Social Justice Book Club: The New Jim Crow (Halfway Through!)

Here it is mid-August, and we are midway through The New Jim Crow, and I’ve decided to take this opportunity to teach us all about asset forfeiture. Did you know about this? Did everyone know about this but me? Basically, if the police think that someone’s car or money or computer is being used in the commission of a crime, they can just TAKE it. And then they can just, like, KEEP it. Even if the person who owns the property doesn’t know or agree to their property being used in commission of a crime (Alexander uses the example of a woman whose boyfriend uses her car to go pick up drugs), the police can still take it. And keep it.

Which, naturally, disproportionately affects poor people, because loss of an asset like a car or a computer is much much more ruinous if you don’t have the means to dash out and acquire a new one to replace the one the cops took. Meanwhile, police departments have a specific financial stake in asset forfeiture, which means that they are incentivized to police in a way that maximizes their profit. When obvs we would like their motive to be just straight-up reduction of crime.

Anyway. Onward to my mid-book discussion of The New Jim Crow. Let it be stated that I rejoice in this book’s existence, and I believe it makes crucial arguments that are and will remain really important to any kind of criminal justice reform this country institutes.

New Jim Crow

1) Alexander writes in the introduction that she consciously chose to focus her writing on African American men–though she recognizes that the criminal justice system can have even harsher consequences for women (particular women of color) and Latinos.

Yeah, I — huh. This was a slightly weird moment for me. She says that this was a conscious decision but doesn’t get into why it’s the decision she made. Of course, it’s her book and her decision, but given that women of color and non-black POC are so frequently left out of the conversation, it was weird to have Alexander say this without supplying any further explanation. Throughout the book I felt like I was missing crucial context because of what she decided to leave out.

2) In Chapter 1: The Rebirth of Caste, Alexander writes “…eliminating ‘savages’ is less of a moral problem than eliminating human beings, and therefore American Indians came to be understood as a lesser race–uncivilized savages–thus providing a justification for the extermination of native peoples.” (23) How much, if at all, do you think this same explanation can apply to modern-day murders of black people, in which a victim’s criminal record, physical appearance, and/or attitude towards police officers is used as a “justification” of that person’s killing–both by police and by those defending them?

Oh, gosh. A lot. Really a lot. I think that we’ve reached a point, as a society, where the concept of being “tough on crime” has made it very difficult to convince people of the humanity of people who have been convicted of crimes. And this is a major rhetorical strategy used to defend police officers who shoot to kill when the situation seems not to have called for it.

Another major element in this, though, is that people like to find ways to separate themselves from victims of any kind of tragedy, so that they can feel sure that the bad thing that befell their neighbor will never befall them or anyone they care about. What was the rape victim wearing? Was the cancer patient a smoker? Did the man killed by police have a criminal record? Denying black humanity is a terrible tradition in our country; and denying the innocence of those faced with misfortune appears to be, like, endemic to humans.

3) Writing about the birth of Jim Crow, Alexander reminds us that it is difficult to remember that “alternate paths were not only available at one time, but nearly embraced.” (35) Does the same apply today? Are there alternate paths we could have embraced in recent history, and/or could embrace moving forward?

I’m afraid I can’t do this one right now. I am too scared of the alternate paths that might be about to happen to this country, which I am pretty sure are going to be, like, national downfall kind of alternate paths. We’ll talk again when the election’s over with.

this election

4) On the opening pages of Chapter 2: The Lockdown, Alexander writes about the [mis]perception of the criminal justice system, as shaped by popular television shows and movies. The New Jim Crow¬†was written in 2010, before Serial, Making a Murderer, Orange is the New Black… etc. Do you think representations of the criminal justice system in popular entertainment have changed in the last six years? Is that a good thing?

Wellllllllll. Sort of. I don’t think we’ve yet had a better indictment of the existing criminal justice system than the first and third seasons of The Wire, for instance, and that was all the way back in aught-two.1 Given that the sheer number of TV shows has increased dramatically in the last six years, I would say that sure, by volume, we have more shows that offer a nuanced vision of the criminal justice system.

On the other hand, we still have all the same old Laws and Orders we used to, all the same CSIs, and some of those franchises have grown, not shrunk. Likewise, there’s a near-infinite supply of buddy-cop-style shows, very few of which are endeavoring to complicate popular views of the criminal justice system as fundamentally, well, just. Even more than six years ago, we are inundated by choice, and the depictions of criminal justice that we choose to spend time on are probably reflective to a large extent of the beliefs we already hold.

Which is to say: The gay agenda on TV worked awesome. I’m skeptical for the moment that pop culture is going to be a similarly important ally in convincing America of the injustice of our national prison culture. Call me a cynic.

5) From the start, Alexander stated that she aimed to prove that disproportionate rates of incarceration [and/or criminal justice system control] of young black males is not a symptom of poverty, but “evidence of a new racial caste system at work.” Based on these first three chapters, do you think she’s done as much?

Again I say: Well, sort of. Alexander’s done a terrific job so far of proving the racial bias that happens at every level of the criminal justice system, and I already believed that the so-called War on Drugs was a measure of political posturing and racial control. So far so good on that one.

Without asking Michelle Alexander and this one book to be all things to all people, I will say that I think The New Jim Crow is an important piece of the criminal justice reform puzzle, but it’s not as comprehensive as maybe I wanted/expected it to be. Alexander is talking about a specific thing: the impact of drug policy on the lives of black men in America. That is important, an important conversation to have.

At the same time, there’s plenty that she’s not talking about: non-black people in the criminal justice system; violent crime of any description; women basically at all; the voices and roles of black policymakers; differing patterns of law enforcement in communities with different racial demographics; etc. Again, this is fine, and the elements that Alexander is discussing are really important. I just think that to say “this is systemic to the degree that Jim Crow laws were systemic,” while ignoring (by design) huge swathes of the system in question, is a dicey affair. It’s an eye-catching parallel, but not one that I’m confident (so far) Alexander’s arguments have justified.

  1. I forgot to tell you, I’ve decided to say aught-two instead of oh-two because, well, mostly because I just want to.
  • Two things: this 2014 story about media portrayal has some good insights: http://chicagoreporter.com/crime-coverage-media-perpetuates-racial-stereotypes/ . Also, I am now reading a book that has very good insights into social justice from a sort of secret, or maybe meta, or submeta (is that a thing?) perspective: Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil (Harvard mathematician) – how, inter alia, the algorithms used for law enforcement nefariously support these bad patterns, but no one questions the premises because “math.”

  • Jeanne

    I am now reading Pushout by Monique Morris and it fills in some of the context gaps you mention

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Sounds like an interesting and valuable book in spite of the flaws.

  • Without having any clue about the book or her arguments, I think your assessment so far is quite apt. Given the headlines about police bias and excessive violence, it amazes me that anyone thinks the justice system is fair and, well, just, yet as you say, there are so many options out there when it comes to police representation on TV and in movies that people can and do automatically gravitate towards the stories that best represent their own opinions of the justice system. That makes this type of book that much more important even though it might only change the mind of a small percentage of the population.