On ‘The New Jim Crow’, by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Michelle Alexander is a voice we need to listen to more. Not for pithy soundbites, but for reasoned, careful and critical perspectives on who we are, what our past and present can tell us and where we have gone horribly wrong. It will not be an easy lesson, but it will be a necessary one.

The New Jim Crow isn’t necessarily ‘new’ information to me. It’s clear just by reading the news and examining life in the US today that the unequal treatment of black and brown men by law enforcement and criminal justice systems proliferates. White men commit a crime and are given laughable ‘sentences’, if any sentence is handed down at all (e.g., Brock Turner, Jeffrey Epstein, etc). Black or brown men are accused of committing similar crimes, even if very little or no evidence exists, and given harsh sentences (e.g., Brian Banks). Whilst my own radar tends to pick up and focus more on cases involving sexual assault, the War on Drugs and its tendrils that weed in and out of various parts of society provides far, far too many examples of the uneven application of the law, and sadly the inability of the law to provide justice in many cases.

Mass incarceration stems not from an inherent quality in black and brown communities, but from perceptions and the specific focus placed on those communities by law enforcement and criminal justice systems. Drug use rates have remained relatively steady amongst various sub-groups for decades in the US, whereby white folks tend to use various drugs more (not less) than black and brown populations. Crime rates are tied to poverty, not race, contrary to popular perceptions and media portrayals. Yet, up to 90% of traffic stops in some parts of the US involve cars driven by black men. Law enforcement resources are placed in black and brown communities to ‘police’ for drugs and crime. In areas where both white and black individuals peddle drugs on street corners, blacks are stopped and searched (and ultimately) arrested more than whites. Hence, the perception that communities of colour are involved in more crime, simply because they are stopped more often and at higher rates than whites. It’s a systemic pattern and it has unreal and lasting consequences for those communities already burdened by being poor or less advantaged.

Perhaps one of the more tragic aspects of the War on Drugs is the long-term, lasting consequences for those caught in its web. Once arrested, rather than convicted, job prospects become less likely. Hiring discrimination persists amongst those who have faced charges (not necessarily convictions) related to drugs crimes, often for life. And, this discrimination is not only legal, it may stem from any actual wrongdoing. Public housing, education including acceptance to a university to securing financial aid to attend, social benefits, military service. All of these various means to improve one’s position and escape a cycle of poverty (and ‘crime’) are cut off from those who have sometimes done nothing more than smoke a joint. They are not violent offenders nor are they trafficking or dealing drugs. They have simply been caught with something less dangerous than drunk driving. Yet, the sentences are harsher and the consequences last a life-time. And, disproportionately, these consequences affect young, black and brown men.

It’s hard not to feel a bit hopeless after reading The New Jim Crow; as a book, it offers very little hope. However, knowledge is power, and understanding the pervasiveness of a racialised social control measure such as mass incarceration and the role of the War on Drugs in creating it can help us to finally address the nation’s troubled history vis-a-vis race. By addressing this trouble history, the aim is not to attain colourblindness, but to become colour conscious. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, the connections are clear. Ignoring them will not eliminate our race-related tensions. Throwing shade on those historic tensions and the various systemic biases related to them, whether intentional or not, will help to finally reach something akin to genuine equity and justice.

This book deserves widespread distribution and careful thought and discussion, not simply for the brilliant and thorough research of crime statistics and legal decisions for much of the last 150 years in the United States. But, because it allows us to understand our collective social flaws and provides hope that we can actually address these issues, if only to tackle the hard tasks. At a time when we see those racial tensions intensifying thanks to an administration hell-bent on demonising the other, this may be the hardest task of all. But, it is also incredibly necessary for the future for all of us.

View all my reviews

‘Rights Here, Right Now!’

XVIII International AIDS Conference

The XVIII International AIDS Conference gets underway in Vienna this week.

This week, an estimated 25,000 individuals from across the globe who all work in one way or another on issues related to HIV will descend upon the fine city of Vienna for the XVIII International AIDS Conference.

The theme for this year’s event is ‘Rights Here, Right Now’, which refers to the connection between HIV and human rights.

How far have we come in meeting the needs of those affected by HIV in the past 25 years or so? Where is more work yet needed? How do national responses compare to one another? What success stories exist and how may they be adopted to other contexts? And, what human rights violations continue to undermine the responses to HIV, locally, nationally, regionally and globally?

These are a few of the questions that come to mind before the event. The first of those in particular has been on my mind lately.

I recently caught the Frontline special report from 2006, The Age of AIDS.  This sobering documentary chronicles the early days of the epidemic in the US, and then provides an overview of the global epidemic. It is available to watch online, and I encourage everyone to spend the time doing so.

What struck me is that many of the same issues that plagued the responses in the early stages of the epidemic continue to undermine our work. Stigma, discrimination, drugs pricing policies and treatment availability, and a lack of basic information at times. Strong leadership along with political will and determination could remove and/or minimise these barriers. And, would go a long, long way in honouring the human rights of those living with and affected by HIV.

There is a moment in the documentary when Dr Jonathan Mann, one of the early pioneers in the response to the global pandemic, states, ‘It’s about basic equity, simple justice’. This short yet poignant declaration was in reference to addressing the stigma and discrimination and horrendous human suffering experienced by those who literally had no hope and faced certain death in the early stages of the epidemic.

It is still about equity. And, it is still about social justice more than 25 years on.

In the current economic climate, many programmes which have allowed millions of individuals who had no hope and were close to death access to live-saving treatments (which have improved their overall quality of life) will come to an end. As programmes lose vital funding from development aid programmes, the real tragedy is that individuals will suffer. Individuals will die. Most of those individuals will be those who live in lesser developed countries and have no where else to turn for assistance.

Is that fulfilling the commitment to universal human rights we have argued and fought for?

A peaceful demonstration will be held Sunday, 18 July, 17.

Broken Promises Kill: No reTREAT, Fund AIDS

A peaceful demonstration will urge governments and global leaders to honour their commitments to fund AIDS programmes

00–19.00, at the Vienna Conference Centre, to coincide with the opening ceremony. Governments across across the globe have failed to fulfill their commitments to fund AIDS treatment and other health needs.

And, they must be held to account.

I for one will join others in Vienna to protest the broken promises and threat to upholding the human rights of those affected by the epidemic on Sunday, 18 July. I will be there not for my own rights, but for those who have no other voice. I will be there for those who are not in Vienna.