Leftists, particularly those race-obsessed experts in the righteous (though admittedly mysterious) discipline of victimology, have of late been trumpeting the cause of one Michelle Alexander, full-time attorney, “advocate” (whatever that means), and part-time legal professor at several notable universities. The “cause” is set forth in her recent best-seller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012). In the Foreword, Cornel West says that it is “an instant classic” and claims that “The New Jim Crow is the secular bible for a new social movement in early twenty-first-century America” (ix). According to The New York Times Review of Books, “The New Jim Crow is striking in the intelligence of [Alexander’s] ideas, her powers of summary, and the force of her writing.” No less than the Daily Kos celebrates the work as “invaluable,” describing it as “a timely and stunning guide to the labyrinth of propaganda, discrimination, and racist policies masquerading under other names that comprises what we call justice in America.” [Themistokles, author of the review and always erstwhile kow-tower to the progressive party line, feels the necessity to warn his readers that though he is but a lowly “privileged older WASP male”, he does have some experience in this area, citing his laudatory academic background as perhaps ample justification for his foray into the discussion of race and the justice system. You can’t make this stuff up, people.]
Given the popularity amongst social justice warriors, and the leftist cognoscenti generally, some of us have decided that the book might be worth reading. What is it, we wonder, that makes this text so utterly “invaluable”? Is it indeed such a tour de force that it changes the reader’s “entire view of the justice system”? Will the arguments presented, the evidence adduced, and the polemical force necessitate our recognition of – and righteous indignation over – the new “racial caste system” of criminal minorities, that caste system which was designed and created as the overt aim by those “in power” to replace the older Jim Crow system with a new form of social control? We had to see for ourselves. The plan is to proceed chapter by chapter beginning with the Introduction in this post (though whether we decide the book is worth finishing is at this point known only to the gods).
“Jarvious Cotton cannot vote,” reads the very first sentence of the Introduction. Cotton’s forebears, we learn, include slaves as well as (later) kin who were prevented from varieties of civic participation (viz. voting) by KKK intimidation, Jim Crow-styled barriers, and the like. Jarvious, we are told, is in something of a similar position: he too is not allowed to vote–not in virtue of Jim Crow discrimination–but instead because he “has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole” (1). Notice immediately a theme that will appear throughout the book: it is not that Jarvious is a felon, but that he has been labeled a felon. What Alexander conveniently leaves out, however, is that Jarvious has been labeled a felon because he is, in point of fact, a felon, having murdered a 17-year-old while committing an armed robbery. If this is the most compelling example that Alexander can find to pull at the heartstrings of her readership…well, one is tempted not to read further. And yet, we give her the benefit of the doubt, while at the same time asking what we suspect most (reasonable) people would ask: Why should a convicted murderer and armed robber have any say in how the government is run? After all, he either lacks wisdom or some other moral virtue; and even if he later acquires virtues, surely it is not unjust to prohibit convicted felons from voting as a part of their punishment. Or, again, so we suspect.
Alexander follows this up with the arc of her intellectual development toward the position she now endorses. She assures the reader that she was once one of those people (like, presumably, the average reader) who had originally believed that the problems that face ethnic minorities – such as crime and imprisonment – are “the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.” Indeed, “Never did [she] seriously consider the possibility that a new racial caste system was operating in this country” (3). It never crossed her mind. And yet, we are immediately informed that such a caste system is not only in place, but is also the intentional result of social control of ethnic minorities by those in power. If a racial caste system is in fact the result of a concerted effort, Alexander is quick to cite the means: mass incarceration.
“Once [the felons] are released, they are often denied the right to vote, excluded from juries, and relegated to a racially segregated and subordinate existence. Through a web of laws, regulations, and informal rules, all of which are powerfully enforced by social stigma, they are confined to the margins of mainstream society…They are legally denied the ability to obtain employment, housing, and public benefits…” [4, emphasis added]
Questions abound. Are there any white felons? Are they too “racially segregated” and relegated to a “subordinate existence”? Can they serve on juries? What about their right to vote? Thus far it is unclear what she thinks. What is also unclear is how, precisely, one can be legally denied the ability to get a job or a house. Is this metaphorical? We’re not sure because the point is revisited later, in even more stark terms:
“What is completely missed in the rare public debates today about the plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so. And the major institutions with which they come into contact are designed to prevent their mobility” .
Again, we wonder: What laws bar persons from attending school? Is it somehow the law against murder that poses the problem? Laws against armed robbery? Or, more generally, is it any law which attaches sanctions to such acts? Admittedly, we cannot be sure just how seriously we ought to take comments such as these. After all, no elaboration is provided nor are any footnotes given. Perhaps polemics has gotten the better of our author here? We’re unsure.
Nevertheless, as concerns the “social stigmas” attaching to ex-cons, we readily grant that they are socially stigmatized at least to this extent: we are wary of being around them, and don’t wish our kids to be around them unless we have good evidence that they have been reformed. They have acted, in the past, in ways that one typically has reason not to act (i.e., they have committed a public wrong). Moreover, it certainly bears mentioning that the rates of recidivism is rather high for convicted felons, and so one might (reasonably) concede that there is a social stigma because, well, there ought to be one. And so, if Alexander is perplexed about the social stigmas attached to felons, then…well, then we’re perplexed that she is perplexed.
Moving forward, on pages 5-6, Alexander discusses the War on Drugs, the Reagan administration, and the CIA. She uses the word “conspiracy” without ever explicitly endorsing the position that there was any such conspiracy, perhaps cleverly dangling the possibility before the reader’s mind that there may very well have been some sort of intentional, racist collusion against blacks. The War on Drugs = A War on Blacks. Since this has been dealt with by others, we shall ignore it. (But definitely click on that link and read it).
On a related note concerning the War on Drugs, we (the authors) have wondered about the sociological/historical relationship(s) between, on the one hand, the temperance movement that led to the abolition of alcohol for a number of years during the Prohibition Era, and on the other hand the 1980s War on Drugs. Neither of us are sociologists (or historians, for that matter), but we can readily imagine that a lingering Puritanism from the earlier era (Prohibition) may have infected the populace in the later one (the onset of the War on Drugs). One need not, obviously, deny that alcohol and/or drugs can have disastrous individual consequences in order to maintain that it is not within the purview of the government to place restrictions on it. In any case, the moralism prevalent in the 1930s has not (to our knowledge, at least) been tied to a rampant racism associated with those pushing forward the temperance movement…might such moralism, we wonder, be the more realistic culprit behind the War on Drugs? [“More realistic,” that is, than a vast conspiracy against African-Americans.] Again, the parallel is likely not without its cultural disanalogies, but even still, it’s worth reflective consideration.
We move forward. One of the main difficulties with the Introduction is detecting a substantive thesis statement. On page 11 we seem to arrive at one:
“This book argues [A] that mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow and [B] that all those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system. [C] Mass incarnation…is “the most damaging backlash against the Civil Rights Movement.”
With respect to the “new racial caste system”, we are not to understand this literally but as a figure of speech (very much like the “New Jim Crow”).
“For some, the characterization of mass incarceration as a “racial caste system” may seem like a gross exaggeration, if not hyperbole….I use the term racial caste in this book the way it is used in common parlance to denote a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom. Jim Crow and slavery caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration… [This is hardly a usage of common parlance. In addition, mass incarceration includes not just blacks but people of other races.] It may be helpful, in attempting to understand the basic nature of the new caste system, to think of the criminal justice system—the entire collection of institutions and practiced that comprise it—not as an independent system but rather as a gateway into a much larger system of racial stigmatization and permanent marginalization. This larger system, referred to here as mass incarceration, is a system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bases and virtual walls….[Why not just call the system the governmental system? Or the judicial system? Are we really talking about a system now?] The term mass incarceration refers not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison” (pp.12-13).
However, it is unclear whether Alexander intends to convince people that her substantive three point thesis statement is true, for on page 16 she says, “What this book is intended to do—the only thing it is intended to—is stimulate a much-needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States.”
So perhaps she is merely trying to raise questions instead of convincing the reader that her three point thesis statement is correct, such that we must take action against the “most damaging backlash against the Civil Rights Movement.” Or, perhaps this is just the typical throwaway line where a leftist calls for another famous conversation which really amounts to a one-sided, grandstanding diatribe. We shall see. (One might think that stimulating a conversation could be done in fewer than 312 pages). Strangely, however, the nebulous “mass incarceration system” or “web”–is replaced by talk of the “criminal justice system” which we were told earlier was merely the “gateway” to a much larger system of marginalization and stigmatization.
By this point, our readers should be well aware that the author is advancing a quite controversial thesis. And, we aim to engage her as best we can on reasonable ground. But we would be derelict in our duty as reviewers were we to fail in mentioning that the text is not without its, well, howlers. Discussing her use of the phrase “caste system,” Alexander rightly undertakes an explanation as to what this term involves. Indeed, it’s not one with which the average American is likely to be familiar. Now, why might that be? Alexander has an answer: “We avoid talking about caste in our society because we are ashamed of our racial history. We also avoid talking about race” . Is this supposed to be funny? Recall that this book was published in 2012. Is she seriously maintaining that “we” don’t talk about race? And, for that matter, who precisely is this “we”? Clearly she can’t be talking about academics. Dear God, no. Nor can she be referencing the media, obsessed as the news-cycle appears to be with race. Perhaps she means that the average American should be discussing it over dinner, wringing hands in between mouthfuls? I (Jack Burton) admit that I am a failure in this regard. (My repentance is reading this book.) But seriously, we’re just hard-pressed to understand what Alexander could possibly mean…unless of course what she means is that we should be talking about her views on race. In which case, point taken.
Finally, there is this: “I argue that the shame and stigma of the ‘prison label’ is, in many respects, more damaging to the African American community than the shame and stigma associated with Jim Crow” . Please re-read that sentence. Assuming that you have done so, we now beg of you to respond: do we really – really – need to provide an argument as to the ridiculousness, the absurdity of this statement? There are two ways this could be interpreted (both of which are, we might add, absurd): (1) Being “stigmatized” with that dreaded “label” felon is worse – is “more damaging” – than the recognition that, in virtue of one’s race, one’s forebears could not vote due to unjust laws having nothing to do with one’s status as an ex-con. Or, (2) Being “stigmatized” with that dreaded “label” felon is worse than the stigma associated with actually having been a victim of Jim Crow discrimination. Apologies, but we’re not here to assess gross exaggerations.
By the by: Thus far, we’re just hoping some actual arguments show up in the remainder of the text…After all, in due fairness, this is only the Introduction. Still, color us concerned (and quite unimpressed) at this early point. We go forward…
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