The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
This is not a good book, but it is not as bad a book as it seems to want to be. Admittedly, I am not the audience this book is directed at, nor am I as empathetic as I would be to the author if I shared some of the identity or political concerns of the author. Yet even though although the author is extremely biased, she is at least rational enough to realize that in order for there to be changes made to the criminal justice system (not generally changes I am in support of, it should be noted), that there will need to be a coalition that is built between different groups. Admittedly, the author’s insight into prison is drastically hindered, as is often the case, by a misguided Marxist analysis, as the author spends most of the book frustrated at what she judges as divide and conquer politics where poor whites and poor blacks are pitted against each other any time they seek to divide against what she judges as an unjust capitalist elite. Again, the author’s politics are not something I have a high degree of regard for, and they lead her astray often, but I suppose it is easier to read someone who wants a tactical alliance with poor whites as opposed to being filled with a blind hatred of all whites, as is often the case in a book like this.
This book is a bit more than 250 pages and begins with an introduction by Cornel West. After that there is a preface and acknowledgements before the author introduces her subject by discussing about the contemporary prison system in the context of various means of racial control that have existed throughout American history. After that the author talks about the rebirth of caste by presenting ex-cons and convicted felons as an underclass (1). She looks at the lockdown and how it extends far beyond imprisonment itself to a whole host of post-prison problems like the loss of voting rights and difficulties finding a place to live or finding and keeping a job (2). This leads to a discussion of the heavy effect of imprisonment on race and class where the author forgets that correlation is not causation (3). After that the author laments the cruel hand of the police and government on those who have committed crimes and been duly convicted of them (4). After this she tries to argue that the current prison system is a new Jim Crow (5) and calls for a new civil rights movement against it (6), after which there are notes and an index.
Ultimately, what keeps this book from being remotely good are some very basic matters. For one, the author is resolutely hostile to personal responsibility. She is adamant about wanting to blame societal structures for the shortcomings of individuals who find themselves in unkind systems where an early hostility to the legal and social order leads to increasing alienation and exploitation from it. The failure to seek after education and advancement, the lure of illegal and quick money from drugs, and the fact that once one is a convicted felon there are few options and a lot more restrictions on one’s conduct that are difficult to successfully handle tend to create a cycle of imprisonment. The author’s Marxist approach, not being in accordance with reality, cannot help but fail to provide her with what she needs to make a genuinely moral stand against the abuses of a system that nonetheless reflect a generally popular will to separate ordinary law abiding society from a criminal underclass that is exploited for the purposes of a harsh government. One may not like this reality, but the author is not equipped to speak out against it because her own worldview is so deeply mistaken.