Why Everyone is Reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Posted on July 24, 2012 by


Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has been a phenomenal success in a way that few academic works ever achieve. It has had a steady presence on the arbiter of successful books – the New York Times bestseller list.

Why is it so popular?

Because it tells the story of race, ethnicity, criminal justice, and social control in a compelling, accessible way. Where academic criminologists conduct studies on concepts like “perceived racial threat” and “racial normalization of crime,” Alexander makes it pretty simple.

Racism, no longer socially acceptable in its overt forms, has become socially acceptable in a new format: the criminal justice system.

This isn’t really news to criminologists. We even have acronyms for it: DMC refers to disproportionate minority confinement, or DMP which means disproportionate minority presence.

People of color show up all over crime data, in numbers that do not match their presence in the population. So what’s going on here? Are minorities committing more crime? Yes, without a doubt. But to leave the issue right there would be a terrible injustice to understanding the intersection of race and crime.

Because minorities are more likely to be reported for crime. More likely to be arrested. More likely to be charged, convicted, sentenced. And more likely to be sentenced to a harsher punishment.

The favorite textbook example of harsher sentencing is always powder versus crack cocaine. How do you explain the fact that penalties for crack cocaine have been as much as 50 times higher than for powder cocaine? Well, consider who uses the two different forms of the drug, and you’ve got your answer.

Each of these slight differences add up to a whole that is nothing less than institutionalized and socially accepted racism. Mass incarceration targets and harms blacks in a way that is parallel to the old Jim Crow laws against a backdrop of self-righteous punitive criminal justice attitudes that pretend to be color-blind.

That’s what Michelle Alexander is trying to say, and she says it well.


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