The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander was first published in 2010 and called attention to the impact the War of Drugs had on communities of color. In her preface to the 10th anniversary edition, Alexander discusses what a new version of the book would cover: the hopefulness of prison reform, the complicated legacy of Barack Obama related to incarceration, and the horrific consequences of Donald Trump’s presidency in general.
She resisted the urge to write an updated book and I agree with the decision. Things have changed since 2010 but as long as police have almost unlimited power to stop and search and prosecutors can keep people of color off juries for silly and superstitious reasons, our system is seemingly irretrievably broken. However, Alexander expresses some hope for change in her preface to this new edition.
The book is a meticulously researched historical timeline that shows how we moved from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration as institutional answers to segregation and racism. The latter is seemingly so entrenched legally, politically, culturally and economically that Alexander doesn’t offer much hope for reversing it in her first edition. She is particularly hard on Civil Rights lawyers and activists, including herself, who seem to ignore the issue because it often deals with people who did break the law and that makes it harder to defend them.
That focus, however, is changing and the Prison Policy Initiative is a good starting point for learning more about mass incarceration and the efforts to change the system. For my fellow Virginians, check out the profile page for our state. Here is one graphic to get you started: where the prison inmates come from in the state:
The first thing Virginia’s governor did (day one literally) was to order the Department of Education to rescind all the policies and programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion. Somehow helping people see how past and present inequities and discrimination have created huge cultural, political and economic gaps in our state and country might make those who benefitted from those policies and practices and live on the “right” side of the gap feel badly about themselves.
Do not forget that Virginia’s response to Brown vs. Board of Education was to essentially close the schools. Once they were forced to desegregate, localities closed Black schools, fired Black teachers and forced Black students into hostile, white-centered environments. Friends who lived through the process tell the story of finding their school memorabilia–from football trophies to administrator photographs–in a dumpster. Their lives, their stories, were being erased.
Youngkin and his minions are simply continuing that tradition. Fortunately, the Virginia Education Association stepped in to post the EdEquity VA website. You can also find the original site by using the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive.
I haven’t much felt like writing lately: everything I think about writing seems frivolous in light of the horrific murder of Tyre Nichols and multiple mass shootings in January. Meanwhile, governors like Glenn Youngkin here in Virginia and Ron DeSantis in Florida are using their power to literally whitewash history.
So, I’m going to highlight a black historian I wrote about earlier, Mr. Ernest Crim III. He focuses on what matters, digs out that history that Youngkin and his ilk want to bury, and also finds bright spots in the world like the new poet laureate of New York, nine-year-old Kayden Hern.