The New Jim Crow (2010), by Michelle Alexander
Decades of subtly racist media have taught us what a criminal looks like. In COPS, people of color and the impoverished are hounded by police for our entertainment, often on mere suspicion of some ill-defined wrongdoing. In Death Wish, around every city corner is a thug armed to the teeth and eagerly waiting to inflict misery upon a hapless victim. Even on our evening news programs we see the rare occurrence of a serious crime elevated to a fervor of sensationalism. Growing up in a white, middle class community, I consumed this media diet without question. As a result, I knew what criminals looked like; they looked like cartoonishly evil muggers, drug dealers, and murderers. And more often than not, these evil-doers were people of color. The only thing standing between us good, law-abiding Americans and those all-too-often-Black agents of chaos and disorder was our criminal justice system.
But as I grew up and left my small, sheltered community for the big city of Chicago, I saw for the first time neighbors and friends there—most of them people of color in poor neighborhoods—who were terrorized by the criminal justice system. These were some of the kindest, most upstanding people I had ever met, but I could see the fear in their eyes when a police cruiser drove by. It wasn’t because they had some secret guilt to hide from the cops. It was because a history of racism, both institutional and cultural, has taught us and our legal system that people of color are to be feared and controlled. After the killing of George Floyd and the nation-wide protests of 2020, police violence against people of color is in the spotlight. More than ever, Americans are questioning what we’ve been taught about race and crime for so long.
For allies in the fight against racial injustice, it is essential to have a better understanding of this storied, institutionalized, and complicated history. For such an education, there are few books better than Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. It’s been twelve years since the book’s original publication, and its contents have only become more relevant as America struggles with issues of race and the law. A highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar, Alexander provides argument and evidence for a history of white supremacy in our nation beyond what we’re taught about in school, all made possible by our legal system. While some like to claim that treatment of people of color by the criminal justice system is merely a case of “a few bad apples,” Alexander shows it is rather a part of a systemic racial hierarchy that survives the defeat of the original Jim Crow segregation laws. In essence, a combination of legislation, court precedent, and enforcement have led to America’s new, more subtle Jim Crow.
Alexander engages with the reader and provides digestible discussion of the historical context and developments that led to where we are today. She also calls attention to particular areas of concern as it relates to law and race. We’ve become numb to police violence against people of color, it’s happened so often. The Supreme Court has ruled that racially discriminatory policies are okay as long as they weren’t built with discrimination in mind (see the 1976 case Washington v. Davis). Our prisons are disproportionately populated by people of color, despite criminologists showing again and again that there is no difference in crime rates by race.
Unfortunately, for far too long activists and allies of racial justice have given too little consideration to how our nation’s legal system is itself a contributor to our ugly history of discrimination and human suffering. Understanding how our law and legal institutions are ripe and begging for reform is an important step in bringing about justice to all Americans. Anyone motivated to help address America’s struggle with racial injustice would do well to add The New Jim Crow to their reading list.