Book review: “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”

Motivation and connections
The death of George Floyd and the graphic footage of a policeman kneeling on his neck was a catalyst, a catalyst for good in our nation. I took it personally to heart, because I had never fully conceptualized how different people of color experience America, including its criminal justice system. More import stories were shared over the past few weeks, including Yoeli Childs, a former BYU basketball player, and Jon Batiste, the jazz pianist from The Late Show. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is the third book I have read to be more informed about the challenges facing people of color and some of the history behind it (you can see my reviews for How to Fix America’s Police and Slavery & Islam here and here).

Two-sentence summary

The War of Drugs launched by President Nixon in the 70s and accelerated by President Reagan in the 80s launched a new system of racial control: mass incarceration of black people. The new twist: unlike its predecessors, slavery and enforced segregation, mass incarceration relies on the plausible deniability of colorblindness.

How it has impacted my thinking

Being labelled a felon, even for non-violent small crimes like possession of marijuana, sticks with you for life. This is largely the biggest point of the book. The biggest issue isn’t even that there are more black people in prison that white people. Once you’ve been labelled a felon, you can’t get rid of it. You are never done paying your debt to society. Every application for a job, or voter registration, or government welfare will ask you to check the box “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Imagine that. You can never recover from that. And when 1 in 3 black men are caught in this system of mass incarceration, they can never again fully integrate back into society. You are relegated to a second class status, stuck in a cycle of poverty that you literally can’t escape. This isn’t an issue of personal discipline. It’s a systemic problem driven by specific policies.

Systemic racism is more than micro-aggressions and affirmative action. I honestly was under the impression that the worst problems facing people of color was someone asking “where are you from?” in an assuming way or trying to touch their hair without permission– what I had picked up in the micro-aggression trainings on campuses. And there certainly are still issues of discrimination in our college campuses and businesses. But they are the ones who were lucky enough to make it out of the system, to escape unscathed from the system of mass incarceration. In fact, they aren’t immune to it either– they may be stopped by police for “looking” like a criminal. Those stuck in the system of mass incarceration have it much worse, and probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to attend college due to all the barriers in their way.

There is more at stake in the legalization of marijuana than being free of the smell. I was very wary of the argument that the drug war was all bad. I had grown up with McGruff the crime dog telling us to “Take a bite out of crime.” The D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program regularly came to our schools. We made pledges that we would never do drugs, and I grew up with a very strong negative reaction to anyone who was a drug user. The author doesn’t deny that doing drugs are bad. The issue at stake though is are we really going to yoke low-level drug offenders with harsh prison sentence, and a lifetime felon label?

All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world…

The notion that a vast gulf exists between “criminals” and those of us who have never served time in prison is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about “them.” The reality, though, is that all of us have done wrong. Studies show that most Americans violate drug laws in their lifetime. Indeed, most of us break the law not once but repeatedly throughout our lives. Yet only some of us will be arrested, charged, convicted of a crime, branded a criminal or felon, and ushered into a permanent undercaste. Who becomes a social pariah and excommunicated from civil society and who trots off to college bears scant relationship to the morality of crimes committed.

Discrimination is legal in criminal justice. We know there are many anti-discrimination laws out there in the workplace, but not so in the criminal justice system. Policemen and prosecutors are all given a measure of discretion in who they stop, who they pull over, how they handle cases, who they choose to prosecute, etc. Even when these policies results in clearly weighted results, it is all perfectly legal, as determined by the Supreme Court. In the case McCleskey v. Kemp in 1987, McCleskey made the argument that prosecutors seeking the death penalty against defendants did so in a racially biased way. They had strong evidence to back up their case too– in Georgia it was found that defendants charged with killing white victims received the death penalty 11 times more often than defendants charged with killing black victims. Prosecutors sought the death penalty in 70% of cases involving black defendants and white victims, but only 19% o f cases involving white defendants and black victims. But the court in a 5-4 vote upheld McCleskey’s death penalty:

The Court states that discretion plays a necessary role in teh implementation of the criminal justice system, and that discrimination is an inevitable by-product of discretion. Racial discrimination, the Court seemed to suggest, was something that simply must be tolerated in the criminal justice system, provided no one admits to racial bias.

There are specific policies and specific changes that can be made to adjust systemic racism. It isn’t a vague or hand-wavy term to make you feel bad. I recently saw this quote from Ben Shapiro in social media:

I would argue that Ben hasn’t done his homework, because there is more than enough literature out there clearly defining what policies out there contribute to systemic racism. This book talks about a lot of them:

If we hope to end this system of control, we cannot be satisfied with a handful of reforms. All of the financial incentives granted to law enforcement to arrest poor black and brown people for drug offenses must be revoked. Federal grant money for drug enforcement must end; drug forfeiture laws must be stripped from the books; racial profiling must be eradicated; the concentration of drug busts in poor communities of color must cease; and the transfer of military equipment and aid to local law enforcement agencies waging the drug war must come to a screeching halt. And that’s just for starters.

If anyone really wants to know how the system can be fixed, this is a good book to start out with.

Other passages

Property rights usually means the rights of the rich:

The Southern slaveholding colonies would agree to form a union only on the condition that the federal government would not be able to interfere with the right to own slaves. Northern white elites were sympathetic to the demand for their “property rights” to be respected, as they, too, wanted the Constitution to protect their property interests. As James Madison put it, the nation ought to be constituted “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”

Is the problem with the system, or with the personal habits of black people? W.E.B. du Bois sparred with Booker T. Washington over this issue in the age of Jim Crow:

The distinct impression left by Mr. Washington’s propaganda is, first, that the South is justified in its present attitude toward the Negro because of the Negro’s degradation; second, that the prime cause of the Negro’s failure to rise more quickly is his wrong education in the past; and thirdly, that his future rise depends primarily on his own efforts. Each of these propositions is a dangerous half-truth… [Washington’s] doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators; when in fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.

Ronald Reagan used racist tropes:

In his campaign for the presidency, Reagan mastered the “excision of the language of race from conservative public discourse” and thus built on the success of earlier conservatives who developed a strategy of exploiting racial hostility or resentment for political gain without making explicit reference to race. Condemning “welfare queens” and criminal “predators,” he rode into office with the strong support of disaffected whites– poor and working-class whites who felt betrayed by the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights agenda.

A side-note: John Oliver has done some great work over the years covering some of these topics. I’ve posted a few of them here.



Prisons and Jails

Prison Labor


Civil Forfeiture

Police Militarization


Death Penalty

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