Last evening, after a day of contemplating the impact of Reverend King on our society, my communities, and my own life, I tuned in to my 7PM go-to show,  Fresh Air from WHYY.

I found myself riveted to the radio for the next 50 minutes while Dave Davies interviewed Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow.  I wasn’t shocked by any of Dr Alexander’s statistics or comments, but when I heard all the numbers and stories together, tied up with the string of despair, I was stunned.

Here are some excerpts that may stun you, as well:

  • “Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. There are millions of African-Americans now cycling in and out of prisons and jails or under correctional control. In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”
  • “Federal funding has flowed to state and local law enforcement agencies who boost the sheer numbers of drug arrests. State and local law enforcement agencies have been rewarded in cash for the sheer numbers of people swept into the system for drug offenses, thus giving law enforcement agencies an incentive to go out and look for the so-called ‘low-hanging fruit’: stopping, frisking, searching as many people as possible, pulling over as many cars as possible, in order to boost their numbers up and ensure the funding stream will continue or increase.”
  • “I think it’s very easy to brush off the notion that the system operates much like a caste system, if in fact you are not trapped within it. I have spent years representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to help people who have been released from prison attempting to ‘re-enter’ into a society that never seemed to have much use to them in the first place. And in the course of that work, I had my own awakening about our criminal justice system and this system of mass incarceration. … My experience and research has led me to the regrettable conclusion that our system of mass incarceration functions more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control.”

We have much work ahead.  I am glad we have individuals like Michelle Alexander to examine our mistakes, and (hopefully) help us on the path to solving these problems.



5 Responses to The New Jim Crow

  1. JMPrince says:

    Really good general and short discussion of this topic in the latest New Yorker:

    “The Caging of America:
    Why do we lock up so many people?”
    by Adam Gopnik

    Read more:


  2. BEZERKO says:

    I think the focus of the criminal justice system should be to protect the public and not to punish criminals. Over the last few decades, the uniforms of the law enforcement agencies have started to look more like military uniforms. It’s like they’re an army fighting an alien force like drugs, sex, immigrants and so on, rather than members of the community there to help and make the community a nicer place to live. I think it’s because there’s been a subtle shift in public opinion (so subtle that no one really notices it) that criminals are just bad people who need to be punished. Why not focus on empathy, why are so many pushed into lives of crime? What’s causing this? What can be done to change this? And then there’s a lot of effort into pursuing and prosecuting crimes that maybe shouldn’t even be crimes like drug use (especially marijuana), prostitution (between consenting adults of course), and certain forms of gambling maybe. I really don’t like a lot of what’s going on in our criminal justice system, especially on the privatization front. If a corporation wants to lease equipment to the government or pave a road or perform a service for the government, fine. When it comes to the moral functions of government, the private sector needs to stay out!

    • Jen B. says:

      “Why not focus on empathy, why are so many pushed into lives of crime? What’s causing this?”

      Lack of education. Lack of supervision. Lack of feeling like people truly give a shit if they suceed or not. Lack of feeling secure in their future.

  3. JMPrince says:

    Also related and plenty expensive & supremely wasteful is the miserably high youth unemployment, which for minorities, is often double the headline or average rate:


  4. JMPrince says:

    As noted by Rortybomb sometime back it’s a very complicated yet strangely under-examined history of how we got here. The racial dimensions are only the among most egregious parts of the prison industrial complex.The paper cited is from Temple Univ. There’s lots of threads that all lead back to the same source.

    “Why Mass Incarceration Matters” by Heather Ann Thompson
    Posted on October 13, 2011
    Historian Heather Ann Thompson has a new paper out, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History”. She notes that “historians have largely ignored the mass incarceration of the late twentieth century and have not yet begun to sort out its impact on the social, economic, and political evolution of the postwar period” and encourages them to take on this important part of our history. She traces how incarceration is important for understanding many of the big projects of recent United States historical scholarship, from the “urban crisis,” to the decline of the labor, as well as the rise of conservatism and the Right”.