This is an important read for social-justice-oriented folk. Michelle Alexander – a law professor and former ACLU attorney – lays out a cogent argument for mass incarceration and the drug war functioning as systems of racial control, comparable though not identical to prior systems such as Jim Crow. Although white and black Americans use drugs at similar rates, law enforcement treats it as a war only in poor communities of color, where it terrorizes people with military equipment and tactics, and seizes property as “forfeiture.” Harsh penalties, particularly for those drugs most associated with black people, mean more African-Americans are behind bars now than were imprisoned just before the Civil War. In some large cities, nearly half of African-American men are under penal control, whether in prison or on probation or parole. And once released, anyone with a criminal record is a legal target for discrimination in employment, housing, professional licensing, student loans, public benefits, etc. People with a felony record can be prevented from voting or sitting on a jury. And the effects extend beyond imprisonment and even discrimination, tarring the entire black community with the brush of criminality in many people’s minds, so that mass incarceration in many ways defines the relationship between African-American society and the rest of America.
My biggest doubt about the comparison, before reading the book, was how a system that bases punishment on individual actions could compare to blanket laws disenfranchising people based on race. Alexander doesn’t deal with the personal choice issue quite as directly as I would like, instead making the point that everyone breaks some law sometime, but black communities are the ones heavily targeted by law enforcement. Even if the only thing you do is speed a little, if you’re white you’ll probably never be stopped, but if black you’re liable to be pulled over and have the police “ask” to search your car for drugs (to most people it doesn’t sound much like asking with a uniform and a gun). If we pursued every violation of the law so aggressively in white communities, and treated white kids as potential criminals from a young age, and handed out sentences counted in decades for non-violent crimes commonly associated with white people, huge numbers of them would also wind up locked up, on probation or parole, or with criminal records. That wouldn’t happen, though, which is good evidence that something is going on here that isn’t just about keeping the community safe.
Obviously I’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg here; Alexander is thorough, and her writing clear and convincing, well-sourced through extensive endnotes but still readable for non-academics. Once I got into the book, the pages went by quickly. She says at the beginning that this book is intended for people who care about racial justice but tend to view racial disparities in the criminal justice system as regrettable side effects of societal racism rather than a system of disenfranchisement. As a member of the intended audience, I found this book eye-opening, creating a real perspective shift. I wish I could distill that into a review, but Alexander has already done the work, so I will just recommend the book instead.