Michelle Alexander’s new book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-blindness is a compelling exposé of deep racism in the U.S. criminal justice system. That bigotry is powerfully expressed today in its massive incarceration rate.
Alexander takes the reader back in history to the year 1675, when the planter elite were alarmed by the multiracial alliance of bond workers and slaves who organized the Baker rebellion. Colony aristocrats parceled out special privileges to middle class and poor whites to drive a wedge between slaves and white and Black bond workers. Known as the “Racial Bribe,” it became entrenched in the United States — first in the institution of slavery, then post slavery (Jim Crow) and finally post Jim Crow, which Alexander defines as The New Jim Crow.
The book is full of damning evidence and analysis. For example, in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was elected president, the U.S. prison population was about 200,000. Reagan launched a mass conviction and imprisonment policy to calm a ruling class shaken by the tumultuous Civil Rights movement and following rebellions of the ’60s and ’70s.
Many political prisoners jailed then still languish behind bars today. Additionally, as the author emphasizes, Reagan’s infamous “War on Drugs” has for 30 years mightily added to the prison population, now over two million.
It’s legal. Alexander discloses that, in conjunction with this gigantic jump in the number of people behind bars, is an accumulation of laws that exclude convicts from basic social and political rights. Here’s how.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution bans slavery except for those convicted of crimes. And it gives the local and federal governments the authority to impose “slave” laws for convicts, of all races.
This allows state governments and the feds to practice “convict” laws against everyone convicted. Such “laws” legalize the practice of refusing shelter or housing to convicts, preventing them from voting or running for an electoral office, and keeping them off jury duty. They also limit convicts’ right to public education, bar them from buying weapons for self defense, deny them public benefits (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid), outlaw guardianship and executor/executrix rights, reject employment, and more.
Bear in mind that there are 2.3 million people currently incarcerated. An educated guess places twice that many as having been released, or on parole or probation, because convict laws remain in effect. And don’t forget the collateral miseries that befall families, who can lose their houses if a son or daughter violates a “convict” law.
Blacks hardest hit. Alexander acknowledges that all races and colors of people are victimized by the U.S. imprisonment rate — it has the world’s largest penal system. But she focuses on African Americans as the most targeted historically by the justice system, far out of proportion to any other group.
Black men represent 14 percent of the USA’s general population and 40 percent of its prison population. She describes how the racist treatment begins with arrest, and follows through with bail treatment, public defenders rather than well-paid private defense attorneys, conviction and sentencing. The author is saying that all of this can be traced by a single thread back to the Racial Bribe. Blacks do not have now, she explains, and never have had a level playing field.
Successful business. Probably the most damning revelation in the book is the exposure of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which owns private prisons across the United States and placed their corporation in the stock market. The shares once selling at $8.00 a share have jumped to $30.00 a share.
State and federal governments are bound by the Constitution to grant prisoners all protections of the Constitution, while private prison operators are not. Inmates of CCA prisons are in constant peril of abuses they cannot remedy through the Constitution. This means the legalization of the private slave trade all over again, including unpaid prison labor. So, much for the emancipation proclamation!
Michelle Alexander’s urgent hope is to influence people who care about justice to treat convicts as equals, and to join the fight for prisoners’ rights. Her revealing book would be even stronger if she went further, and explored why the Racial Bribe persists today.
It’s very name suggests the answer. Racism is profitable, and it will root throughout our society as long as the U.S. economy is based on profit.
The reader will see that an elite class created the bribe to divide and weaken the political power of the lower class. The reader will also take note that the elite class continues to benefit from the bribe.
Mark Cook, a former Black Panther, was a political prisoner for 27 years, and is an activist on many fronts. Contact him at email@example.com.
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