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Wednesday, 03 February 2016 13:40

The New Jim Crow -- Phil Stasik book review

Written by  Phil Stasik

Posted February 3, 2016
Book Review


'The New Jim Crow -- Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness' by Michelle Alexander
Book Review by Phil Stasik

This book contains a lot of pain.  It’s very well written, but I found myself having to put it down repeatedly, because it tells a story that I find very disturbing.  It’s the well-told story of how African Americans have systematically been beaten down since their arrival on this continent, hundreds of years ago, but with a twist.

The author -- a legal scholar by trade -- examines the theory that the 'War on Drugs' has been part of a grand plan to yield the mass incarceration of black people across America.  With millions of blacks in jails, prison, or probation, the hope of equal education, voting rights and employment are kept out of reach.  She was reluctant at first to accept that a racial caste system exists in the era of President Obama, but years of research and personal experience on the front lines of our warped legal system have clearly changed her mind.  If you’re skeptical, her story may change your mind as well.

She takes the reader on a journey through the history of slavery through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, then the Civil Rights Movement.  The author artfully builds a well-documented (33 pages of footnotes) historical foundation to examine how the gradual collapse of the Civil Rights protections that were gained in the 60s have simultaneously been woven into today’s culture of drug incarceration.

We’re taken on a journey into the world of African Americans in a modern culture that is as unjust as any that has existed since the end of the Civil War.  She details an America where blacks are many times more likely to be stopped for minor traffic offenses than their white counterparts, and laws that have been designed to punish users of crack cocaine (most commonly found in the black community) to sentences that are radically more severe than the users of powered cocaine that is favored by whites.

The reader is reminded that both political parties have challenged each other to institute 'get tough on crime' legislation that has filled our prisons beyond capacity.  There are more people in jails and prisons for drug offenses today, than there were for all offenses in 1980.  For political advantage, Reagan, Bush and Clinton, each in turn, ratcheted-up the 'get tough' laws to the satisfaction of the nation as a whole. Even a substantial part of the black community approved.

The numbers are astounding.  At the turn of the 21st century, America had 2 million people behind bars, and millions more that were: '…relegated to the margins of mainstream society, banished to a political and social space not unlike Jim Crow, where discrimination in employment, housing, and education was perfectly legal, and where they could be denied the right to vote.'  She explains that 90% of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states are black and Latino.  Since the beginning of the 'War on Drugs,' more than 31 million Americans have been arrested for drug offenses.  One last statistic to leave you with: 'By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans -- or one in every 31 adults -- were behind bars, on probation, or on parole.'

Michelle Alexander doesn’t skip a beat, or gloss over the reality of the horrible situation that we are all in as a nation.  She also does not offer any magic bullets to cure our illness.  She takes us through a variety of possible solutions to the problem, but none of them are easy or particularly attractive.

Personally, I do feel a lot of pain as I search my heart to come to the conclusion that we are, in fact, in the era of the New Jim Crow.  I also find a ray of hope in the conclusion of this book, as the author reminds us of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King: 'The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.'

I believe that we are all in this together.  Even for those of us who are students of history -- and the human condition -- this book will offer a new perspective.  For many of us, this book will serve as a wake up call, and a call to action.  I highly recommend 'The New Jim Crow -- Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.'

Phil Stasik is the President of Space Coast Progressive Alliance


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