The second book in the series, as promised, is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The following book feels impossible to summarize, and yet the words it contains are so important. The reason Alexander has written a book that is so impactful, engaging, overwhelming, and powerful, is because she backs it all up with fact after fact, statistic after statistic. She presents her mountains of research to the reader with drive and then explains it all in understandable, but impassioned terms. I have chosen to include two rather large sections of the book. The first gives a summary of an important part of her thesis and the second gives some predictions for moving forward.
“More African American adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. The mass incarceration of people of color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.
“The clock has been turned back on racial progress in America, though scarcely anyone seems to notice. All eyes are fixed on people like Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, who have defied the odds and risen to power, fame, and fortune. For those left behind, especially those within prison walls, the celebration of racial triumph in American must seem a tad premature. More black men are imprisoned today than at any other moment in our nation’s history. More are disenfranchised today than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race. Young black men today may be just as likely to suffer discrimination in employment, housing, public benefits, and jury service as a black man in the Jim Crow era—discrimination that is perfectly legal, because it is based on one’s criminal record.”
(The New Jim Crow, pages 180-181)
“If we can agree that what is needed now, at this critical juncture, is not more tinkering or tokenism, but as King insisted forty years, a ‘radical restructuring of our society,’ then perhaps we can also agree that a radical restructuring of our approach to racial justice advocacy is in order as well.
“All of this is easier said than done, of course. Change in civil rights organizations, like change in society as a whole, will not come easy. Fully committing to a vision of racial justice that includes grassroots, bottom-up advocacy on behalf of ‘all of us’ will require a major reconsideration of priorities, staffing, strategies, and messages. Egos, competing agendas, career goals, and inertia may get in the way. It may be that traditional civil rights organizations simply cannot, or will not, change. To this it can only be said, without a hint of disrespect: adapt or die.
“If Martin Luther King Jr. is right that the arc of history is long, but bends toward justice, a new movement will arise; and if civil rights organizations fail to keep up with the times, they will be pushed to the side as another generation of advocates comes to the fore. Hopefully the new generation will be led by those who know best the brutality of the new caste system—a group with greater vision, courage, and determination than the old guard can muster, trapped as they may be in an outdated paradigm. This new generation of activists should not disrespect their elders or disparage their contributions or achievements; to the contrary, they should bow their heads in respect, for their forerunners have expended untold hours and made great sacrifices in an elusive quest for justice. But once respects have been paid, they should march right past them, emboldened, as King once said, by the fierce urgency of now.
“Those of us who hope to be allies should not be surprised, if and when this day comes, that when those who have been locked up and locked out finally have the chance to speak and truly be heard, what we hear is rage. The rage may frighten us, it may remind us of riots, uprisings, and buildings aflame. We may be tempted to control it, or douse it with buckets of doubt, dismay, and disbelief. But we should do no such thing. Instead, when a young man who was born in the ghetto and who knows little of life beyond the walls of his prison cell and the invisible cage that has become his life, turns to us in bewilderment and rage, we should do nothing more than look him in the eye and tell him the truth.”
(The New Jim Crow, pages 260-261)
If you are looking for more information and don’t have access to this book, I also recommend the documentary 13th, which features Alexander and many of the topics covered in the book. It is available on Netflix.
Next up in the series will be Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.