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Michelle Alexander’s ‘New Jim Crow’ Raises The Debate On Drug Laws

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Garry McCarthy, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, did not expect to hear anything too startling when he appeared at a conference on drug policy organized last year by an African-American minister in Newark, where he was the police director.

But then a law professor named Michelle Alexander took the stage and delivered an impassioned speech attacking the war on drugs as a system of racial control comparable to slavery and Jim Crow — and received a two-minute standing ovation from the 500 people in the audience.

“These were not young people living in high-crime neighborhoods,” Mr. McCarthy, now police superintendent in Chicago, recalled in telephone interview. “This was the black middle class.”

“I don’t believe in the government conspiracy, but what you have to accept is that that narrative exists in the community and has to be addressed,” he said. “That was my real a-ha moment.”

Mr. McCarthy is not alone. During the past two years Professor Alexander has been provoking such moments across the country — and across the political spectrum — with her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” which has become a surprise best seller since its paperback version came out in January. Sales have totaled some 175,000 copies after an initial hardcover printing of a mere 3,000, according to the publisher, the New Press.

The book marshals pages of statistics and legal citations to argue that the get-tough approach to crime that began in the Nixon administration and intensified with Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs has devastated black America. Today, Professor Alexander writes, nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out. That is a familiar argument made by many critics of the criminal justice system, but Professor Alexander’s book goes further, asserting that the crackdown was less a response to the actual explosion of violent crime than a deliberate effort to push back the gains of the civil rights movement.

For many African-Americans, the book — which has spent six weeks on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list — gives eloquent and urgent expression to deep feelings that the criminal justice system is stacked against them.

“Everyone in the African-American community had been seeing exactly what she is talking about but couldn’t put it into words,” said Phillip Jackson, executive director of the Black Star Project, an educational advocacy group in Chicago that has been blasting its 60,000 e-mail subscribers with what Mr. Jackson called near-daily messages about the book and Professor Alexander since he saw a video of her speaking in 2010.

The book is also galvanizing white readers, including some who might question its portrayal of the war on drugs as a continuation of race war by other means.

“The book is helping white folks who otherwise would have simply dismissed that idea understand why so many people believe it,” said David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It is making them take that seriously.”

“The New Jim Crow” arrives at a receptive moment, when declining crime rates and exploding prison budgets have made conservatives and liberals alike more ready to question the wisdom of keeping nearly 1 in 100 Americans behind bars. But Professor Alexander, who teaches at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, said in an interview that the more provocative claims of her book did not come easily to her. When she first encountered the “New Jim Crow” metaphor on a protest sign in Oakland, Calif., a decade ago, she was a civil rights lawyer with an impeccable résumé — Stanford Law School, a Supreme Court clerkship — and was leery of embracing arguments that might be considered, as she put it, “crazy.”

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4 Comment

  1. Thanks Ms Alexander,and thank you too Dr for your info and my
    enlightenment………..I just learned that everyone in congress are
    millionaires,that 1% we talk about.So to vote for anything that
    would help the people would be against their interest.Now i trulyyyy UNDERSTAND……….Malcolm said plymouth rock landed
    on us.

  2. Show me a rational black person that believes crack cocaine is a good thing. Show me a rational black person that wants any type of drug to be offered for sale at the edge of the school yard, or inside the school itself. What is your preference? Making crack legal? Making it legal to sell to 12 year olds? Stop the rediculous blame game. If black men didn’t deal drugs, they wouldn’t be landing in prison. Period. Do you not realize that a tremendous portion of black-on-black crime is drug related? Drugs are a nasty cancer. It is NOT whitey’s fault that your son is dealing drugs. Nobody is making black men deal in drugs; rather, black men (and illegal aliens) disportionately choose a life of drugs instead of the much slower path of getting an education, finding an entry level job, and working their way up the ladder over the next 30 years to finally be able to afford a Cadillac . . . you can buy a Cadillac in 30 days if you are dealing drugs.

    The drug issue in the black community is nothing short of a moral failure of black parents to raise their children right. Seventy-five percent of black babies are born without the benefit of married parents; and whether you be black, white, asian, hispanic, or a mutt, being born to a single mother is the #1 factor that leads to kids living in poverty and growing up to be criminals. In most cases, the imprisonment of an 18-year old man on a drug or murder charge is rooted in a slutty mother 18 years and 9 months prior. No white man’s law is making black women slut around, and no white man’s law is making black fathers desert their own children. As the Bible says, “get the log out of your own eye, then you can see more clearly to get the spinter out of someone else’s.”

    Stop dealing drugs, and stop shooting each other, and the white man’s prisons won’t be an issue.

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