I’d heard a lot about Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow before I finally got around to reading it—how “devastating” it was, how it would irrevocably change the way I looked at the world. And I saw a lot of it too, with people on the subway and elsewhere obviously absorbed by it. I became familiar with its haunting cover—two black hands clutching prison bars above the subtitle: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Alexander came around to writing The New Jim Crow out of her own skepticism about the severity of racial injustice. She was working for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in northern California when she saw a poster taped to a bus stop by “some radical group” that read: “The Drug War is the New Jim Crow.” She thought the characterization to be exaggerated, so she decided to look deeper into the history of the war on drugs. But what she found by digging through the fine print of the tough-on-crime bills passed in the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush (II), and Obama years—and by reviewing the media campaigns against drugs—was that the poster had it right. The mass incarceration resulting from drug laws has essentially had the same effect as Jim Crow by creating and sustaining a racial “undercaste,” Alexander discovered, and like Jim Crow has also kept black Americans out of power. Since explicitly racist laws can’t be made, implicitly racist ones are. “It’s easy to be completely unaware that this vast new system of racial and social control has emerged,” Alexander told the New York Times shortly after the book’s release in 2012. “Unlike in Jim Crow days, there were no ‘Whites Only’ signs. This system is out of sight, out of mind.”
As someone who grew up in the “age of colorblindness,” I’ve experienced a sort of disembodied understanding of race, and I was taught that the United States had moved beyond a history of “racist” laws. Alexander’s book has led me to realize that it’s not only drug laws and mass incarceration that have created and helped sustained a new undercaste, but also the inaction of that part of America for whom the system works; by the complacency that comes with trust in the political system, they can help sanction injustice. Awakening to how I’ve been used in this way is freeing—things begin to make more sense when you understand why something you think is wrong is, in fact, wrong. Reading this book wasn’t as grueling as I expected it to be. Alexander’s writing is accessible and captivating. By the end, you feel galvanized.