The New Jim Crow
I recently read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
I thought about writing a review in the same way as I have for many of the books I read in the past. This time, I want to do something a little different. Her overarching point, which I will be unable to articulate as persuasively here, is that the War on Drugs has led to a modern World where African Americans (both as individuals and as a group) suffer and are unable to improve their standing economically, politically, and socially.
In every way, this is an outstanding book. Few books change perspectives, adjust your reality, open your eyes. Books that make you stop, make you think, challenge your thoughts and views are rare.
For me, a short selection of my list of personally influential books are:
- The Black Swan
- The China Study
- The New Jim Crow
In this book, she discusses why a war on drugs exists and how America found (and continues to find) this acceptable. She argues that a system was developed and designed in such a way that it functions to keep African Americans as second class citizens. She has many valid points and an argument she lays out well.
The system works in the following outlined way (so much is left out here, please just read the book):
- Drug Laws were written, media sensationalized the stories (on one side only), and stereotypes encouraged (that blacks are drug users despite the fact whites are consumers of illicits at the same rates as blacks)
- Police, with a colorblind argument of maintaining safety and security, patrol areas of color at much higher intensity, and in the process, round up people in "poor communities of color." These police forces are rewarded heavily for this behavior, from confiscated assets to congressional money incentives. Police are allowed to use race as a factor in selecting who to search assuring most of those swept into the criminal justice system are primarily black or brown.
- The next step in this system is conviction. This is where prosecutorial influence is critical. Prosecutors have charged white defendants with less severe charges while adding more charges and more severe charges to people of color. Prosecutors look for ways to place people in prison for small amounts of drugs and add on charges to encourage and influence guilty plea bargains from people of color. This effectively creates a population of people with a history of felonies for possession of small amounts of drugs.
- As our prison population grows (I am not even getting into the inappropriately high percentage of our population is in prison or the big business of prisons, or how this affects gerrymandering districts or other third order effects...), people are essentially hidden from view of those with stereotypes against them, furthering the viewpoint that black men are criminals.
- If our prisons are filled with black men, is that not the logical conclusion - they are criminals?
- If all I see in media being arrested are black or if I only see people of color being charged with crimes, doesn't that lean towards building on my established stereotype that this is a problem of one portion of the population but not all of us? We know all groups have the same drug problems.
- Finally, the system leads to the long lasting invisible punishment. When people have a felony, they cannot vote, they essentially cannot get a job, they lose the ability to receive food stamps, they can be removed from public housing .. this lasts for a lifetime. Every day, people are placed in this same position because of a lapse in judgement, a policeman who thought, "this guy could be bad" ... for something every race and ethnicity is doing in the United States at the same time but we selectively look for in one section of the population and punish them horribly.
I ask, how is this war on drugs in any way defensible? I challenge all Americans to read this book with an open mind and see how your own behavior and support changes.
It opened my eyes to other political perspectives. Like, I love the idea of small government, as I want government to be big enough to provide for order but small enough to stay out of the way so I achieve my American Dream. Others might see a small government as a bad thing, as the government is the only thing to historically protect them from atrocities that kept upward mobility from even being a possibility. Big government can continue to protect against programs within the government like policing policies with unfair practices.There many other "ah-ha" moments of clarity as my understanding of other people's perspectives develop and are shaped by their experiences.
Separately, I am reminded that this was not even a problem until we wanted it to be. Drugs can do a lot of damage to a person and might not be wise to use, but should using a drug be a crime?
I am reminded of Dr. William Stewart Halsted (1852-1922), one of the greatest of American surgeons. As one site describes:
Halsted's skill and ingenuity as a surgeon during his years of addiction to morphine earned him national and international renown. For Lister's concept of antisepsis--- measures to kill germs in operation wounds Halsted substituted asepsis: measures to keep germs out of the wound in the first place. In this and other ways, he pioneered techniques for minimizing the damage done to delicate tissues during an operation. Precision became his surgical trademark. A British surgeon, Lord Moynihan, admiringly described the Halsted technique at the operating table as one of "frequently light, swift, sparing movements with the sharpest of knives, instead of free, heavy-handed deep cutting; of no hemorrhage or the minimum of hemorrhage instead of the severance of many vessels, each bleeding freely until clipped .
What about others? The idea that drug users cannot be productive members of society is wrong. The idea that drug users should be criminals is also wrong. If you are a criminal for using drugs what about these folks:
- Charles Dickens - opium. He wrote: A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist. He ended his days of writing to puff on a hookah filled with poppy latex.
- Philip K. Dick - amphetamines. He wrote dozens of novels about his own experiences of paranoia, schizophrenia, and drug abuse. His most well known novel was, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" which was converted into Blade Runner. Others books that were converted into major films were Total Recall, Minority Report, and Next.
- Sigmund Freud - cocaine. While under the influence of cocaine, Freud delineated psychoanalytic theory. This formed the basis of modern psychological medicine.
- Stephen King - choice was to mix a cocktail of cocaine, Xanax, Valium, NyQuil, beer, tobacco, and marijuana to get him through the day. He even admits he doesn’t remember writing some of his works. After his concerned family members staged an intervention, he went to rehab and today claims to be clean and sober.
- Winston Churchill - was notorious for drinking whisky and smoking cigars. He did use amphetamines to be able to stay up and plan the war.
- Vincent Van Gogh - absinthe. He painted Starry Night and Sunflowers which have sold for millions on the open market.
So, what is our way forward as a country?
- Recognition by the general public that people are people. People make mistakes. People try drugs. People ... regardless of sex, ethnicity or race, age, socioeconomic status.
- Recognition by the general public that our system is lopsided, that we are shutting the African American community out of our society. I have heard people lament the loss of the family unit in the US black community - that is all of our fault - we put the fathers and sons in prison. We gave them life sentences by removing the possibility for employment, taking away their ability to live with their family potentially removing their qualifications for housing, by removing their ability to have a voice for any improvement in their life through taking away their right to vote. Again, I am barely touching the surface on what rights we take away from affected people.
- Remove the penalty of harsh sentences and the lasting effects of a felony for non-violent minor drug charges. Just as importantly, make this retroactive. This restores the potential of achieving the American Dream to these Americans.
What are we afraid of? This is what we, as American brothers and sisters, are all about.
America, as usually imagined, is a land of opportunity for all who are here, a place of acceptance, an idealistic homeland where if you work hard you succeed. I do not think this is unattainable, but it is difficult.
Until all US citizens have an equal voice in the country, we are not great. We are not America.
Until all citizens have the opportunity for upward mobility - the American Dream - we are not great. We are not America.
Until we recognize our failings, accept people for who they are, and appreciate people's value to society, we are not great. We are not America.
With all that in mind, I was sickened to see today's headline on The Washington Post: Sessions issues sweeping new criminal charging policy
We are going backward as a country.
So again, I challenge:
- Read this book
- Stand up for what is right - people are people - speak up, provide support, have respectful discussions with those of differing views. They likely want the same end game you do (fair stakes, crime-free communities, good schools, etc). Find common ground and build on it.
- Defend the defenseless.
- He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. - Proverbs 14:31
- Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. - Proverbs 31:8-9
- Don't give up.