Last fall, a small group of women at RCWMS read The New Jim Crow together over several weeks. This was after the shooting of Michael Brown, before decisions by grand juries not to indict the police officer who killed him, nor the officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner. The book, which came out in 2010, offers a powerful challenge to conventional wisdom about the current state of race and civil rights. Since then the ACLU has taken up the cause of mass incarceration and states have begun to reconsider their harsh and unequally administered marijuana laws. Since then many thousands of Americans have become more active in the struggle against racism in our society. For our intergenerational group of white women the book was a revelation, a powerful and persuasive indictment of the persistence of the systemic racial bias that is still woven into the fabric of our country.
Alexander does not provide answers, though she does provide a few suggestions about how we can recover. She does give a clear exposition of her argument about the widespread and, for those who do not live it, often hidden impact of the tidal wave of mass incarceration that has overtaken our country since the 1980s. This argument is most clearly laid out in the book’s opening and closing chapters. In between she provides a concise history of the three historical phases of systemic racial oppression—slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration—and how they are linked. The heart of the book is a detailed, and thoroughly documented, account of the way the current system works to create a stigmatized underclass. In the end, she calls on us to undertake the struggle to see all of our fellows as completely human, even those who have been branded “criminal.” At the same time she argues that we must do this while also overcoming our collective unwillingness to acknowledge race, and our assumptions that racism has somehow been overcome.
This is the most eye-opening book that I’ve read in a long time. I urge you to read it.