A Review of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
If I were asked to sum up Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in one word, I would say it was haunting. A statement that we hear very often today is that we live in a post-racial era. Michelle Alexander, in less than 300 pages, shows us very clearly that we do not live in a post-racial era. Not only do we not live in a post-racial era, but we are living in an era that she has defined as “The New Jim Crow”.
Michelle Alexander argues that the system of mass incarceration, which has infamously swept up astonishingly large numbers of Black and brown people since the War on Drugs began, has created a racial undercaste, one that in some aspects is far worse than the Jim Crow laws of yesterday. She further argues that we live in an age of colorblindness. It is no longer legal to discriminate against people based on color. But what happens if we remove any inclination that race is a motivating factor when someone gets swept up in the criminal justice system? The answer is simple, we end up with a horrifying number of black and brown people who end up in the criminal justice system and upon their release are relegated to second-class citizenship.
Once you are labeled a felon, it is perfectly legal to be discriminated against for housing, government assistance, and employment, among other things. The amount of detail, statistics, independent studies, and overall information that Alexander includes to prove that we are in an age where the criminal justice system has been fabricated to ensure that people of color remain just as they were 50 years ago is staggering. While the statistics on the number of blacks versus whites that find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system is jarring and readily available, just seeing the numbers alone does not do one’s view of the system justice.
Michelle Alexander’s book is necessary and important. It sheds light on the fact that racism still exists in our country today, should there be anyone that doubts this. It shows that being colorblind, which many believe is the solution, is actually the problem. Alexander states, “Saying that one does not care about race is offered as an exculpatory virtue, when in fact it can be a form of cruelty. It is precisely because we, as a nation, have not cared much about African Americans that we have allowed our criminal justice system to create a new racial undercaste.” It is now up to us to challenge this system, to challenge those that believe in and support the system, in order to even attempt to reform it in a manner that does not allow people of color to fall victim to it.
Bruce Levine’s work Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War is an excellently written and well-argued work on the central cause of the Civil War. He also expands on what the other factors were that led the South to secession and ultimately the nation to war. Levine argues that slavery was in fact the central cause of the Civil War. Furthermore, he argues that the other events, “the growth of sectional animosity, the breakdown of the Whig party, the fragmentation of the Democrats, the rise of the Republicans, and secession…grew organically out of…societal changes.”
Bruce Levine successfully shows how even when considering the other factors that caused the Civil War, slavery was at the core of even those. In Chapter 8, “‘Keep it Within Limits’ Western Lands and Free Soil,” Levine shows how some of the sectional divisions between the north and south were caused by the argument of whether or not slaveholders should be allowed to expand slavery into the newly acquired western territories. The antislavery sentiment in the North was growing as well as the North’s feelings against “slavery’s expansion beyond its current borders.”
On the other hand, for many Southerners, they did not feel that Congress had a right to regulate whether or not slavery existed in any territory. “According to their “popular sovereignty” plan, Congress would make no a priori judgement about slavery in any territory but would leave the that issue to local voters and legislators to decide.”
In terms of how this work fits into the overall historiography of the subject, his arguments are right in line with many other works. Historian David M. Potter also argues that slavery was a central cause of the Civil War in The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861. He states that, “it was increasingly clear that slavery was not in the process of extinction and the issue would not take care of itself.” This would ultimately lead the nation to war.
Steven Mintz, in Moralists & Modernizers, also argues that societal changes led to the outbreak of the Civil War. He specifically discusses the growth of antislavery sentiment as being, “one of the most dramatic changes in moral values in history.” This falls in line with Levine’s argument that the North’s growing antislavery feelings was a cause of dissension between the North and the South.
Overall, Levine’s work is a good contribution to the historiography of the causes of the Civil War. His argument is not unique, as there does not seem to be many highly respected historians that would argue against Levine. However, his method of delivering his argument for the central and outlying causes of the Civil War is unique as many historians often focus on one or two causes, usually including slavery as a central cause. Levine, on the other hand, gives a thorough overview of the events leading up to the Civil War, without overwhelming his intended audience with information.
 Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2005), xi.
 Ibid., 177.
 Ibid., 181.
 David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861 (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2011), 41.
 Steven Mintz, Moralists & Modernizers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 119.
One of the most difficult discussions to have is one about race. We currently live in a racially charged society. It is difficult to analyze situations and deduce whether or not race was a motivating factor. Recently there have been several stories in the news about whites calling the police on blacks. A woman called the police on a black family barbecuing in a park in an area where barbecuing was prohibited. Another woman called the police on an 8 year old girl selling water in front of her apartment building, citing the fact that the little girl did not have a permit to sell the water. These women have become infamous, the first being dubbed “BBQ Becky” and the latter, “Permit Patty”.
The question has been posed, would these women have done the same thing if the people committing these “offenses were white? The problem with questions of racial discrimination is that there is a very good chance that we will never know. Jodi Picoult, best selling author, made a decision to write a book about race. Small Great Things touches on topics of white supremacy, racism, bigotry, and the negative effects these can have on a person of color. In this case an African American nurse.
Although it is difficult to prove racism as the driving force of someone’s actions against a black person, or a person of any race for that matter, it is important to understand that these types of incidents do occur. Unfortunately, they probably occur a lot more often than we realize.
Picoult’s excellent storytelling digs deep into the world of white supremacy. Her purpose in writing this book is to highlight that although it is easy to identify the skinhead with the swastika tattoo on his bald head who brandishes a Confederate flag as being racist, it is not so easy to identify those who do not have these stereotypical markers. And what about those that would not even consider themselves racist? Those are the people that she intends to reach and she does an amazing job doing so. She wants to show them that it is important to recognize the racism within themselves and then to work towards changing those seemingly unintentional beliefs. Whether you’ve read other novels by this phenomenal author or this is your first, you will not be disappointed.
Picoult, Jodi. Small Great Things. New York: Ballentine Books, 2016.
When one thinks about the Underground Railroad, images of runaway slaves and Harriet Tubman leading them to freedom are sure to come to mind. Many of the travelers and conductors on this dangerous path to a possibility of freedom will forever remain unnamed. However, author Colson Whitehead manages to give life to these extraordinary individuals in the form of his historically fiction novel The Underground Railroad.
Cora, the runaway slave the story is centered on, may be fictional, but her plight is very real. The Underground Railroad was the name of the secret network of safe houses and routes to freedom for slaves fleeing the plantation south. A difficult and dangerous journey to freedom, the number of slaves that attempted the almost impossible feat of making it to the north, will probably never be known. Many runaways were caught and sent back to their masters to face harsh and inhumane consequences for running away. Following the establishment of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, it was lawful for slave owners to retrieve their “property” from the north and return them to bondage. Furthermore, anyone caught assisting runaways were subjected to being fined and/or imprisoned.
Whitehead’s storytelling is compelling from beginning to the end. It is difficult to put this book down once you start. Furthermore, he forces the reader to acknowledge the lives of so many unknown slaves who made the journey, whether they were successful or not. It is hard not to feel a connection to the characters and to feel invested in their journey.
Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday, 2016.
A Review of The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade, by Charles B. Dew
As any historian can probably attest to, it is often frustrating and fruitless to have a debate or discussion about African American history, specifically slavery, the causes of the Civil War, the failure of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the overall impact on African Americans today from almost 400 years of oppression, with anyone who believes in the Lost Cause ideology. There will be very few times, if ever, that a person’s mind can be changed. However, it is not impossible.
Charles B. Dew grew up in the South. He was the definition of a child of the confederacy. He was raised to be, in his own words, a racist. However, upon attending Williams College in Massachusetts, his racist beliefs were turned upside down. It was during his time at Williams College that he began to understand that the things he was taught were not only historically inaccurate, but they were the epitome of revisionist history.
In his book, The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade, Dew outlines his journey to “unmaking” his racism. The style of this book is very unique, as it is not only a historical account of slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow era, but it is also part autobiography. His work is raw and honest and opens up the question, can racists be made “unracist”? The vulnerability of his reflection of his past allows the reader to see firsthand how someone can still grow up to believe that blacks are an inferior race. More importantly it shows that it is not impossible to change that type of thinking and the behaviors associated with it.
Dew, Charles B. The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade. Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2016.
For nearly 100 years following the end of the Civil War, African Americans in the United States, especially in the South, were held in perpetual second class status. More than just being treated as second class citizens, they were terrorized and denied even some of the most basic civil rights. The term given to the laws that legalized racial segregation in the south was Jim Crow.
According to Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum, Jim Crow was the name of fictional character created by Thomas Dartmouth Rice. He used blackface and imitated an exaggerated version of a slave. Eventually “Jim Crow” became the term applied to restrictive laws forced upon African Americans.
C. Vann Woodward’s work The Strange Career of Jim Crow has been hailed as one of the most important works on race relations in America. Martin Luther King Jr. called it, “the historical Bible of the civil rights movement.” Woodward begins discussing the period of Reconstruction and traces the “career” of Jim Crow through the 1970s. He reinforces the argument against the Lost Cause narrative.
The laws that appeared in order to restrict blacks were a direct result of the threat against white supremacy. Although his original edition was published in 1955, his argument is still credible today. The edition being reviewed here is his third, and he made it a point to correct any fallacies in his argument from previous editions. This book is worth the read for anyone who is interested in understanding Jim Crow and its impact on African Americans.
Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.
*For more information on the Jim Crow Museum, please visit https://ferris.edu/jimcrow/origins.htm
Every once in a while an author creates a character that is certain to stay with you forever. Lawrence Hill’s Aminata Diallo is one of those characters. Hill’s book Someone Knows My Name is the story of a young girl torn away from her home in Africa, forced to endure the Middle Passage, and sold into slavery in South Carolina. If anyone who reads the story has ever studied the history of slavery in America, you will certainly forget that Aminata was not an actual person. Despite the fact that she is only a fictional character, her story and journey is surrounded by so many historical accuracies that if you have never studied the history of slavery, you will walk away feeling more knowledgeable about the experience of so many Africans who did endure those same travesties.
Hill’s level of detail and his exceptional writing skills forces the reader into a world of pain, suffering, strength, determination, and bravery. These of course are just a few words to describe the peculiar institution that was American chattel slavery, which Hill paints a picture of perfectly. It is difficult to read this story and not feel every bit of Aminata’s experience. I, personally, cried throughout the entire novel. Like Alex Haley’s Roots, Someone Knows My Name is destined to become an important work for African Americans.
During the American Revolution, many African Americans fled their masters in hopes of securing freedom by aiding the British. Following the war, the British carried out the process to relocate former slaves who remained loyal to the British crown to Nova Scotia. They kept a record of the names of those who were taken into Canada called “The Book of Negroes”.
In Canada, Hill’s book was published as The Book of Negroes. However, following a broken promise by the book’s American publisher, the book was renamed Someone Knows My Name. They were concerned that American audiences would not purchase or read the book with its Canadian title. Either way, his work is brilliant. It is deserving of all its recognition and should be read by everyone with an interest in African American history or history period.
Hill, Lawrence. Someone Knows My Name. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
“From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of these people that were lynched 3,446 were black. The blacks lynched accounted for 72.7% of the people lynched. These numbers seem large, but it is known that not all of the lynchings were ever recorded.” (Excerpt from “History of Lynching”. https://www.naacp.org/history-of-lynchings/)
These statistics are harrowing, however, they were the reality of life for many African Americans following the end of the Civil War and through the Civil Rights Movement. One lynching in particular has been called the catalyst to the Civil Rights Movement, and it was that of 14 year old Emmett Till of Chicago. His brutal murder at the hands of two white men in Mississippi in 1955 shocked the world. His mother Mamie Till’s decision to have an open casket for her son sent the Civil Rights Movement into overdrive.
The plight of African Americans during that time period was hard to hide when photos of Emmett Till’s brutally massacred body were on the front pages of many local, national and international newspapers. His story has been told over and over again and has become even more relevant today as many African Americans have been killed at the hands of police or regular citizens usually without just cause, and just as concerning, without justice.
Timothy B. Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till sheds new light on this heart-wrenching story. He draws from an exclusive interview, and the only known interview with Caroline Bryant, the woman who accused Emmett Till of whistling at her in a convenient store setting off a chain of events that would spark change in this country. His book is thought-provoking and difficult to read because of the tragic details of Emmett’s story.
The idea that a young boy from Chicago visiting his grandfather in Mississippi could be such a dangerous and life altering event shows how deep the evils of racism and bigotry ran in this country—and tragically still appear all too often. Tyson encourages us all to remember what a dark past this country has and to be careful as we are only mere steps away from repeating some of history’s worst offenses. Furthermore, he warns us that “We are still killing black youth because we have not yet killed white supremacy.” His purpose for revisiting this tragic story seems to be to incite action to finally end the centuries old legacy of racial hatred fueled by white supremacy. Readers will be inspired to step up and speak out against injustices of any kind.
Tyson, Timothy B. The Blood of Emmett Till. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.
A Review of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, by Dr. Joy DeGruy
Why do we spank our children? Why do we place value on how light or dark our skin is? Why are we mistrustful of each other? Why do we attempt to live up to white ideals of beauty? These are questions that have plagued the African American community for many years. However, to understand why we are the way that we are today, we must understand the history of who we were. Dr. Joy DeGruy’s book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing argues that as a community, many African American’s still suffer from the condition she termed Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.
Her work is eye opening and it is difficult to read without acknowledging how much truth there is to her argument. Slavery in America lasted almost 250 years. Following slavery and the brief and unsuccessful period known as Reconstruction, the methods in which blacks were relegated to second class citizenship transformed. From Robert E. Lee’s surrender and for about 100 years after, blacks in the south were plagued by Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, and many other frightening realities. It is incredible that so many people choose not to acknowledge the effects of these centuries of oppression and abuse.
Dr. DeGruy's goal is to give an understanding of the impact of these transgressions on Black America today. She draws parallels between the traumatic events of the African American past and the behaviors that have manifested in many black communities today. While this is incredible in and of itself, what is even more important about this work is that her goal is not merely to point out the character flaws or lack of opportunity or advancement, among other effects. She furthers illustrates methods in which many African Americans can begin the process of healing and moving forward. The first step is to acknowledge that these issues exist in the black community and beyond that take steps towards changing these behaviors in order to heal.
DeGruy, Joy. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. Portland: Uptone Press. 2005
I was 18 years old when I saw the film Their Eyes Were Watching God starring Halle Berry as Janie and Michael Ealy as Tea Cake. This movie quickly became one of my favorites. As an avid reader, I try really hard to not watch a movie before I read the book. However, at 18, I am not sure I even knew that the film was an adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel of the same title. I should say that I did not know this book even existed.
Perusing a book haul, I came across a used copy of the book and decided to purchase it. I typically buy more books than I can and oftentimes books will sit on my shelf for months or years even. However, I decided to give the book a go right away. Hurston’s book is incredibly written. The story of Janie and her journey to her relationship with Tea Cake is captivating.
Part of the reason why I try not to watch a movie before I read a book is because then I feel like I am not using my imagination to picture the characters, but I am using the filmmaker’s interpretation of these characters. However, I was not disappointed in this case. Hurston paints a picture of a love so deep and meaningful set against the backdrop of the early 1900s in the South.
That period of time for African Americans was extremely difficult. Following the end of the Civil War, whites sought to reestablish their supremacy and enacted Jim Crow laws, which severely restricted African American progress. Add that with the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan and life for blacks was not only oppressive, but they were constantly in danger. Hurston’s ability to give an air of hope for her characters despite these conditions speaks volumes to her quality of storytelling.
Hurston’s novel touches on many themes including, but not limited to, love, death, race, and female empowerment. Anyone who is a fan of a good love story, or just good literature in general, would do themselves a disservice if they did not take the time to read this book. More than 80 years after its original publication Their Eyes Were Watching God remains a novel worth reading.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Perennial Classics, 1990.