In her first full length work, Michelle Alexander examines our criminal justice system in a way that is unsettling to those of us who prefer to think of America as a ‘colorblind’ society. She traces the evolution of the criminal justice system since the enactment of the major civil rights legislation of the 1960’s, mainly through U.S. Supreme Court cases, to demonstrate how the enforcement of major policy initiatives – specifically the war on drugs – has disproportionately affected African-Americans, particularly young males. Although claims like this have been historically difficult to prove in the absence of overt racism, in light of the evidence Alexander presents, is undeniable that the explosion of our prison population has impacted black and brown Americans more directly. Unfortunately, her book shows all of us exactly how much progress we’ve made since we supposedly won the struggle for civil rights.
Alexander systematically teases out the mechanisms which allow these ostensibly race-neutral policies to functionally target black and brown Americans. The central claim of her thesis is that the label of criminal, and the ease with which it is applied to African American’s – particularly with respect to drug crimes – has created a system of legally recognized and accepted exclusion from society of millions of individuals, effectively legalized segregation. Felons in the U.S are subject to prohibitions from voting and serving on juries, the inability to find employment and many other form of legal discrimination which are unheard of in other developed countries. Moreover, the penalties felons face bear an uncanny resemblance to the Jim Crow laws of the old south, which, Alexander reminds us, were themselves race-neutral on the surface. She also debunks the myth that minorities commit crimes in disproportionate numbers and a number of other cultural explanations that smack of racism. Unfortunately, police forces support her claim when they conduct raids almost exclusively in black communities, or when prosecutors and judges are found to consistently exercise more lenient jurisprudence for white defendants than for black ones, Alexander has a wealth of examples, some particularly egregious of sentencing disparities that defy any rational explanation.
Although this book is enlightening reading material for all Americans, it is perhaps most useful for those of us who believe we have moved beyond a racialized society and think Dr. King would nod approvingly at the way minorities are treated in our communities. Alexander reminds us that the structures of power are resilient and powerfully resistant to change and we must be vigilant in our defense of equality and realize that we will never actually co-exist if we continue to deny our differences.