Book Review: The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander discusses the racist similarities between the Jim Crow Era and the War on Drugs. A non-fiction book about social justice is a bit afield of this blog’s usual science fiction fare. But as with Guns, Germs, and Steel, this book provides insight into how societies do, and sometimes don’t, work.

Science fiction is often concerned with the other. Science fiction can never truly be alien–as with all fiction, if it isn’t plausible, it doesn’t enchant. In a current project, I write about two alien species living together in a city, but apart, one above ground and one below ground. If I wanted to write about racial and class segregation, I figured I should read further about it in the real world. How would the two species feel about each other? What would they say about each other? I had them growing together after intense fighting– how could they plausibly do that?

That silly motivation convinced me to read the book, rather than say “that sounds interesting” and read something else. I’m glad I read it. It’s an important American topic that we remain quiet about, due to indifference or discomfort or lack of knowledge. I knew that our country imprisons an insane percentage of the population. I knew that many of these prisoners were black or brown, but I assumed this was because blacks and browns are statistically more likely to be poor and unemployed. I found that unfortunate, but not racist or alarming.

The New Jim Crow’s central thesis is that the War on Drugs, and the subsequent mass incarceration, has been enforced in a racist manner. Whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates, but blacks end up in prison far more often for it. Since the War on Drugs was declared in the early 80s, the prison population has increased from 400,000 to 2 million. During this period, decisions by the legislature and the Supreme Court have destroyed constitutional protections such as the 4th and the 14th amendment. This allows conscious and unconscious bias to target blacks. Police departments have enormous financial incentive to make arrests, and so they do, and minorities bear the brunt of it.

The book addressed my skepticism and convinced me. This is an issue that the left and right should be united on: it’s a violation of human decency and it’s expensive. To me, the main thing sustaining the War on Drugs and mass incarceration is the appeal of punishment; it’s easier to sell being tough on crime than helping criminals. We also don’t appreciate the scope of the problem.

I strongly recommend this book. I hear people debate racial issues so often. I participate too. But to be honest, this is my first long form read on the topic in today’s society. Because I read this, I better understand a complicated topic. I think if more people read this book, we would have a more intelligent conversation about this important issue that only grows more important. Oh, and it also might help you write about aliens.

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