Social Justice Book Club: The New Jim Crow Wrap-Up and Review

This marks the wrap-up of our August group read of The New Jim Crow for the Social Justice Book Club. If you're just joining us, catch up on the intro post and mid-way discussions, or feel free to dive right in with the wrap-up discussions here. And stay tuned for a poll on the next club book later this week!

I don't know about the rest of you, but The New Jim Crow was somehow exactly what I expected it to be (an analytic dissection of all of the many ways that the current US criminal justice system is racist) and not at all what I expected it to be (a takedown of affirmative action, for one). I'm very much still parsing what I think about the book overall, and unfortunately I don't think the Dayquil-induced haze I've been living in for the last three days has really leant itself to intelligent analysis, but here goes...

Michelle Alexander wrote in the preface to this book, "This book is not for everyone." After finishing it, I certainly agree--even more so than I might have at the outset. This book is certainly, as she writes, for those interested in racial justice and the criminal justice system in the United States. This book is not for those unwilling to see things from new perspectives or hear harsh criticisms of those who we believe are doing good work (civil rights organizations of today, among others). Nor it is for anyone who takes a "get tough on crime" attitude, for much--if not all--of Alexander's arguments are based on the idea that all people in the United States, regardless of the color of their skin, commit crimes... but only non-whites (and in particular, blacks) are persecuted and prosecuted for those crimes.

As Alexander's book focuses almost exclusively on the War on Drugs, so will I. I do not dispute that black (and brown) populations are much more heavily punished for drug crimes than their white peers (though I would not have disputed this fact prior to reading Alexander's book). But I worry that by focusing her argument solely on this point, rather than also reaching to include explanations of why non-white populations are pushed into drugs crimes in the first place left her argument weaker than it needed to be. Educational disparities (including the "prison pipeline" of many inner-city, predominantly black schools), lack of economic opportunity (which can, among other things, push individuals towards things like drug trade solely in order to subsist), and the push-out of black communities into low-income "ghettos" are all a part of this picture, and Alexander's extreme focus on the War on Drugs fails to account for their role in mass incarceration (and racial injustice). Alexander evens goes so far as to call civil rights organizations to task for their focus on these issues--and truly, I believe she has a point in calling out the lack of conversation around mass incarceration, but I'm not convinced that we can't argue for an overhaul of the criminal justice system in tandem with a push for solutions that address educational disparities, economic opportunities, and the ghettoization of black culture.

All of this is not to say that I didn't love The New Jim Crow--if it is possible to "love" something that brings up such infuriating realities as Alexander does. I did. I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of conversations like the one Alexander is aiming to start, and I believe that her focus on mass incarceration and disappointment at its invisibility in public conversations is entirely justified, and her rage at the status quo--and specifically the unchanging nature of the status quo--feels right. This is a book we need to read and digest and think about and talk about and use to better understand the many ways we make criminals out of the black men of our country.

Maybe I'm naive. Maybe I'm overly hopeful. Maybe I'm falling into the too-easy traps that Alexander warns about, as drug laws shift and conversations around police targeting and black lives shift to the forefront of (my) media consumption. Or maybe, in the six years since Alexander sat down to write The New Jim Crow, things have changed, just a little bit, just enough to get the ball rolling. The question now--and one left unanswered by Alexander's book, though to ask her to answer it seems an unfair burden--is this: Where do we go from here?


If you read along for Social Justice Book Club, or if you've read the book on your own, chime in! Some questions for consideration are listed here; feel free to answer or not answer as you see fit. Feel free to comment below with answers and/or link up to your final thoughts on the book in the link up below.

1) In what ways (if any) was this book surprising to you? Did Alexander change your opinion about anything?

2) Alexander talks about the "politics of respectability" (the idea that the path to eradicate racism is for black people to behave "respectably"). This was a common stance (among both blacks and whites) in Jim Crow South; how much do you think this continues to hold true today?

3) What are you most excited to share with others about this book?

4) Alexander advocates against a colorblind society. Do you think this is possible? Beneficial?

5) How do you see this book fitting in, if at all, with the previous books read in the club (Just Mercy and The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts)?


Link up to your thoughts (and visit other participants!)

Social Justice Book Club Housekeeping:

The Social Justice Book Club will be back in October and then again in December; stay tuned for a poll later this week to determine which book we read next. As always, I'm open to ideas and suggestions for how to improve discussions, interactions, etc., and would love feedback on the shift in structure for this month's reading over the last two books (reading schedule, discussion questions, etc.). 

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