Saturday, February 8, 2014

The New Jim Crow

I wrote this during the summer of 2013 and meant to add more quotes, but after the recent announcement by the Justice Department encouraging prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses to apply for clemency, I finally thought I should publish it as is.

I confess: I write on the pages of the nonfiction books I read, in part to mark passages for later citation and in part because I see the books as a conversation between me and the author. Brief underlining and side marks for longer passages are common. Occasionally, I'll make an exclamation point at a surprising or alarming fact.

I recently read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and it has lots of exclamation points. But for many of its facts I had to move beyond punctuation to profanity. Littered throughout you'll find the word Jesus! scribbled in the margin.

The book has been out since 2010, so I am very late to this. After hearing Alexander speak on an MPR radio show, I put it on my mental list of books to read, but it took me a while. Its premise sounds outrageous — that the drug war was an intentional means of reincarnating Jim Crow. At first, all you can do is scoff. But Alexander makes the case until there's no way to argue against her.

I encourage everyone to read it because it will completely change your perspective on major aspects of American history we've been living over the last 30 years.

Two things about it both surprised me and haunt me the most. First is just how much I've lived in privilege. Because I'm white, female, and middle-aged, I haven't felt personally oppressed by mass incarceration. Daughter Number Three-Point-One, though young, is white and female, plus she grew up in a neighborhood exempt from [it.] I know better, believe me I do, but if you don't live it, you can ignore it, and I have, to my chagrin.

Second is just how unspeakably bad the Supreme Court has been over the last 30 years. In too many cases, the court has decided in favor of unmitigated state power, leaving us with few clear civil liberties and making a mockery of the fourth and fifteenth amendments.


Related outrages:

Salon recounts the return of debtor's prison.

An Unholy Allliance: Private Prisons and the Christian Right

Did you hear about the 2013 Supreme Court decision that found police don't have to prove their drug-sniffing dogs have any training? So they can just bring their golden retriever along and use it as a pretext to search.

Plus one idea about what we could do with all the former prisons.

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