Are you a person who questions the existence of systemic racism? I used to be. Moreover, so was Michelle Alexander before she wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This is in part a review of the audiobook. However, it is also intended to make the case worth investigation for those who doubt.
Full disclosure. I was convinced of the general argument before reading the book. However, as a person who at one time was unconvinced, I understand the views of those who remain so. Therefore, my goal is to present a brief summary of the conclusions from the book in a format that might cause skeptics to take a closer look.
The New Jim Crow
The New Jim Crow argues that there is racism built into our criminal justice system. Hence, none of the players must necessarily be racist in order to achieve a racist outcome. Rather, a racially biased outcome will necessarily be achieved because of 4 basic pillars of the system.
Legislating The New Jim Crow:
Michelle Alexander argues that there is racism built into the legislation itself. Her argument is convincing. One example is the disparity between the treatment of crack and powder cocaine. Posession of 500 grams of powder cocaine triggered a 5 year mandatory minimum sentence. However for crack cocaine, the amount required for the same minimum sentence was 5 grams.
The irony here is that crack actually contains less powder cocaine than an equivalent amount of actual powder cocaine. The illegal drug element of the two products is virtually identical chemically. Furthermore, since crack contains less cocaine, it is cheaper per hit. Hence, it is preferred in poorer neighborhoods. Namely, the ghettos. Thus it is used at a higher rate by occupants of these neighborhoods. Namely, black and brown people.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander provides a lot of statistical information. She establishes that drug use rates are similar between whites and blacks. However, because of mandatory minimum sentences like this one, punishment is more severe for African American offenders.
Despite whites and blacks having similar rates of drug use, drug enforcement is targeted in communities that are largely minority. Again, Michelle Alexander gives facts and figures to establish this argument. However, are those really even necessary?
Be honest here, my fellow white citizens. We already knew this. Moreover, “bad neighborhood” has become a term largely synonymous with “black neighborhood” in our lexicon. Yes, there are exceptions. However, when we say the one thing we typically also mean the other.
Prosecution and The New Jim Crow
This was the part that surprised me. Michelle Alexander gives examples that I was unaware of. An example would be a law firm who had defended over 200 federal cases involving crack cocaine in a 2 year period. However, one of the attorneys happened to notice that none of their clients were white. Therefore, he consulted with an attorney friend who represented clients involved in crack cases in state courts. Moreover, they discovered that many white people were being diverted to state courts for the same charges.
This diversion allowed the recipients to avoid federal mandatory minimum sentences. White privilege, anyone? However, when they sued to get the proof from the prosecutor they were denied. Supreme Court rulings actually demand that they prove the racism in prosecution before they can get the evidence that proves the racism. Thus, the systemic racism perpetuates itself.
How The New Jim Crow perpetuates itself post conviction.
Obviously, the previous points all play a role here. First, if the law itself targets minorities for longer sentences, obviously they are in prison longer. Secondly, when minority neighborhoods are targeted for sting operations, they will be disproportionately convicted. Lastly, if they are prosecuted in federal court more often, they will serve a higher percentage of the time. Thus, the following conclusions.
- Minorities are more likely to be caught with illegal drugs, despite using them at a comparable rate with white people.
- Minorities are more likely to land in federal court because drugs used in their neighborhoods have been targeted.
- Police are more likely to focus on minority neighborhoods to get the federal dollars that come with drug busts targeted by the federal laws.
- Minorities are more likely to receive longer sentences based on prosecutorial discretion allowing for race based diversionary tactics.
However, this is the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, I’m not going to address the iceberg here. If you want that info, buy the book. What I’m going to address is another post-conviction point that shocked me. Follow me here.
The New Jim Crow recreates the 3/5th person rule.
From the time of our founding, the constitution counted slaves as 3/5ths of a person for legislative purposes. By counting slaves without giving them the right to vote, this meant that slave owners received the representation due to the slaves. However, the slaves didn’t get to pick who represented them.
Today, prisons are built away from the cities in neighborhoods with a higher percentage of white voters. However, the incarcerated population is disproportionately black men from those inner cities. Moreover, these black men who can’t vote due to their incarceration are counted as residents of the congressional district where they serve their time. Therefore, the weight of Congressional representation is shifted away from the inner-city neighborhood to the suburban neighborhood. Thereby creating the situation where blacks men are disproportionately counted for representation while being denied the choice in the representative.
What does all of this mean?
I challenge you to find a conclusion other than systemic racism. Follow me here. No actor is required to be racist. The drugs targeted by federal law point the cops towards black neighborhoods. Funding assures they will go there. Furthermore, mandatory minimum sentences ensure that a higher percentage of minorities will serve a larger proportion of the time. Moreover, redistricting and felon voter laws deprive them of the representation to fix it.
Now, think of the defenses you use against systemic racism.
- The cop didn’t kill the black man because he’s a racist. He didn’t have to be. He was in the black neighborhood because the system sent him there.
- Blacks have more run ins with cops because they commit a disproportionate amount of the crimes. Or do they? Their neighborhood is under more scrutiny than yours. Furthermore, they represent the vast majority of stop and frisk and other “random” searches. Why? Again, because the system sent the cops there and allows racial profiling to continue.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here. However, that was my goal. Did I get my white readers curious enough to give Michelle Alexander a chance? I hope so. The New Jim Crow removes any doubt about systemic racism. She also suggests changes that could be made to the system, some of which I’ve previously addressed.
What’s important here is raising awareness. This book does that. We can’t fix a problem we deny having. Systemic racism is a problem. We need to fix it. I highly recommend The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander to anyone unconvinced of these facts. Moreover, it is a necessary tool in the chest of anyone seeking to convince friends and family.
We’re giving away a free download of this audiobook from our Facebook group. To enter…
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Contest will end at midnight on July 2nd. Winning Facebook user will be notified via messenger app or private message on site. Winner must provide valid email address for us to send the download link. The winner will receive an email with the link to download their free audiobook from Amazon Audible. No purchase necessary.