The New Jim Crow Should Be Required Reading

Last week was the second time I have read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The book describes how the system of mass incarceration has worked to systematically marginalize and oppress black bodies in a way that is more subtle, but more effective, than the Jim Crow laws that existed in the South before the Civil Rights Movement. Michelle Alexander, a former criminal justice lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, articulates a compelling argument using legal opinions, examples of the impact of existing law, and statistics that support her claim that mass incarceration is the newest form of racial oppression in the United States.

This book should be required reading for all aspiring lawyers. Everyone who looks to be involved in the justice system in some way should read The New Jim Crow so they can understand, if they don’t already, the role that they play in upholding and enforcing this system. Often, lawyers will challenge the accusation that are contributing to a system that oppresses people of color, particularly black men, for two reasons. First, most lawyers are not public defenders or city or county prosecutors. That means that most lawyers are not directly involved with the trial and conviction of black men. Second, many lawyers believe that they are helping people with their work. A legal career in the government does not pay well, so lawyers who chose that path are usually compelled to do so by moral reasons. As a result, those who work in the legal profession usually take offense at the suggestion that they are allowing for the systemic marginalization and oppression of poor people of color. Many of them have worked their whole lives to fight the system from the inside.

Today, baby boomers are largely the ones holding positions of power in the public sector of the legal profession, and Generation X and younger Millennials are just now beginning to enter more prominent positions. That means that many of the people in power grew up during the proliferation of colorblind racism, and they now view race through a colorblind frame.The law, like economics, is supposed to be pragmatic and unemotional. Everyone is supposed to be treated equally under the law, regardless of their race. The law does not see race, only justice. It is hard to prove racial prejudice without it being explicitly stated by one of the parties involved in a case because the laws we have now are not overtly discriminatory. It is difficult to prove that the law has racially biased outcomes and/or was motivated by racial prejudice. One of the things Alexander points out in her book is the danger this view of the justice system poses for poor black communities.

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander explains how standards set by the Supreme Court fit into an older way of looking at the law, but they fail to take into account the realities on the ground. She gives several examples of times that the Court has set legal precedent that requires challengers to demonstrate explicit racial prejudice that appears in the form of Jim Crow era racism. The problem is that racism today rarely comes in the form of what many white people would consider to be “overt racism.” After reading The New Jim Crow it is clear that there are laws and structures in place that have specific and unique consequences for black men in particular, despite the perception that the law treats everyone equally.  This is an image of Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to end mass incarceration in the United States. In this picture, he is giving a TED talk about mass incarceration and the effect it has had on black people living in the U.S.

It is paramount for young lawyers to understand that the decisions they make and the actions they take affect the lives of everyday people in a very real way. The New Jim Crow highlights the real world consequences of lawyers putting too much faith in the law. The law does not work for everyone. It is designed to specifically target and harm certain marginalized groups. The sooner people working in the legal profession come to realize that, the sooner we can begin to address these problems. Arming the next generation of legal minds with the skills to critique the system they will be working in is invaluable. It is a necessary step in working to end the devaluing of the black body and mass incarceration in the United States.


Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2, 3