Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was very good. Very scary, very compelling, very good. But I think her book would have been stronger if she had addressed what I felt was a gap in reasoning for her central claim…
… I should mention, also, that I’m writing this about two months after having read her book, and I don’t have the book sitting in front of me at the moment. Most of what I read comes from the public library, so I check things out, read them return them. And then sometimes find myself still thinking about them sometime later, which is good – means the book was good – but has the unfortunate side effect of making it more difficult for me to quote passages directly. In the future, I’ll try to jot out notes as I’m reading, perhaps, instead of months later.
So, here is what I took to be Alexander’s central premise: blacks commit drug offenses at about the same rate as whites. Blacks are imprisoned much, much more often than whites for drug offenses. Numerous supreme court rulings have been made that effectively endorse this outcome – racial profiling by police is okay, as long as race is not the only factor considered, racial profiling to exclude members of a jury, equally okay, aggregate statistical data revealing institutional racism will not be considered because only individuals with standing can bring cases, and statistical evidence garnered from many individuals does not show that racism motivated the mistreatment of any one particular individual.
Generally horrifying, and rotten, and whatnot. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, you should read Alexander’s book. Her presentation is much more compelling than my summary of it.
Still, here is my main objection to Alexander’s argument: an extremely racist outcome could come about independent of racist mechanisms of the judicial system if there were compelling reasons for targeted police enforcement in black communities.
For instance, if police officers were robots programmed to frisk one out of every ten people they meet for drugs, and police officers are deployed amongst communities proportional to the amount of gun violence that occurred in that community during the last year, you might wind up with an outcome similar to our current situation. Without the police-bots being racist, that is.
(I should have a link for the claim that gun violence is enriched in black communities. But a lot of the statistics regarding gun violence seem somewhat suspect – in theory some of these statistics would be collected by the federal government, but they aren’t, and probably will not be anytime soon. My claim is based on crumby data that I did find, but there’s a reasonable possibility that my objection is moot because this claim isn’t true.)
And that’s not to say that the outcome would be acceptable – there are a number of explanations you could give for why there was more gun violence in black communities, and a solid fraction of those might well include the idea that because black communities can’t trust white cops or the white judicial system, there is a greater chance that personally-enacted (as opposed to state-enacted) violence will be used to enforce property rights. (I was sufficiently lucky in the birth lottery that I have no experience of this, but this idea is at least consistent with anecdotal evidence presented in Alice Goffman’s On the Run.)
So: The New Jim Crow was very good, but I wished Alexander had addressed the ways that past judicial racism might have engendered a present in which race-neutral enforcement strategies might yield the results we have now. But her prescriptions still seem sound – no one of any ethnicity should be thrown in jail for drug possession, police should not be given leeway to enforce laws at their own whimsy. Personally, I feel strongly that driving five mph above the posted speed limit in residential areas should be punished more severely than possession of personal-use quantities of any drug. The former endangers innocents, and so there is reasonable justification for government enforcement. The latter, alone, does not, and so there is not. But this is not likely to change – drugs are scary, hitting pedestrians while staring at a cell phone is mundane.