SIDEBAR Spring 2017 - 26

MONTGOMERYBAR.ORG

BOOK REVIEW:

The New Jim Crow:
Mass Incarceration in the
Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander
Review By Jules J. Mermelstein, Esq.

M

ichelle Alexander has written
a well-researched and wellreasoned analysis of our racial
history - from slavery to Jim Crow
laws to mass incarceration. As Professor
Alexander states in her preface, this
book is not for everyone. It is only for
"people who care deeply about racial
justice but who... do not yet appreciate
the magnitude of the crisis faced by
communities of color as a result of mass
incarceration." Prior to reading this book,
I had not put two and two together.
Professor Alexander uses an
individual's story to tie slavery, Jim
Crow, and the results of incarceration
together. "(Jarvious) Cotton's great-greatgrandfather could not vote as a slave. His
great-grandfather was beaten to death
by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to
vote. His grandfather was prevented from
voting by Klan intimidation. His father
was barred from voting by poll taxes and
literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton
cannot vote because he, like many black
men in the United States, has been labeled
a felon and is currently on parole."
Given that we just went through an
unusual presidential election, Professor
Alexander's analysis of presidential
elections is instructive. She points out
that prior to 1964, many southern whites
belonged to the Democratic Party -
dating back to the Civil War, when the
party was pro-slavery. Once the party

26 SIDEBAR

began opposing segregation and the Jim
Crow laws, culminating in the adoption
of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, southern
whites became embittered towards their
own party. The Republicans, sensing an
opportunity beginning with the 1964
elections, started using what is called a
dog whistle in politics - a message of
racism that racists understand but phrased
in such a way as to be defensible if anyone
questioned it. Richard Nixon's "Southern
Strategy" of speaking about being tough
for law and order was understood by
racists as a message of cracking down
on then-rioting blacks. Ronald Reagan's
"War on Drugs," begun in 1982 before
crack had even entered urban life, was
similarly a way to imprison blacks (look at
the statistics of imprisonment of blacks as
opposed to whites on simple possession)
without actually using racist words. All of
us who were adults at the time remember
George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton attack
ad, with a scary picture of a black man
while no racist words were spoken.
I cannot help but imagine what
Professor Alexander would say about the
evolution of campaign rhetoric among
Republican presidential candidates when
analyzing the 2016 election and the result
of an overwhelming number of whites
who opted to vote for that rhetoric.
Professor Alexander very effectively
makes the case that the mass incarceration
of black defendants in such greater

proportions than their behavior would
indicate vis-a-vis the white population is
creating (or has created) a caste system.
We like to think of the U.S. as having
economic classes, among which people
can move. A caste system is one that
prevents people from moving.
In many states, once a person is a
convicted felon, even if it is for something
as minor as simple possession of drugs,
they are subject to restrictions. Many are
forbidden from voting. Once prospective
employers see that label "felon," they
often will not hire them. New rules on
public housing prevents them or their
families from living there. In fact, many
public benefits are denied to those who
are convicts. With a family to feed, no
job, and no housing, it is no wonder that
many end up back in prison.
Professor Alexander points out that
more African-American adults are being
controlled by the state, either incarcerated
or on probation or parole, than were
slaves in 1850, just 11 years before the
Civil War. In fact, a black child born
now is less likely than one born during
slavery to be raised by both parents. It is
not a lack of commitment to fatherhood
keeping black men away from their
families. It is because "(t)housands of
black men have disappeared..., locked
away for drug crimes that are largely
ignored when committed by whites."


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