Books for the Horde: The New Jim Crow, Chapters 2 and 3

How the powers afforded to law enforcement encourage racism and plunder

Hi all. This is our second week of reading. This week we're focusing on Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Per last week, the conversation will take place in comments below. To repeat: You can tackle any angle as long as you've done the reading. If you haven't done the reading for the week, please refrain from commenting. We had some people violate this rule this week. This week I will ban these people, under the novel theory that demanding a hearing, while refusing to grant one, evidences ill-breeding.

From this week's chapters, I thought Alexander's strongest portions lay in her lucid explanation of the proud powers enjoyed by law enforcement. A few particularly damning highlights:

On how law enforcement IDs drug couriers:

The profile can include traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs, driving with out-of-state license plates, driving a rental car, driving with “mismatched occupants,” acting too calm, acting too nervous, dressing casually, wearing expensive clothing or jewelry, being one of the first to deplane, being one of the last to deplane, deplaning in the middle, paying for a ticket in cash, using large-denomination currency, using small-denomination currency, traveling alone, traveling with a companion, and so on. Even striving to obey the law fits the profile! The Florida Highway Patrol Drug Courier Profile cautioned troopers to be suspicious of “scrupulous obedience to traffic laws.”

On how easily efforts to profile "criminals" quickly become efforts to profile black people:

In Los Angeles, mass stops of young African American men and boys resulted in the creation of a database containing the names, addresses, and other biographical information of the overwhelming majority of young black men in the entire city. The LAPD justified its database as a tool for tracking gang or “gang-related” activity. However, the criterion for inclusion in the database is notoriously vague and discriminatory. Having a relative or friend in a gang and wearing baggy jeans is enough to put youth on what the ACLU calls a Black List. In Denver, displaying any two of a list of attributes—including slang, “clothing of a particular color,” pagers, hairstyles, or jewelry—earns youth a spot in the Denver Police’s gang database. In 1992, citizen activism led to an investigation, which revealed that eight out of every ten people of color in the entire city were on the list of suspected criminals.

On the financial incentives implicit in the War on Drugs:

In fact, the Times reported that police departments had an extraordinary incentive to use their new equipment for drug enforcement: the extra federal funding the local police departments received was tied to antidrug policing. The size of the disbursements was linked to the number of city or county drug arrests. Each arrest, in theory, would net a given city or county about $153 in state and federal funding .... As a result, when Jackson County, Wisconsin, quadrupled its drug arrests between 1999 and 2000, the county’s federal subsidy quadrupled too .... Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of drug use or sales.

On the (predictable) result of these incentives—plunder:

One highly publicized case involved a reclusive millionaire, Donald Scott, who was shot and killed when a multiagency task force raided his two-hundred-acre Malibu ranch purportedly in search of marijuana plants. They never found a single marijuana plant in the course of the search. A subsequent investigation revealed that the primary motivation for the raid was the possibility of forfeiting Scott’s property. If the forfeiture had been successful, it would have netted the law enforcement agencies about $5 million in assets. In another case, William Munnerlynn had his Learjet seized by the DEA after he inadvertently used it to transport a drug dealer. Though charges were dropped against him within seventy-two hours, the DEA refused to return his Learjet. Only after five years of litigation and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees was he able to secure return of his jet. When the jet was returned, it had sustained $100,000 worth of damage.

(For more on this see Sarah Stillman's work.)

Again, I think Alexander's insistence on pushing the envelope on actual racism is one of the book's most striking features. Liberals have largely retreated on this front. We prefer to talk about "inadvertent," or "unintentional" racial effects. Alexander is arguing for actual racism as a factor in every stage of the criminal-justice process. Her citation of this study on policing in Seattle is an excellent example of how, after controlling for everything, racism remains a significant factor in who we police, who we arrest and who we jail.

I don't yet know what to think of her insistence on disregarding violent crime. Her basic argument is that the drug war is the major factor in understanding mass incarceration. I am not sure that she's wrong. I just don't find her totally convincing. I read this sentence, for instance ...

As much as half of state prisoners are violent offenders, but that statistic can easily be misinterpreted. Violent offenders tend to get longer prison sentences than nonviolent offenders, and therefore comprise a much larger share of the prison population than they would if they had earlier release dates.

... and wasn't sure how it proved her point. I'm not saying it doesn't—but it could have used some unpacking, some "Talk To Me Like I'm Stupid." And there a lot of places in these chapters, particularly around the history, that feel rushed in that same way. I kept wanting Alexander to slow down and bang home her point with more evidence and more examples. I also wanted her to write with more care. While disregarding violent crime as a factor in incarceration, she quickly changes the subject:

The most important fact to keep in mind, however, is this: debates about prison statistics ignore the fact that most people who are under correctional control today are not in prison.

Yes. But the argument is about mass incarceration. Certainly parole and probation are related, but they are different.

I find myself slightly frustrated by this book. Its overall argument strikes me as correct. And its underlying arguments strike me as plausible (drug war vs. violent-crime debate.) But I was left in several pages wanting more. The result is that I find myself checking footnotes and looking up sources to make sure that Alexander is giving me these stories in all their fullness and import.

Feel free to opine up them, or anything else in the chapters that caught your eye.