Two-hundred years ago there was a 10-year-old Caucasian boy from New York City, Thomas D. Rice, whose starry-eyed dream was to get curtain calls on Broadway as an actor. Within 20 years he’d outgrown Broadway and regularly filled the concert halls of London playing his signature ‘caricature’, that lazy, lying, shiftless, dimwitted minstrel in blackface, Jim Crow.
Rice could never have fathomed that two centuries hence an African-American female attorney and scholar, Michelle Alexander, would pen a groundbreaking tome about the conditions of former slaves – off whom Thomas Rice got very rich – that for the second time since the Civil War is being called Jim Crow.
“The New Jim Crow” is a remarkable book. While it was originally published in 2010 and received numerous accolades it was recently in the news when prisons in New Jersey and North Carolina tried, and failed, to get it banned. It is a scholarly work, written in a conversational style without sacrificing the serious tone of the subject matter which commands a thorough academic analysis conducted with meticulous documentation.
This book is also a peek into one African-American woman’s personal journey as she discovered and came to terms with a truth that she was not fully prepared to confront. Not only does Alexander appear to struggle with the nature, scope, sophistication and power of the mass incarceration machine in America that is relegating millions of Black men to an inferior ‘citizenship’ status not seen for over half a century, she apologizes for being right.
In her book’s introduction Alexander recalls an insightful comment made by an associate who followed the comment with a nervous laugh as if she weren’t quite she sure wanted to believe what she’d just said. Some of Alexander’s pronouncements seem like they might be followed by a similar, inaudible laugh of her own. Like the Charleton Heston character in the movie, Soylent Green, who bellows in terror, “Soylent Green is people!” Her distress is palpable .
The nearly 20-page introduction to “The New Jim Crow” comprehensively lays the foundation for logical persuasive arguments, painstaking methodology, and prefaces all the books chapters, providing signposts that makes for a read that lets you know where you’re headed, with narrative that continues to enlighten and enthrall.
Mchelle Alexander’s premise: while some of us were celebrating hard fought victories from the Civil Rights era, some were marveling at our accomplishments – in education, the professions, business, entertainment and sports, and others were movin’ on up in politics and government, the dark powerful forces that enslaved African Americans for nearly 65% of our time in America, oppressed us under Jim Crow for 25% of our time here, and only teased us roughly 10% of our time in the U.S. – since the ’60’s – with a semblance of full citizenship, there were machinations behind the scenes to reassert mass control and disenfranchisement over African Americans, and who knows to what eventual end.
In the 20 years from 1980 to 2000 the U.S. prison population swelled nearly 6600%, from 350,000 to 2.3 million. There are currently nearly 1 million African Americans behind bars in America. Not even a Black president saw it coming, or could stop it. “The New Jim Crow” is thoughtful, compelling and prescient, and should be required reading for all American students, but especially African Americans.
Alexander did point out that her topic was narrow by design compared to the potential to expand into related areas of consideration. However, there is a natural companion piece to “The New Jim Crow” story that I am disappointed was not mentioned at all in this book.
A significant part of the “new” Jim Crow mass incarceration experience for those inmates is the new slavery as well, where the incarcerated are leased for labor – in six southern states for $0 pay – to a who’s who of mostly Fortune 500 companies that exploit them. Millions of Black fathers, sons, uncles and brothers have the dubious distinction of experiencing slavery and Jim Crow in 2018 – with no end in sight. “The New Jim Crow” should at least have alluded to this. The average prisoner range of ‘pay’ among all 50 states is $0.14 to $0.63 per hour. Perhaps Ms. Alexander might expound on the topic of The New Slavery in the sequel.