Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is the secular bible for a new social movement in early twenty-first-century America. Like C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow—a book Martin Luther King Jr. called “the historical bible of the Civil Rights Movement”—we are witnessing the unique union of a powerful and poignant text with a democratic awakening focused on the poor and vulnerable in American society. The New Jim Crow is an instant classic because it captures the emerging spirit of our age. For too long, there has been no mass fight back against the multileveled assault on poor and vulnerable people, despite the heroic work of intellectual freedom fighters including Marian Wright Edelman, Angela Davis, Loïc Wacquant, Glenn Loury, Marc Mauer, and others. Yet the sleepwalking is slowly but surely coming to a close as more and more fellow citizens realize that the iron cage they inhabit—maybe even a golden cage for the affluent—is still a form of bondage. The New Jim Crow is a grand wake-up call in the midst of a long slumber of indifference to the poor and vulnerable. This indifference promotes a superficial ethic of success—money, fame, and pleasure—that leaves too many well-adjusted to injustice. In short, this book is a genuine resurrection of the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. amid the confusion of the Age of Obama.
While the Age of Obama is a time of historic breakthroughs at the level of racial symbols and political surfaces, Michelle Alexander’s magisterial work takes us beyond these breakthroughs to the systemic breakdown of black and poor communities devastated by mass unemployment, social neglect, economic abandonment, and intense police surveillance. Her subtle analysis shifts our attention from the racial symbol of America’s achievement to the actual substance of America’s shame: the massive use of state power to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of precious poor, black, male (and, increasingly, female) young people in the name of a bogus “War on Drugs.” And her nuanced historical narrative tracing the unconscionable treatment and brutal control of black people—slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration—takes us beneath the political surfaces and lays bare the structures of a racial caste system alive and well in the age of colorblindness. In fact, the very discourse of colorblindness—created by neoconservatives and neoliberals in order to trivialize and disguise the depths of black suffering in the 1980s and ’90s has left America blind to the New Jim Crow. How sad it is that this blindness has persisted under both Republican and Democratic administrations and remains to this day hardly acknowledged or examined in our nation’s public discourse.
The New Jim Crow shatters this silence. Once you read it, you have crossed the Rubicon and there is no return to sleepwalking. You are now awakened to a dark and ugly reality that has been in place for decades and that is continuous with the racist underside of American history from the advent of slavery onward. There is no doubt that if young white people were incarcerated at the same rates as young black people, the issue would be a national emergency. But it is also true that if young black middle- and upper-class people were incarcerated at the same rates as young black poor people, black leaders would focus much more on the prison-industrial complex. Again, Michelle Alexander has exposed the class bias of much of black leadership as well as the racial bias of American leadership, for whom the poor and vulnerable of all colors are a low priority. As Alexander puts it in her fiery and bold last chapter, “The Fire This Time” (with echoes from the great James Baldwin!), “It is this failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world.”
Martin Luther King Jr. called for us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable. The social movement fanned and fueled by this historic book is a democratic awakening that says we do care, that the racial caste system must be dismantled, that we need a revolution in our warped priorities, a transfer of power from oligarchs to the people—and that we are willing to live and die to make it so!