Fifty years ago, James Baldwin accused his country and his countrymen of destroying hundreds of thousands of black lives. They “do not know it and do not want to know it,” he wrote. “It is their innocence which constitutes the crime.”
Today, in the era of mass incarceration and supposed colorblindness, the white guilt of the Civil Rights era has exhausted itself, as Barack Obama has observed, and the number of African American lives we destroy through not knowing now runs in the millions.
But Michelle Alexander’s stunning and important book may be a turning point in the struggle for racial justice.
It’s a book, according to Alexander, for people “who do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration.” It’s a book to end not knowing.
It’s early April, a sunny day after months of rain. The grassy prison yard at Washington State Reformatory looks inviting compared to the guard towers, cell blocks, chain link, and curls of razor wire that surround it. But many prisoners are passing up the precious sunshine and filing into the prison chapel to hear Michelle Alexander talk about The New Jim Crow.
This will be Alexander’s second lecture at the prison today. Last hour, she was scheduled to talk to the prison guards, counselors, and administrators. Fewer than 10 chose to come, so she spoke to a nearly empty room.
Is this the willful not knowing?
Now she looks out on more than a hundred felons, mostly black men, wearing the brown jackets and pants that for some reason the state prefers. A former ACLU civil rights attorney and now a law professor at Ohio State University, Alexander summarizes the argument she makes in her book. It is essentially this: The system of mass incarceration that has resulted in putting one out of every 31 adults behind bars, on probation or on parole, is merely a redesign of the two race-based caste systems that preceded it: slavery and Jim Crow.
The parallels she describes are chilling.
“Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans,” she says. A person who is convicted of, or pleads guilty to, a felony drug offense is denied health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, and federal student loans and grants. His driver’s license may be automatically suspended, and he cannot qualify for many employment opportunities and professional licenses. He will not be permitted to enlist in the military. If he is a citizen, in some states he will lose the right to vote; if not a citizen, he becomes immediately deportable.
Alexander is particularly adept, both in person and on the printed page, at explaining why and how a system purportedly designed to lock up criminals, not people of color, has become even more effective at sidelining African Americans than the overtly race-based Jim Crow system.
Her question for those who see the racial inequity as merely an unintended consequence of the War on Drugs is: If the consequences are unintended, then why aren’t we willing to change the drug laws to eliminate the inequity?
To those who persist in believing that African Americans deserve to be locked up at a higher rate than whites because they commit more crimes, she explains the impact of the discretion our law enforcement agencies enjoy in deciding where drug laws are enforced and where they’re not. Where are illegal drugs more likely to be found than at a fraternity house? Yet how often are frat houses subject to early morning police raids?
When Alexander asks the prisoners for questions, hands go up all over the room. She answers one or two before the loudspeaker crackles with “Movement’s open! Movement’s open!” The men have 10 minutes to “move” back to their cells, and their disappointment is clear. They are eager to know about the grassroots movement she proposes, about Supreme Court decisions, and the assaults on habeas corpus. But they won’t get a chance to speak.
The New Jim Crow is a call to high-stakes caring across color lines—the kind of revolutionary, grassroots caring that will certainly cost us our innocence and some of our material advantages. But it can also restore the moral force at the heart of the civil rights movement and ensure that we finally listen to—and advocate for—criminals.
Read it and be ashamed and angry for the lives and innocence lost. Read it and start a revolution of caring.