The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
This book makes a gigantic joke out of education reformers’ claim that the achievement gap is the greatest civil rights issue of our time. Every time I hear that claim, I want to throw this book at the person who makes it. Low test scores pale in comparison to the devastating effects of the war on drugs. (And in fact, the war on drugs creates much of the poverty that causes those low test scores.) The book is a few years old, but in light of Ferguson and Baltimore, it’s more relevant than ever.
It may seem like an exaggeration to compare the current state of race relations to Jim Crow and slavery, but Alexander backs up her arguments incredibly well. I was persuaded by her. She enumerates lots of stories of atrocities committed by police in the course of the drug war, as well as tons of statistics that demonstrate bias and inequality. Her argument is extremely well-organized, explaining how the appearance of colorblindness is exactly what allows our justice system to mete out unequal sentences.
If you believe what this book is saying, it will make you angry. I think of one of my students, detained for two days under charges of attempted murder, because he looked like the victims’ description. He had the best alibi in the world: he was walking in his high school graduation ceremony when the crime was committed. But he spent two nights in jail because no one took the time to ask him about his alibi or verify it. He had made good choices and focused on his education, but that didn’t matter. People see that he is African-American, young, tall, and heavyset, and they assume the worst about him, and even feel afraid of him, not knowing that he is gentle and polite, with a silly sense of humor. I can only imagine how discouraging and spiritually debilitating that must feel for this former student of mine, and many of my other students. Sometimes when reading The New Jim Crow, I felt overwhelmed by how entrenched our racial caste system is. The problem is so big it feels hopeless. But maybe eyes are beginning to open up and there are reasons to believe change is on the way. Alexander calls for a mass movement, and #BlackLivesMatter might be the start of one.