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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. By Michelle Alexander. New York: The New Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-5955-8643-8. xvii and 312 pages. Paper. $19.95.

How could a new Jim Crow system be implemented in our own lifetimes with scarcely a moment of public recognition? "Jim Crow" refers originally to the system of racial segregation and legal discrimination that was instituted after the Civil War and that began to be deconstructed through the Civil Rights movement. The "new" Jim Crow refers to the mass removal of a generation of young black men from our society by the policies of law enforcement and imprisonment introduced through the War on Drugs in the 1980s and which continues to this day. Michelle Alexander unveils the mask of colorblindness that clouds our vision from seeing and comprehending what has happened to staggering numbers of black men in America: "The racial bias in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men. For young black men, the statistics are even worse. One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006, far more were under some kind of penal control--such as probation or parole" (100). The statistics cited in this book about mass incarceration of black men in our society are stunning.

Although the use of illegal drugs by white people is equal to or higher than that among blacks, the disparity in incarceration rates goes to the heart of the new Jim Crow. Unequal law enforcement efforts concentrated in black neighborhoods, unequal arrest rates, unequal legal charges, unequal legal representation, unequal plea bargaining, unequal sentencing and unequal judicial review have filled America's prisons with millions of young black men. Many of them are labelled for life as felons, who will face forever discrimination in seeking essentials like employment and housing, basic to building a good life. Moreover, many face a life of monitoring as ex-cons and the loss of many civil rights, including the right to vote. "At its core, then, mass incarceration, like Jim Crow, is a 'race-making' institution. It serves to define the meaning of race in America" (200).

The construction and maintenance of prisons has become a $55 billion per year cost. "[T]here are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980" (60). Staged as the War on Drugs, over the last 30+ years we have been carefully taught to equate blackness with criminality. While we claim to be a colorblind society, in truth the word "criminal" has become a code word for "black." By polarizing poor whites against poor blacks over an issue like affirmative action and by inoculating ourselves about the educational, employment, and economic challenges facing black communities whenever we focus excessively on certain black figures as examples of success (Obama as prime instance), we choose to ignore the acute challenges confronting black people in our time.

Only by constructing a new social movement, based on economic justice for all people, can we begin to reclaim the imagination cast by Martin Luther King Jr. when he inaugurated the Poor Peoples Movement in 1968. Alexander summons civil rights organizations to this agenda: "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" (260). The basic impulse behind the Occupy movement regarding economic disparity in American society resonates with this call to dismantle the new Jim Crow by letting "the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18).
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Author:Nessan, Craig L.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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