Book Reviews

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

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This is an absoluting incredible book! I take notes when I read books for book reports. In this case I constantly find myself writing page such and such paragraph 1, and then following it with and also the rest of the page. There is so much here that I cannot do it justice. I am only on page 90, yet am so impressed that I think this book will easily rate as the top read for me for the last 5 to 10 years. It is about so much...

Largely, the author describes how the "War on Drugs" has reinstituted methods of control very similar to those known as "Jim Crow" laws. The statistics she quotes are known by few since the Propanganda for the drug war has warped most all thought under a blanket of fear. It's very similar to 9/11's use as the excuse for both constant war and for knocking down of the most basic rights once considered intrinsic to the "American Dream".

Because of the importance of her message I will do this report in several stages starting with this first.

With the book was a DVD of a speech by the author on the same topic. I hope this DVD can be shown at the film festival.

Part 2: The new Jim Crow (part 2)

One of the themes in the book is that there has been an incredible change in the country’s views on prison, crime, and the reactions related to these topics. As late as the mid-70’s criminologists were predicting that the prison system would soon fade away. Prison did not deter crime in the opinion of many experts. “Those who had meaningful economic and social opportunities were unlikely to commit crime regardless of the penalty, while those who went to prison were far more likely to commit crimes again.”

The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals in 1973 said that “no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed.” This was based upon their findings that “the prison, the reformatory, and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.”

Today such statements would be written off as shear quackery. Yet the rate of incarceration was so low that the end to all these lockups was actually possible. In 1972 there were fewer than 350,000 TOTAL people in prison/jail lockup compared to over 2 MILLION today. An additional 7 million plus have become entangled with a “justice” system that stigmatizes huge numbers by making them an underclass largely w/o vote, jobs, or prospects for a normal life.

The shocking change in this picture in such a short time is detailed in this book along with how and why it happened. It helped immensely that the federal government, starting with Ronald Reagan, manufactured a severe problem and provided extreme incentives to all levels of local government to prioritize drug crime and to “get tough on crime”. But it was not accidental and it was not because of supposed rising rates of crime across the nation. Largely, it was built upon the “war on drugs” and on locking up amazing numbers of mostly Black/Brown people despite data that showed dropping drug use and criminal activity. Data also show that then and now Black/Brown people use and sell drugs at pretty well identical rates as Whites. But the treatment of these groups is radically different as our "justice" system all too easily shows...

Despite the startling statistics that show remarkable concentration of law enforcement and punitive measures used against Black/ Brown humans, Supreme Court Decisions have managed to make these statistics impossible to be used in courts to show unconstitutional acts in specific cases. The court has managed to narrow rights of the accused so carefully that the requirements for overturning convictions are all but impossible to follow. Both the Nixon administration with their "tough on crime" and "law and order" thrust and Ronald Reagan’s "War on Drugs" were essential parts of a strategy to win control of the South (The Nixon Southern Strategy). Coded words such as "Welfare Queens" and "Willlie Horton" type ads were used to appeal to the White Southern Democrat along with racists everywhere.

A conscious effort was made to convince many that Civil Rights marches and other demonstrations were evidence of a breakdown in the "law and order" of the country caused by "Negroes who start riots" and "communists". "Crime in the streets" was another rallying call for branding urban crime as Black or Brown crime.

Then, despite low drug crime, the "War on Drugs" was manufactured during a time when drug use was actually on decline. But with strong emphasis upon Crack Cocaine as an incredibly nasty and destructive drug that would "hook" anyone who used it, drug laws and enforcement took a turn that ultimately was used to institute laws that treated Crack much different than cocaine. (The drug of choice of the white richer class.) Thus, for actually two very similar drugs, the punishment became outrageously unbalanced. Penalties for Crack by weight versus regular cocaine were 1 to 100. That is, to trigger serious consequences for regular cocaine you needed to have 100 times the weight needed for Crack Cocaine. This warped ratio continued until the Obama administration when it was changed to 18 to 1. (Still pretty lousy.) At the same time the mandatory five year sentence for simple possession of Crack cocaine was removed. This mandatory sentence that was the law for years contributed to the warped numbers of black/brown people locked up.

The “ Tough on Crime” mantra of Republican conservatives was picked up by Clinton in the 1992 campaign. He vowed to never permit any Republican to be perceived as tougher on crime. This got so bad that he interrupted his campaign to fly back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Richter, a mentally handicapped black man. Ricky so little understood what was happening that he asked his captors to save his dessert from his last meal so he could “eat it in the morning”. (This whole sorry tale mirrors the Democratic similar attempts to be tough on Iran or kiss up to Israel.) After the execution Clinton said: “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I am soft on crime.”

Subsequently, a 30 billion-dollar crime bill created dozens of new Federal Capitol Crimes, mandated life sentences for some 3-time offenders, and provided some 16 billion for state prison grants and local law enforcement. The Justice Policy Institute said Clinton’s policies “resulted in the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history”.

Following this were other “reforms” to welfare limiting its ability significantly and helping to create a permanent undercaste. The “reform” included provisions for a five-year limit on welfare as well as a permanent lifetime ban on eligibility for welfare and food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense—including simple possession of marijuana. During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion and boosted corrections by $19 billion effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.

This was followed by new “one strike and you are out” rules for federal assisted housing effectively locking out the many black/browns who were targeted by the “Drug War”. By the mid-nineties there were no serious alternatives to the Drug War from either party. The “War on Drugs” managed, with the Supreme Court’s approval, to pretty well kill the accepted meaning of the 4th amendment. For example, the DEA launched Operation Pipeline in 1984 training thousands of law enforcement types to use pretextual traffic stops on a large scale for drug interdiction. This is exactly the kind of action the 4th amendment was written to prohibit. Lots of innocent people are stopped for the few hits made during these stops. More importantly, the stops without any real cause for suspicion target people of disfavored groups. One study found the 99 percent of traffic stops made by federally funded narcotics task forces result in no citation and that 98 percent of task force searches during traffic stops are discretionary searches in which the officer searches the car with “consent” but having no other legal authority to do so.

To read the profiles used for picking such stops is funny if not tragic. Going too fast, going too slow, being too careful to follow the speed laws, driving a car that need repairs, driving with (or without) luggage, driving an expensive car, and on and on. What it amounts to is that any pretext can, and is used, to stop cars for searches “legally”. Yet the real cause of the stops is frequently expectations that a person of color is more likely to be carrying drugs while all the “reasons” given are just a game allowed by a Supreme Court that has made a mockery of Constitutional rights.