The Criminal Caste

The New Jim Crow coverThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander
The New Press, 2010

I began working in the California prison system in 2008, the year Barack Obama won his first election. In the prison, the response to the news of his victory was quiet. About two-thirds of the men in the outpatient program where I work are African-American, and about as many have spent or will spend much of their adult lives locked up, many of them serving terms of twenty-five years to life for nonviolent crimes. Asked how they felt about the election, inmates in the program answered that it didn’t matter. The response wasn’t skeptical—it was bitter. Now, in Obama’s second term, their attitudes toward Obama continue to be ambivalent: they express a clear sense of the irony of their position at the present historical moment—a moment in which the laws of this country continue to deny equal protection to a large segment of its minority population.

Readers of The New Jim Crow may be familiar with some of the facts about imprisonment in the United States. In California, where prison overcrowding has officially been recognized as constituting a human rights crisis, voters approved a measure reforming the state’s three-strikes law in November 2012. Other states’ biased law enforcement practices, for example those authorized under New York City’s stop-and-frisk program, have recently come under closer scrutiny. The fact remains that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world—a rate six to ten times greater than other industrialized nations—although our crime rates fall below the international average. No other country in the world imprisons its racial or ethnic minorities so disproportionately.

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander—a professor at Ohio State University and former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Northern California—takes the rise of incarceration over the last thirty years as her starting point, and discusses the increase in numbers, as well as the disparity in rates of incarceration between races, as a direct consequence of the “war on drugs.” She asks, in effect, how we can account for this war without a concurrent rise in drug crime, and how we are to explain its dramatic racial disparities, which have been shown to be unrelated to the rates of using and selling among blacks and whites.
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