The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow  is controversial, and for good reason: the tone is harsh and urgent, the thesis is bold and nearly unthinkable, and the piling evidence is a slap in the face.  In retrospect, the book’s prescribed shock therapy was the only way allow serious dialogue about the U.S. criminal justice system. Alexander questioned the notions that justice was blind, and that prison was the end-all solution for crime.

Perhaps the most surprisingly takeaway is the fact that incarceration rates move independently of crime rates. Of course, incarceration rates should move independently of crime rates. Prisoners are prisoners because they commit crimes. Therefore, incarceration rates should rise as crime rates rise. This is not so. The justice system isn’t objective and apolitical. In fact, it is shaped by political policy, and executed through subjective enforcement.

Alexander points to the extent to which drug policy has affected the justice system.  The war on drugs has counted for two-thirds of the increase in the incarceration rate. The power of a simple policy change has transformed the judicial system, and the communities that we live in. Furthermore, certain policies disproportionately affects some social groups than others. For example, a more severe ban on cocaine than on crack has been interpreted to benefit white citizens. Policies are created by politicians, and are naturally political.

Lastly, the enforcement of policies can be handled in many ways. Selective enforcement affects the types of people that are arrested. Alexander makes the case that racial profiling is conscious and intentional; she points to the fact that though white professionals have higher rates of drug crime, 90% of drug arrests are black in many cities.

Justice can never truly be objective. Acknowledging this allows one to admit flaws in the justice system. Admitting flaws allows one to seriously examine and improve the current status quo.


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