Thursday, August 16, 2012

Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow

"The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander is a disturbing read.  Quite contrary to the ideal of "equal justice for all", the War on Drugs has unleashed a nightmare of unequal justice for the African-American community. 

The laws against drugs are harsh, and unequally applied.  Police and prosecutorial discretion makes sure that it is blacks rather than whites (who have an equal rate of drug use) that are targeted.  The wide powers given to the police result in many casualties, even of people quite innocent of drugs.

Possession of a small amount of marijuana can entangle one in the justice system.  Poor people get very poor quality legal representation.  Once convicted, people lose their right to vote, their ability to get any kind of government help and of course, future employment is a problem.   

All in all, the war against drugs has made the US be the country with the largest percentage of its population in jail - more than repressive dictatorships even, and it is creating a permanent underclass with little means of climbing out of its poverty and misery.

The laws are unjust in their content and in their application, but the laws involve drugs, and I wonder why in the face of severe penalties people continue to use them.  I do not understand the diminution of freedom or of quality of life if one eschews drugs.  But then I come from a culture where self-restraint is a cardinal virtue; while American culture is generally permissive.  Michelle Alexander has no good explanation, except that "we all are sinners, we all suffer from lapses" and that Barack Obama, in his youth, used drugs fairly extensively.

It is a depressing book, that anyone interested in America should read.

PS: added on January 17, 2015. To clarify my last paragraph: the "Old Jim Crow" laws kept blacks from exercising their fundamental rights. The "New Jim Crow" however is unequal application of laws regarding behavior that society has legitimate reasons to criminalize. (Maybe criminalization is not the best policy, but that is a different debate.) The easiest way not to get caught up in "New Jim Crow" (except as an innocent bystander, which does happen) is not to indulge in this behavior. An explanation is needed as to why people don't respond rationally to this (dis)incentive, and is lacking. This is not like say, outlawing of traditional use of peyote in American-Indian ceremonies.