Can a book change our world? I always have hope. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring comes to mind. How we see the world is critical to our hope to change it. I think The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander might be such a book. I certainly hope so. It lays out how mass incarceration of Black men has created a new under-class, a new caste of people who are outside society. She lays out in details how this happens: from police discretion of whom to stop and frisk and arrest, to the power of the prosecutors to threaten long sentences in exchange for guilty verdicts, without informing the people who plead guilty how this plea will affect not only their sentence but their entire lives. Being labeled a “felon” means no job, no public housing, no vote, no jury service, no food stamps, and often the only alternative is a return trip to prison or a life of homelessness.
It is a system of inter-locking grips that put millions of Black men behind bars in service to the “War on Drugs.” This is a war on mostly non-violent “offenders.” There are no classic “victims” other than the supposed “criminal.” Criminalizing drug use, even marijuana, with mandatory 10 year prison terms has enriched the private prison industry, police departments, and enabled right-wing politicians to win the votes of white people by being “tough on crime.” Really tough on Black men. Alexander traces the history of the War on Drugs to Ronald Reagan as a means to win election. The results are no accident. She begins to outline a strategy to change this and understands how difficult it will be, especially when so many people’s jobs are dependent on this mass incarceration. But if not us, then who? If not now, when?