When I first read Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in 2010, Obama was in the beginning of his first term as president. Many white Americans believed his election was a sign that our country was now post-racial, that equality had finally been achieved. But that was a myth, as Alexander explains in painstaking detail. Using the statistics of the day, she lays bare the racism embedded in our criminal justice system, which she likens to modern-day slavery.
This year, I decided it was a good time to dust off Alexander’s work, to see how its distressing statistics had improved over the past ten years. The answer was, tragically, not enough. Blacks still face more discrimination than other races in every phase of the criminal justice system—from stops and arrests to sentencing and parole. They are still the primary targets of the fictional “War on Drugs,” which was invented as a legal means to put large numbers of Black people behind bars. They are still locked in to what Alexander calls a “permanent undercaste.”
The New Jim Crow came out before the 2013 killing of Trayvon Martin birthed #BlackLivesMatter, before the 2014 killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It was before the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans sparked worldwide protests against racist policing, before Black Lives Matter became a global movement. While the discrimination against Black people in America is much the same as when the book was published, the public support for protecting and defending Black lives has grown exponentially. The ground is fertile for all Americans who value justice to demand a new reality. To quote Dr. King, no one is free until we are all free.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. 2010.
Reviewer bio: Laura Plummer is an American freelance journalist and writer from Massachusetts. Read her work at lauraplummer.me.
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