Books for the Horde: The New Jim Crow, Chapter 6

Is the current prison system really intended as a way to control black people, or is something more nuanced at work?

This is our last installment for The New Jim Crow. I want to thank everyone for joining and look forward to reading your conclusions. Essentially, I think The New Jim Crow is a solid book overall, and an excellent tool for activists. Unfortunately, from a scholarly perspective, I think the book leaves a lot of us asking for more.

Alexander's greatest insight, for me, was a simple but important one—the law is not a divine mandate but the work of fallible humans, with human agendas. By the same token, labels like "criminal" and "felon" should be understood as the labels they are, not as facts of nature. Sometimes both the label and the law are just, and sometimes they are not. But there is no real reason why either has to be just. (Oddly enough, no one has better articulated this than the "gangsta rappers" who Alexander regards as modern-day minstrels. It's worth spending some time with both the song and video for Freeway's "What We Do" to see what I mean.)

The scholarship and hurried manner of Alexander's writing posed a problem for me. In the last chapter she extends her critique of Clinton to Obama. Her core insight is correct—simply changing the faces of the people executing policy does not guarantee a just policy. But because of past errors (which we've discussed), I found myself constantly checking the footnotes. And I left feeling like I'd be uncomfortable citing that portion (as well as other portions) of the book in a debate.

I was not convinced, in the end, that mass incarceration really is a "new" Jim Crow, in much the same way that I am not convinced that Jim Crow was a "new" slavery. I tend to think that names mean something and it's worth delineating the difference between systems. I also think we can do this work of delineation without minimizing the evil inherent in each. I still feel uncomfortable with the idea that masses of incarcerated white people are merely collateral damage on the way to controlling black people. I suspect something more nuanced at work.

I use these words "suspect" and "unconvinced" intentionally, for even as I write this, I am not so sure that Alexander is wrong. A brief historical note will explain why. In the '40s and '50s, African Americans and advocates of fair housing understood that some network of discrimination was at work. But they did not understand how far the network actually went until the discovery of redlining maps, which made it painfully clear that what they were seeing was not random mindless bias but federal policy. For years it was believed that whites enslaved blacks because of "mindless bias" against dark skin. It took the work of historians like Edmund Morgan and St. Clair Drake to show that white supremacy was not a remnant of the Dark Ages but the product of a modern, ostensibly civilized age.

We are still inside the period of mass incarceration, and historians (as opposed to lawyers and law professors) have just begun to really dig into the roots of our era. I would not be shocked if one day they discover the evidence that I found wanting in this book—evidence of intentionality, of direction, which shows that the carceral state really was, at its roots, an attempt to control black people, and to continue the long tradition of American plunder. Should that day come, The New Jim Crow will likely be seen as prophetic.