The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness Michelle Alexander. New York: The New Press (2012) 304pp. £16.99pb ISBN 978‐1595586438

AuthorDavid Mansley
Publication Date01 September 2016
The Howard Journal Vol55 No 3. September 2016
ISSN 2059-1098, pp. 362–375
Book Reviews
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness Michelle Alexander. New
York:The New Press (2012) 304pp. £16.99pb ISBN 978-1595586438
Atticus Finch sits among the mossbacks and the grubby crackers on the board of directors
of Maycomb’s Citizens’ Council, Harper Lee’s (2015) fictional portrayal of the small
town assemblies that formed in the South to protest against the 1954 Supreme Court
decision to desegregate public schools. These men could not prevent the demise of
segregation, but the reactionary strain in America they represented soon found the
perfect replacement. It was called the criminal justice system.
Today, American crime policy, which costs some $200 billion a year, is not about
crime at all, writes Michelle Alexander in her book New Jim Crow. It is about race.
Segregation laws passed in the 1880s to 1920s by conservative whites reversed the gains
made by freed slaves after the Civil War. After these laws were thrown out in the 1960s,
conservative whites rigged the new social order to keep themselves top of the pile. The
mass incarceration of black men in the present day,Ale xander argues,persuasively, is an
audacious attempt to retake the ground made by the civil rights movement.
Since Lincoln, the United States had been split in half down party lines. The South
had been almost all Democrat, the North almost all Republican. But after the 1960s,
the country flipped, and the Republican Party headed right. Meanwhile, the hot issue
of public debate shifted from segregation to crime. Crime rates were increasing at the
time lunch-counter activism was at its height. For those whom it served, it was simple
to conflate the two and frame civil rights as the new threat to ‘law and order’. This
was a gift to conservative politicians, who found a code in which they could exploit the
old racist sentiments of poor and working-class whites, win elections, and restore the
old world without even mentioning race. The same congressmen who had voted against
desegregation voted for tougher crime bills. They guessed what research later proved:
private opinions on race, not crime or victimisation rates, were the main driver of white
support for tough-on-crime policies.
In 1982, at a time when drug use in the US was falling and the crack cocaine epi-
demic was still three years away, President Reagan announced that America was going
to war on drugs. Incredible sums of money were thrown at federal and local drugs-law
enforcement, and new civil forfeiture laws granted authority to police to keep cash and
assets seized on narcotics raids. (Between 1988 and 1992, government funded drugs task
forces seized over $1 billion in assets.) More money meant more kit, and the military
component that has come to characterise contemporary policing soon followed. Beat
officers were given freedom to arrest for drugs offences whomever they wished, with
highly discriminatory consequences. Even though the majority of illicit drug users and
pushers were white, police targeted almost exclusively the black and Latino community.
The first principle of Reagan’s racialised crime agenda was to put as many convicted
drugs offenders in the can as possible. Long prison stretches were mandated for drugs
offences, with possession of crack cocaine given particularly harsh treatment. In less than
30 years, the prison population in the US increased from 300,000 to two million, the
highest in the world. The rise was mostly accounted for by convictions for possession of
2016 The Howard League and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK

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