Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow; Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010, 2012 revised edition), 312pp.
After graduating from Stanford Law School, clerking for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, and working for a decade as a civil rights attorney, Michelle Alexander (now at Ohio State) concluded that "mass incarceration in the United States had emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow." This wonderfully polemical book explains how and why she reached that radical conclusion.
In the last thirty years America's prison population has skyrocketed from 300,000 to more than two million. About 7.3 million Americans are under some form of penal control: jail, prison, parole, or probation. Our incarceration rates dwarf those of other developing countries, including Russia, China, and Iran. Germany, for example, imprisons about 93 of every 100,000 adults; in America we imprison 750 per 100,000. Our penal system is only a failure if its purpose is to control crime (which it doesn't), but in Alexander's view it's a raging success because its purpose is not crime prevention but social control.
Roughly 65 million Americans have a criminal record (including people never convicted of anything), the practical consequences of which can be catastrophic and last a lifetime. If you have a criminal record you are often barred from voting, juring duty, and any federal assistance for food, housing, health care or employment. Your driver's license might well be revoked. And consider that menacing little box on every application you ever completed: "have you ever been arrested?" Our penal system is thus a form of apartheid "unprecedented in world history" (42, 56, 195).
Mass incarceration aggressively targets black men in particular. There are now more African American adults under penal control today (prison, probation, parole) than were enslaved in 1850 (180). This has happened during a time when crime rates have dropped, and not in spite of affirmative action or colorblindness but because of them. The engine that drives the mass incarceration of blacks is the War on Drugs launched by Ronald Reagan in 1982 and supported by every politician since then (Clinton, she says, was the worst). No one wants to give the slightest appearance of being "soft on crime."
Alexander identifies many causes of our new caste system. There's collective denial in our age of affirmative action, a black president, superstars like Oprah and Colin Powell, and some real progress on racial problems. The professionalization of civil rights experts (like herself) has separated leaders from everyday people. Colorblindness short circuits explicit discussions about race. Many people profit from mass incarceration, including local governments that receive federal assistance and the prison industry that keeps expanding. To dismantle the system would cause severe economic repercussions. And as Alexander admits, it's almost impossible to push an agenda that defends criminals.
In her last chapter Alexander admits that she doesn't propose any solutions (229). She's careful to affirm the importance of individual responsibility, but generally describes urban blacks as helpless victims. What we really need is a new public consensus that is compassionate rather than punitive. But it's hard to imagine that will ever happen when so many people benefit from a system that they perceive is much to their own advantage. For another treatment of this subject see the article by Adam Gopnik, "The Caging of America: Why Do We Lock Up So Many People?" (The New Yorker, January 30, 2012).