By Alan Bean
When a book about the criminal justice system sells 175,000 books, something is afoot. Something big. As this article in the New York Times observes, the initial hardcover release of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness was only 3,000 copies. That’s a realistic sales target for this kind of book.
Nobody who has read the book is surprised to find it on the best-seller list. Many of the facts professor Alexander cited were familiar to criminal justice reform advocates, but she writes better than most academics and her argument transcended the normal drug war critique. This clip from the article says it best:
Today, Professor Alexander writes, nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out. That is a familiar argument made by many critics of the criminal justice system, but Professor Alexander’s book goes further, asserting that the crackdown was less a response to the actual explosion of violent crime than a deliberate effort to push back the gains of the civil rights movement.
Was the drug war a response to crime (as folks like Bill Stuntz and David Kennedy argue) or was the real goal to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement?
In a journal article called “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow“, professor James Forman Jr., son of the famed civil rights leader, makes two primary points. First, Ms. Alexander doesn’t say enough about the relationship between urban crime and support for the drug war, and second, The New Jim Crow ignores the fact that civil rights leaders initially endorsed the idea of ramping up the drug war because drugs, and drug-related violence, was having a disastrous impact in poor black neighborhoods.
Forman makes some powerful arguments. The war on drugs has always been a bipartisan disaster. As Bill Stuntz suggested in his excellent The Decline of American Criminal Justice, liberal politicians had three choices when conservatives like Richard Nixon started demagoguing the drug war. They could offer a progressive drug policy alternative, they could cede the drug issue to the conservatives, or they could out-tough the tough guys. Democrats like Bill Clinton chose option number three and the drug war was transformed into a bipartisan bidding war.
That said, there can be no doubt that conservative politicians used drug policy as a proxy for race and ideology. Marijuana was targeted by drug warriors because its use was associated with Latinos, poor blacks, and anti-war radicals. Demonizing crack cocaine was much easier than calling for a jihad on young black males–but that was the primary message.
As the article in the Times makes clear, Michelle Alexander has never suggested that white racists got together behind closed doors to plot the downfall of the African-American community. Nevertheless, as David Kennedy and others have argued, that has been the outcome.
Reformers are agreed on the big issues. The drug war has been a disaster. Mass incarceration has impacted people of color in grossly disproportionate ways. The drug war was rooted in racial politics from the outset.
The key question is whether the massive spike in crime that shocked Americans of all races and political persuasions from the late 1960s to the early 1990s was transformed into a propaganda opportunity by American politicians, or whether the violence issue, as Alexander suggests, was essentially a red herring.
There are serious problems with Alexander’s stance on this issue. The rash of violence that gripped America in the late 1960s was horrific, it was drug-related, and it disproportionately impacted poor black neighborhoods. This explains why civil rights leaders and progressive politicians wound up on the wrong side of the drug policy issue. Politicians who appeared soft on crime became ex-politicians. Civil Rights leaders who listened to their constituents were demanding drug-free communities.
Movement strategy is at issue. Michelle Alexander’s book, and the extensive speaking tour that has been reinforcing her powerful argument for the past two years, has galvanized the black middle class and a large cadre of white progressives (me, for example) in remarkable ways. Her focus on the post-prison plight of a new racialized caste is utterly devastating. The emerging movement to end mass incarceration is largely a product of The New Jim Crow.
But there is a ‘but’. If we want to influence the white middle class, only one argument will work: we got into this drug war mess together, and we must get out of it together. Only by emphasizing the bipartisan evolution of this social trainwreck can we rally bipartisan support behind a solution.
Does this mean Michelle Alexander should change her perspective? No. But when we take the fight to Middle America a different set of arguments will be needed. No one book can say everything that needs to be said. No single leader can reach every audience that needs to be reached. Alexander’s book has been successful largely because of her racial thesis. She says what a lot of people (myself included) have been thinking for a long time. It took real courage to write a book that makes claims traditionally associated with extremism. In the process, Alexander has placed a critically important issue on the national agenda and inspired a movement, things her critics can only dream of doing.
But every approach has its limitations. Alexander’s message will get a stony reception from white moderates for the same reason it has sparked such tremendous enthusiasm among black progressives. This is partly because Alexander speaks a truth white America is unready to hear. And this is partly because The New Jim Crow, like every other book ever written on the drug war, falls short of saying everything that needs to be said.
My guess is that, in the 1968-1990 period, civil rights leaders and black politicians knew full well that drugs had become a proxy for race. They also believed that drug abuse and drug dealers were destroying poor black communities. As William Julius Wilson has argued, the economic and social implosion of urban neighborhoods was produced by a perfect storm in which several developments (white flight, the emergence of the new black middle class, the shift from a manufacturing economy to an information economy, urban planning decisions designed to segregate poor neighborhoods, and so on). Drug abuse and drug dealing are symptoms of despair, they didn’t create the problem.
We need different messengers sending carefully targeted messages to distinct audiences. One message won’t work for everybody and mass incarceration will not end until a majority of Americans get on the right side of this issue. Criticizing the most effective messenger in America is obviously counter-productive. If a more bipartisan approach is needed to reach Middle America, let that book be written. Wouldn’t it be great to have two excellent books on mass incarceration dominating the best seller list?
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
Published: March 6, 2012
Garry McCarthy, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, did not expect to hear anything too startling when he appeared at a conference on drug policy organized last year by an African-American minister in Newark, where he was the police director.
But then a law professor named Michelle Alexander took the stage and delivered an impassioned speech attacking the war on drugs as a system of racial control comparable to slavery and Jim Crow — and received a two-minute standing ovation from the 500 people in the audience.
“These were not young people living in high-crime neighborhoods,” Mr. McCarthy, now police superintendent in Chicago, recalled in telephone interview. “This was the black middle class.”
“I don’t believe in the government conspiracy, but what you have to accept is that that narrative exists in the community and has to be addressed,” he said. “That was my real a-ha moment.”
Mr. McCarthy is not alone. During the past two years Professor Alexander has been provoking such moments across the country — and across the political spectrum — with her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” which has become a surprise best seller since its paperback version came out in January. Sales have totaled some 175,000 copies after an initial hardcover printing of a mere 3,000, according to the publisher, the New Press.
The book marshals pages of statistics and legal citations to argue that the get-tough approach to crime that began in the Nixon administration and intensified with Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs has devastated black America. Today, Professor Alexander writes, nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out. That is a familiar argument made by many critics of the criminal justice system, but Professor Alexander’s book goes further, asserting that the crackdown was less a response to the actual explosion of violent crime than a deliberate effort to push back the gains of the civil rights movement.
For many African-Americans, the book — which has spent six weeks on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list — gives eloquent and urgent expression to deep feelings that the criminal justice system is stacked against them.
“Everyone in the African-American community had been seeing exactly what she is talking about but couldn’t put it into words,” said Phillip Jackson, executive director of the Black Star Project, an educational advocacy group in Chicago that has been blasting its 60,000 e-mail subscribers with what Mr. Jackson called near-daily messages about the book and Professor Alexander since he saw a video of her speaking in 2010.
The book is also galvanizing white readers, including some who might question its portrayal of the war on drugs as a continuation of race war by other means.
“The book is helping white folks who otherwise would have simply dismissed that idea understand why so many people believe it,” said David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It is making them take that seriously.”
“The New Jim Crow” arrives at a receptive moment, when declining crime rates and exploding prison budgets have made conservatives and liberals alike more ready to question the wisdom of keeping nearly 1 in 100 Americans behind bars. But Professor Alexander, who teaches at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, said in an interview that the more provocative claims of her book did not come easily to her. When she first encountered the “New Jim Crow” metaphor on a protest sign in Oakland, Calif., a decade ago, she was a civil rights lawyer with an impeccable résumé — Stanford Law School, a Supreme Court clerkship — and was leery of embracing arguments that might be considered, as she put it, “crazy.”