Thursday, July 8, 2010

Warning signs

I've just started reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (I know I said I was going to start reading it on the 4th, but Star Trek is very distracting). And, well, I'm six pages in and already hoping it gets better.

From page 2:
I first encountered the idea of a new racial caste system more than a decade ago, when...I noticed a sign stapled to a telephone pole that screamed in large bold print: The Drug War Is the New Jim Crow. I paused for a moment and scanned the flier... I sighed, and muttered to myself something like "Yeah, the criminal justice system is racist in many ways, but it really doesn't help to make such an absurd comparison. People will just think you're crazy."
She presents this as an attitude she's moved on from, but then how to explain this, on page 6? After going through the (as she takes pains to point out) circumstantial evidence that the CIA (as she takes pains to point out) might have had something to do with the explosion of crack distribution in Black neighborhoods in the mid-80s, she talks about the drug war (as she mentions, launched before the crack thing started and during a time of declining drug use nationwide) and the resulting prison population boom:
The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran.... No other country imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.
What, then, would it take for Alexander to place the United States on her mental list of "repressive regimes"? Because to me the list appears to be made up of three countries who oppose the US's economic interests and one country whose repressive regime can safely be imagined to have collapsed long ago.* In other words, the MICFiC-approved list of naughty naughty nations.

The only explanations I can come up with are either that Alexander, despite her awareness of the nature of the United States's criminal justice system, still subscribes to the mythology of American exceptionalism on a level too deep to allow her to question it, or that she is still terrified of people "thinking she's crazy." And, OK, maybe I should just let this go by. Maybe it's a rhetorical trick to avoid alienating people who might be turned off by negative talk about the US in the introduction (though in that case I think the purpose would have been just as well, or better, served by omitting the "repressive regime" phrase and just letting the list of Russia, China, and Iran do the work on its own). I just hate to see yet another person who should know better fall into these traps, and seeing it so strongly, so early on, is giving me reservations about the rest of the book.

I'll let y'all know how it turns out. And really, despite its flaws, any book detailing the horrors, and the built-in deliberate unavoidable unreformable racism, of the American prison industry/justice system, is fighting the good fight.

*Though of course it didn't; apartheid, just like Jim Crow, faked its death and changed its name, and is now all the more dangerous for its anonymity.


Anonymous said...

On fire, of late. Well done.

Ethan said...

Oh, thanks!