On Christmas morning, around the kitchen table, my family asked whether I had been affected by the New York protests. ‘I just don’t see why they have to be so violent,’ one person said.
‘It’s a charged time,” I said. ‘Things feel…fraught. I almost went to one.’
Several people were shocked. ‘Why?’ Nevermind that I didn’t go.
It’s hard to describe something you’ve never experienced. I bumbled out some stuff about historic injustice and media narratives, articulated in a halting probe, and ended lamely with that classic softball “There have been faults on both sides.” All nodded and returned to their breakfast casseroles. All retreated from the edge of a chasm of unknown depth.
I resisted reading this book because I thought it was overblown, or something. The criminal justice system is to Jim Crow what Jim Crow was to slavery? Exaggerated at best, inflammatory at worst. But the police violence stuff this summer was real, and the riot gear and Humvees and tear gas were real, and it seemed like no one was accountable. I saw racism’s ugly face in the reaction to the Ferguson protests. Maybe it was time for this book.
On the train daily as I read my resistance cracked and got wrecked, was re-pressed into chipboard and rebuilt into some spindly inner scaffolding resembling righteous anger. I felt the despair of agreement and the guilt of complicity. I wanted to do something. I raged against my desk job, silently. I looked up how to apply to law school. I wished I had read the book a month earlier, in time for the big march.
Alexander’s prose is matter-of-fact and understated, because it is meant to communicate the everyday. At first it read like a bland essay, but then I understood. Part of her argument is that mass incarceration is invisible. You might see the prison along the highway, but have you ever been inside? The routine-ness of injustice magnifies the horror of revelation. It is routine for people of color in low-income communities to assume the position when a cop pulls up. It is routine for black and brown people to get life sentences for drug possession. It is routine for the law to discriminate. Alexander repeats herself over and over, stacking up statistics, beginning sections with summaries of previous sections, holding the secret messages up to the light, making sure you can see the invisible, racist supports of the floor you’re standing on.
She relies on critics of slavery and Jim Crow, Frederick Douglass and MLK, to bring the poetic heat. Both institutions were so public and premised on such brazen lies that they inspired Biblical responses. The greater the push, the more furious the backlash.
Mass incarceration is different. Who is the enemy? The lawyers? The police? The laws? The War on Drugs? Mandatory minimums? Me? You? Alexander tells a simple story: the War on Drugs led to orchestrated media campaigns that racialized drug crimes, which led to strict enforcement, like ‘three strikes’ laws. A series of Supreme Court decisions made it increasingly difficult to prove racial discrimination in police and prosecutorial discretion. The result is a racist system that presents as colorblind, but has made itself immune to charges of racism. The result is that one in three young African American men is under the control of the system – prison, jail, probation, or parole.
The Old Jim Crow was known and obvious. Or at least, it became so. The New Jim Crow is underneath the floorboards. The system and its workers, opaque, inexorable, invisible, hide the labeled and marginalized within ghettos, courtrooms, and prisons. There is no guy on a horse with a whip, no fool in a bedsheet. There are only tens of thousands of singular injustices perpetrated in the name of law and order. There is the terrifying 20th century truth experienced by viewers of mass media in times of crisis: that no one single person anywhere, whether policeman or lawyer, judge or jury, politician or professor, is in charge.
I used to think I was aware of the history I carry in my skin. I also used to think that New York was different. It feels like everything under the surface is rotten.