The New Jim Crow (Summary)

by Michelle Alexander


The more things change, the more they remain the same.

I’m not racist. My parents raised me to respect people, no matter their color, I was taught to treat people the way I want to be treated. That’s it. My reactions to racism are minimal, I turn my eyes and scroll faster when my Facebook and Twitter feed overflows with articles about white on black crime, police brutality on African Americans, and any other story that has racism as a tag. I’m not clueless, but aloof to the situation. I always think it’s the media drumming up news, desperately trying to increase their traffic. I know there are problems, but it’s hard to fully understand the situation without knowing both sides. Not anymore.

Racism is everywhere, racial profiling is still around, the war on drugs has been lost. I’ll try to highlight a few of the statistics below, prepare yourself.

In 1982, Ronald Reagan declared the war on drugs. In 2015, that war is still being fought, even though you and I know we’ve lost.

“Between 1960 and 1990, for example, official crime rates in Finland, Germany, and the United States were close to identical. Yet the U.S. incarceration rate quadrupled, the Finnish rate fell by 60 percent, and the German rate was stable in that period. Despite similar crime rates, each government chose to impose different levels of punishment.”

Once swept into the system, the chances of being free, or having a clean record, is impossible. The difficulty of living a normal life for someone who is tagged by the authorities becomes exponentially harder. In many cases, these people are stripped from participating in everyday human activities. It’s harder to make money, get a job, go to school, and because of that, many people resort to selling drugs. Sure, this isn’t an excuse, but the price you pay for a small, first-time offense can ruin the rest of your life. It’s a circle, designed to sweep up as many people as possible, and in that circle there is rarely an exit door that is open.

“Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born.”

Many of us assume we understand how the judicial system works, while maintaining faith in our police force and the people who are ‘protecting’ us. We believe that cops are the heroes, taking care of the streets and making sure we are safe. Sure, there are plenty of actual heroes that protect us every day, but as a whole, the cops and judicial system isn’t what Hollywood, or TV portrays it to be.

“Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980 — an increase of 1,100 percent.
In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five was for sales. Moreover, most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity.”

In our current system, a cop can pull you over for probable cause. The term is so loosely defined, that it means they can pull over anyone at any time. There are no repercussions for pulling over someone who is innocent, or patting someone down who has nothing but a wallet and a cell phone in their pocket. Not to say that there should be, but this gives cops a clean slate every day. This isn’t the only problem, this is just a microcosm that stemmed from the war on drugs.

“The racial bias inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men. For young black men, the statistics are even worse. One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006, and far more were under some form of penal control — such as probation or parole.”

What’s even worse is the amount of people who fill the rooms in our jails are mostly drug offenders, and in many cases, first-time offenders. Once caught in the system, many people have a hard time getting out. Not having an attorney and answering questions without knowing the consequences keep people locked behind bars. As of September 2009, 7.9 percent of federal prisoners had been convicted of a violent crime. What’s even more alarming is that out of 7.3 million people under correctional control, only 1.6 million are in prison. The war on drugs isn’t just about locking people up, it’s also the practice of keeping people who aren’t in jail in check, and if they mess up, back into the system they go.

Where do we go from here? It’s hard to tell. Legalizing marijuana? Lesser punishment for first-time offenders? Changing the probable cause law? Mandating body cameras for the police force? Who knows.

We are better than this. It’s time for change.

Should you read this book? YES.

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