BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky

Locked Up and Locked Out

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander unpacks the brutal locking up and locking out of black and brown males stateside since the 1980s. Mainly, she faults the so-called War on Drugs.

Driving this policy is the white racism that permeates US culture. Marshaling a wide scope of evidence in a strong introduction and six chapters, Alexander personalizes many of those trapped in what she terms a “caste system” of legal disenfranchisement.

Alexander’s thesis is clear. A skin-color discrimination of the Jim Crow era continues below the radar screen as President Barack Obama’s final term begins, which might surprise some whites.

To wit, colorblind policies of the criminal justice system target nonwhites for involvement with illegal drugs disproportionately. Upon release from prison, punitive laws and policies prevent ex-felons, disproportionately nonwhite, from returning to mainstream society.

What follows that is millions of second-class citizens. Chapter one traces the rise of a “law and order” viewpoint in the post-Civil Rights era, erected after efforts of racial segregationists battling against blacks and their allies rallying for human rights, law and order.

Alexander argues that the War on Drugs fit the penal bill. Nine out of 10 drug offenders put behind bars were black or Latino, far outstripping their number in the populace, revealing the deep structures of white supremacy as the post-WW II prosperity ended.

In her second chapter, Alexander takes stock of how exactly the War on Drugs rounds up and locks up non-whites. For instance, she details how the Supreme Court has enabled police, under the guise of drug-enforcement, to stop and arrest suspects, then seize their cash, cars, etc.

Alexander fleshes out the shifting sands of (un)reasonable suspicion as the Supreme Court interprets the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and police departments stop and frisk black and brown people.

Meanwhile, federal policy has shoveled “huge cash grants” of tax dollars to police departments opting to prioritize drug-law enforcement. Here is a telling money trail.

Meanwhile, political slogans bloom into all-out war, without explicitly advocating or engaging in outright race discrimination. The results are: “About as many people were returned to prison for parole violations in 2000 as were admitted to prison in 1980 for all reasons.”

How does a colorblind War on Drugs operate? We turn to a chapter titled “The Color of Justice.”

First, police choose those they want to stop, search and arrest for illegal drug involvement. Last, the Supreme Court bars challenges to step-one of such racial bias policies and practices in the criminal justice system.

As Alexander documents with proof here and throughout her book, whites are up to their ears in buying, selling and using illegal drugs, but they avoid the officially colorblind policy that targets those with black and brown skin for the twin evils of prisons and parole. A culture of cruelty infects the criminal justice system for nonwhites in the US, Alexander writes, whose bitter fates are to be social punching bags when they leave prison.

Government policies deny parolees id for food and shelter, as debt from their imprisonment shrinks job prospects. “Nearly every state allows private employers to discriminate on the basis of past criminal convictions,” Alexander writes, as most jobs are in the private, not public, sector.

An African American is president, a major milestone. However, what is happening to black people around the US is at least as major.

“More African American adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850,” the author writes. Reading The New Jim Crow makes one contemplate how the process of mass incarceration remains off the public radar screen.

In the short-term, Americans of all backgrounds can and should learn how and why laws and policies that relegate black and brown men and women to an under-caste via a so-called War on Drugs should end. That requires a social movement, as Alexander writes.

Wrapping up, Alexander riffs on author James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time. Alexander calls for a re-set of racial justice activism that boldly does “advocacy on behalf of criminals.”

She makes the case that the conventional strategies and wisdom strengthen “a flawed public consensus” concerning the nation’s system of mass incarceration. Somehow and someway, the nation’s people have to realize their common interests in creating a new social order based on laws and policies that provide all citizens with opportunities to develop fully.

Alexander could have noted that the US economy requires prison cells for surplus labor, mainly black and brown workers with scant hiring chances. Nevertheless, her book is a strong tool for positive social change.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2013

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