Michelle Alexander’s thesis is radical. Alexander claims that the mass incarceration of black men, under the guise of “law and order” political appeals and the War on Drugs, perpetuates a system of racial control that rivals the explicit caste system of Jim Crow. Anticipating skepticism, she writes:
Because mass incarceration is officially colorblind, it seems inconceivable that the system could function much like a racial caste system. The widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control is the most important reason that we, as a nation, have remained in deep denial.
Sadly, Alexander marshalls enough evidence to convince me that she’s more right than wrong. Almost unlimited police and prosecutorial discretion, coupled with implicit biases that are nearly universal (she cites an experiment in which even African American participants “were more likely to mistake a black target as armed when he was not, and mistake a white target as unarmed, when in fact he was armed), combined with a series of Supreme Court decisions that have shut the door to any legal action challenging the fairness of selective prosecution/sentencing/jury selection on statistical grounds, have created a system in which explicitly neutral laws have decidedly biased effects. All this, plus the selective targetting of urban drug transactions over campus, suburban, and rural markets, has resulted in many states incarcerating black men at a rate “from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of whites.”
Differential rates of drug use are not a viable expanation for these discrepancies. A 2000 NIDA study found white students using cocaine at a rate 7 times that of black students, another study found identical rates of marijuana use among black and white high school seniors, while the “National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported in 2000 that youth aged 12-17 are more than a third more likely to have sold illegal drugs than African American youth.”
After drug suspects are arrested (perhaps on a pretextual stop made possible by the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the 4th amendment) and convicted (perhaps thanks to the Supreme Court’s refusal to invalidate peremptory challenges used by prosecutors to create all-white juries), come mandatory sentencing guidelines. Maybe the most affecting passage in The New Jim Crow is a quote from an American Lawyer article:
US District Judge William W. Schwarzer, a Republican appointee, is not known as a light sentencer. Thus it was that everyone in his San Francisco courtroom watched in stunned silence as Schwarzer, known for his stoic demeanor, choked with tears as he anguished over sentencing Richard Anderson, a first offender Oakland longshoreman, to ten years in prison without parole for what appeared to be a minor mistake in judgment in having given a ride to a drug dealer for a meeting with an undercover agent.
Alexander argues that prison sentences, however stiff, are only one element of our new caste system. Felons face limited access to voting, education, housing, public assistance, employment - on this note, I’ve wondered what would have happened to Michael Vick if he wasn’t a football star - and most importantly, face a powerful social stigma unlike any faced by African Americans in previous incarnations of Jim Crow.
To read Alexander’s amid the Obama administration’s backsliding on its promise to declare a cease-fire in the War on Drugs is profoundly depressing. It’s hard to underestimate the federal government’s role in this quagmire. With 14,000+ independent police departments in the United States, it’s the DEA and DOJ that provide the financial incentives for a nationwide militarized response to drug use. Past time for those resources to be put to better use.
tl;dr version: I was considerably happier before I read this book.