Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New, 2012. 336 pp. $19.95.
When the NBC television series Law & Order ended its twenty-year run in 2010, it left a lasting impact not simply on fictional police procedurals, but also on our real-life concepts of crime itself. Focusing almost exclusively on the violent criminals who only make up a minority of the incarcerated, the show and its numerous spinoffs depicted a criminal populace that evokes disgust instead of sympathy. Frequently casting criminals as pathological, the show bore little resemblance to the racializing of criminality that affects every part of the criminal justice system, including our mainstream discourse. In The New Jim Crow , Michelle Alexander focuses her attention on the system of mass incarceration that has disenfranchised millions of African Americans and Latinos and relegates them to second-class status even after they leave prison. The most valuable asset of Alexander's brilliant, unsettling book is its accessibility, a term that typically sends out alarms that it is not as academically rigorous as other works. Such is not the case here. Alexander nimbly uses the vast research she has done to great and persuasive effect without falling prey to excluding a mainstream audience in favor of a small and learned group. Alexander's noticeably sparse use of Obama, who has been an organizing figure for those seeking to bridge the critical/popular divide with regard to race these days, positions him as both the potential realization of full democratic promise and the shield from efforts to dismantle institutional racism. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the mainstream's obsession with the postracial against a disproportionate number of imprisoned minorities forms the center of Alexander's book. While slavery and segregation required explicitly racist policies to maintain a separation of the races, the post-civil rights world has virtually abandoned race-specific laws, which has cloaked the rollback of civil-rights legislation and ideals. Alexander's book looks beyond the rhetoric of colorblindness and exposes a systemic pattern: one that relies on an arbitrariness that easily falls victim to the stereotypes and preconceptions that continue to surround race and remain geared toward sustained white privilege and hegemonic order.
To many, the first chapter of Alexander's book may not seem groundbreaking. Yet she provides the vital...
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