Book Review: The New Jim Crow

by Mal Herbert

THE NEW JIM CROW, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, is a compelling explanation of the systematic way our legal system, under both Democrats and Republicans, has used the “War on Drugs” to disenfranchise black citizens.

In his forward to the paperback edition, Cornel West says this book is “a wake-up call in the midst of a long slumber of indifference to the poor and vulnerable” and “a genuine resurrection of the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. amid the confusion of the Age of Obama.”

From the beginning, “The War on Drugs,” declared by president Ronald Reagan in 1982, has operated under a caste system arresting many more black people for drug possession than whites, who use them at about the same rate. Black drivers have been especially targeted and often a traffic stop for a defective tail light morphs into a drug search of the car. The Supreme Court ruled that such unwarranted drug searches were permissible. President Bill Clinton signed the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” provision into law, and a prison industrial complex was built around the country to profit from the increasing numbers of black inmates.

Alexander writes, “At the time the drug war was declared, illegal drug use and abuse was not a pressing concern in most communities.” The announcement of a “War on Drugs” was met with some confusion and resistance within local law enforcement, which saw it as a diversion of resources away from more serious crimes such as murder, rape, grand theft and violent assault — all of which were of far greater concern in most communities than illegal drug use. This dilemma was solved by awarding large Federal grants and equipment, which were donated by the U.S. military to law enforcement agencies willing to make drug-law enforcement a top priority.

Black teenagers are five times more likely to become convicted “felons” for minor drug offenses than whites and to be imprisoned. There they do menial work rather than receive rehabilitation or education, which could improve their lives. Once released, they face re-entry into ghetto communities with no support in finding jobs or housing because of their status. As felons, and in most U.S. states, felons are prevented from ever voting again.

Discussions of The New Jim Crow, with its call for reforming the U.S. judicial system, have appeared on public radio and in the press. The book is available from both the Brattleboro and Putney public libraries and sells for $19.95 in paperback.


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