This book was published in 2010, which underlines how the US Justice System works against black people. This book provides statistics on incarceration rates for people of colour. Some topics highlighted in the book are war on drugs, mandatory minimums, 3-strike laws, disparities in sentencing between users of powder cocaine vs. users of crack cocaine, and much more. Michelle Alexander challenges the civil rights community and claims that we need to have an open discussion on incarceration as a new movement for racial injustice in America.
The first thing that stands out is the title of the book. “Jim Crow” is the former practice of segregating black people in the US. This law was created after the installment of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. This law, which existed for about 100 years from the post-Civil war era until 1968, was meant to marginalize African Americans. It denied them the right to work, get an education, to vote and other opportunities. Defying these laws would result in people being incarcerated, paying expensive fines, violence and brutality, and even death. If a jail sentence was passed, then defining one’s self in court was impossible as the legal system was stacked against black citizens. This was due to former Confederate soldiers working as police and judges, overall making it difficult to win court cases.
The book revolves around how a new Jim Crow era has started and the different tactics used to achieve racial exclusion and discrimination of African Americans. Alexander uses statistics (which is outdated in modern times) to paint a chilling photo of the disparities of rates in prison sentences of people of color versus white people. One such statistic is when Alexander notes how the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, even “surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000.” This makes one wonder what crimes are being committed and their severity to have such a high incarceration rate. Alexander underlines how majority of these people are people of color. This book not only offers insight into the justice system but also into the author’s mind who acknowledges that these statistics seem fabricated and that her book will be “met with skepticism” as “for some the characterization of mass incarceration as a ‘racial caste system’ may seem like a gross exaggeration, if not hyperbole.” This is what makes the book more of an amazing read, as it feels like an honest and frustrating discussion of the opinions on race and the consequences of mass incarceration.
This is a good read which can open one’s eyes to the real dimensions and roots of the prison industry. Alexander is good at describing the problems growing in the intrinsic and injustice system of a prospering nation. However, the terminology used or references to various studies make the book difficult to read for those who have not studied politics or an associated degree, or the interworking of America’s criminal justice.
One thing I found interesting about the book is how it indicates that the US does not reconcile with its past. For example, having a museum dedicated to the holocaust but no museum for slavery. The book points out how hard it is for the USA to admit it has a racist attitude. A large part of Alexander’s message is to show that “color blind” visions of US race relations today are perhaps the largest problem that people of color face. From slavery to criminalization of Black Americans, the thing that makes the new racial system so effective is that it is hidden in plain sight. And this in turn effects the criminal justice system with it being rather an ‘injustice system’ where instead of defending and protecting rights, it creates criminals and in turn destroys innocent lives. Something the book alludes to is that this new system has made escaping this systematic injustice hard, and that claiming innocence or having access to a good defense is harder than ever.
In the final chapters of the book, Alexander states that these structural traps do not just vanish. No, they are changed once the original traps are found: “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Alexander’s book has taught me how the justice system, a system put in place to protect everyone’s rights, can be used to control or manipulate people’s lives. This leads to millions of Americans – especially Black people – having their lives ruined. It also leaves you wishing that the system changes to protect everyone. This book may be long and have specialized terminology, but it is a good resource to educate oneself on the racism that happens in America.
America has a corrupt justice system and racism is very prevalent in its society. Reading this book has made me appreciate that I live in London. The Journal Frontiers in sociology published a study in 2019 suggesting that Britain is one of the least racist countries in Europe. In comparison to America, this is a good thing but racism is not non-existent. It is subtle and not obvious in the forms of microaggressions. The subtlety of racism can be seen in the UK, in the action of keeping confederate statues, and many people of colour can see this as micro aggressive.
With the recent death of George Floyd in America, people all over the world have spoken up about the injustices the black community faces in each society. In the UK, anti racism protesters have taken action by removing confederate statues. The UK has several statues which glorify the colonial past and the brutality of imperialism. What’s worse is that many people don’t recognise this. I didn’t know what the statues meant until a few years ago when a friend who studied history told me about it while I was reading her essay. It was insightful and frustrating as I never learnt about the statues’ true significance. The statues were seen as heroic and I wonder why no one has taken them down considering how diverse the UK has become.
In Bristol, for example, people have taken down the Edward Colston statue. He was a slave trader in the 17th Century and was a part of a group called the Royal African Company. They were in charge of transporting about 800,000 people from Africa to America as slaves. This action made him rich and for years poeple have called for the statue to be removed. The removal of this statue is not smart as the protesters can face jail time, especially since the whole event was recorded. But overall, this is an empowering moment where people who suffered under this man and other slave traders can finally rest knowing that even in the future we still care about them. A friend who watched the news told me how these protests reminded her of the protests that occurred during Martin Luther King’s time. The protesters who were arrested since protesting wasn’t legal would feel proud when they were arrested as it meant someone was listening to them. Another good action caused by this is that Mayor Sadiq Khan has asked to launch a review into different statues located in the capital city.
Protest can lead to violence or facing potential jail time, bit it can also lead to positive changes to ensure safer and happier futures.