – the vast majority of convicted drug felons are men. What does it mean for a culture when huge numbers of its men are absent in prison, and then when they get out can find no legitimate employment? What does it mean that black women are much more likely to graduate from college than black men, to have professional employment, etc.? She refers to the “where are all the black men” question in her introduction but then does not carry through on this element of her analysis.

Anyway, this was a fine book, very worthy of your attention.

And rest in peace, Andy, and I hope you enjoy your art.


3 thoughts on “Book Review: The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, with thoughts about an old friend

  1. Excellent review. You will want to check out THE AMERICAN SLAVE COAST–just came out, and I know one of the authors (Cora Buhlert). The War on Drugs took many casualties; this made me remember that I’ve got my own war stories about political events in the 80s. When you get back to the States we’ve gotta get together. Or if your family ever wants to go to Wallowa Lake, we’ve got a guest room for grownups (one bed, alas).


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