18 July 2012

Book review: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Terribly disappointing. Despite the fact that I disagree with her thesis, I considered that it is reasonably plausible; but her anecdotal stories don't support it. Her interpretation of the Supreme Court's racial jurisprudence is confusing at best, and at some points seems intentionally misleading. Throughout her writing, she clearly yearns for public policy-driven judicial activism of a sweeping nature, but never actually calls for it.

It disappoints me that she is a lawyer precisely because if the problem is as bad as she claims, why does she constantly chooses weak anecdotes and hypothetical examples?

This book was an easy read, but took much longer for me to finish because I had to put it down constantly to look up source materials or cases to (ultimately) find out that she (quite often) leaves out important details in describing her stories.

TL;DR: Plausible thesis, but not supported by relevant evidence.

Longer review (posted at Amazon.com)

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, author Michelle Alexander argues that the drug war is a colorblind way to redesign and enforce a new racial caste.  She argues that this war disproportionately targets African Americans and the poor and results in mass incarceration. Alexander’s thesis is certainly plausible; she cites impressive statistics and a line of Supreme Court cases that have seemingly rolled back the gains of the 1960s. However, a critical examination of Alexander’s work, including relevant information that the author did not include, supports the conclusion that her thesis is not well-supported.

Alexander touches on a number of important themes that she weaves throughout the book: primarily, the ratcheting up of the “War on Drugs” during the 1980s and how this policy allowed the government to be “colorblind” while disproportionately targeting African Americans; “consent” searches; and the resulting mass incarceration and follow-on issues like felony disenfranchisement. Discussing these themes, Alexander cites a number of stories, cases and anecdotal evidence to support her claims and buttress these themes. More often than not, her evidence comes up short. In fact, the disappointment starts on page one:
Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.
Alexander casually links Cotton to his (presumably innocent) ancestors who were disenfranchised as a result of their skin color, and paints him as victim because he is disenfranchised as a result of being “labeled a felon” (as if he did nothing to earn this label). Yet she chose to begin her book with Cotton, whose back story is conveniently ignored: he was not an innocent man, nor was he caught up in the drug war or targeted for his race; rather, Cotton was in prison for murder and armed robbery. This context is important it weakens Cotton’s story as important anecdotal evidence for Alexander’s thesis. Is there no better example to open the book?

Later, she cites the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a “mentally impaired black man,”  but the lack of sufficient additional information leaves the reader wandering if Rector’s mental impairment had something to do with his crime. A reasonable reader might conclude: Did he not understand what he was doing? Perhaps he could not distinguish between right and wrong? Or that his actions would hurt or kill someone? Unfortunately, none of this is the case. Rector killed a man in a nightclub and then shot a police officer in the back of the head. His mental impairment resulted from a failed suicide attempt thereafter. If the death penalty for those with mental impairments are an issue (one that the Supreme Court ruled violate the 8th Amendment in 2002), then make that the issue. Ignoring the facts of Rector’s crimes and conveniently omitting the means to how he became impaired leads the reader down the wrong road.

On Fourth Amendment issues, Alexander continually belittles the concept of consent searches by placing quotes around the word “consent.” She writes that the Supreme Court’s decision in Ohio v. Robinette was “twisted logic” because the officer did not explicitly inform Robinette that he was free to go; even though he consented to the search.  This decision, though, was not controversial at the Supreme Court level: the vote was 8-1 (and Justice Stevens, who dissented, wrote that “[t]he Court's holding today is narrow: The Federal Constitution does not require that a lawfully seized person be advised that he is ‘free to go’ before his consent to search will be recognized as voluntary. I agree with that holding.”  It is certainly plausible and even likely that law enforcement use their power to enable “consent” searches that do not meet the standard of freely-given consent, but it is another thing entirely to suggest that “the Fourth Amendment should place no meaningful constraints on the police in the War on Drugs.” 

When discussing the theme of mass incarceration via mandatory minimum sentences in references to “three strikes” and other similar laws, she cites the harsh sentences given out for what appear to be relatively minor felony offenses,  but she doesn’t cite the laundry list of previous offenses that contributed to the mandatory minimum. She goes on to lay out a hypothetical scenario:
…imagine a young man arrested at age seventeen for a school yard fight tried and convicted as an adult. A few years later, he is struggling to survive, having been branded a felon and unable to find work. He passes two bad checks, desperate for cash. That’s three strikes: one for the prior assault and one for each bad check.
If this is a plausible scenario, why not cite a real world example? The real world examples she does cite are not like the case above. Leandro Andrade doesn’t fit the bill: he had a thirteen year-long criminal record prior to the cited offenses,  hardly the bad luck suffered in the hypothetical above.

Alexander’s book addresses a number of important themes to support her thesis: the “War on Drugs” and how this policy allowed the government to be “colorblind” while disproportionately targeting African Americans; “consent” searches; and the resulting mass incarceration and follow-on issues like felony disenfranchisement. Apart from these few themes discussed in this paper, other such evidence suffers from the same defects: missing facts, twisted holdings, and misleading commentary. As a result, the book is ultimately an exercise in frustration because Alexander’s thesis seems plausible (even likely), but much of what she discusses does not pass the smell test.
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