From the Left



After 10 years, 'The New Jim Crow' still has much to say about race, drug convictions and injustice

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

Every so often a book comes along that shakes up the national gabfest in a way that makes all of us talk about an old problem with a new urgency.

Jane Jacobs' 1961 book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" sparked a movement to preserve urban neighborhood diversity against developers' bulldozers.

Michael Harrington's 1962 "The Other America: Poverty in the United States" helped spur President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty."

Rachel Carson's 1962 "Silent Spring" gave flight to what became the environmental preservation movement.

Now 10 years have passed since another breakthrough book shook up the criminal justice debate: legal scholar Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

Since hers was hardly the first study to claim racial bias in our nation's criminal justice system, she recalls in an essay that she wrote for the book's 10th anniversary edition, a lot of people told her not to expect much reaction. Instead, the book climbed the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for nearly 250 weeks.


A decade later, it is easier to look back and see what made this book stand out -- and ignite another debate, even as states like Illinois expunge thousands of minor drug convictions. With ample statistics and historical narratives, she gave voice to what many people had long suspected, especially in black communities. The surge in black incarceration that followed decades of wars on drugs had become, whether by accident or design, a "new Jim Crow," she argued, metaphorically resembling the original version of racial segregation banned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The nation's criminal justice system uses the war on drugs to enforce forms of racial discrimination, oppression and "social control" that most of us thought had gone away with the hard-won victories of the civil rights era.

For this, she has received some scholarly pushback, even from those who share her concern for racially disproportional incarceration rates. In his book "Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform," John Pfaff, a Fordham University law professor, argues that Alexander makes too much of the statistics for drug offenders, since they make up only a small part of the prison population -- and nonviolent drug offenders an even smaller part.

Most prisoners have been convicted of violent crimes, he points out, and most American prisoners are in county and state justice systems, not the federal system.


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