For the last couple of years social justice advocates have loudly sung the praises of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration the Age of Colorblindness, which has garnered a huge following and spawned an allegedly new designation for racial inequity in the United States. However, former champions of the book and those seeking social change are quickly turning on Alexander’s discourse, which radical scholars and activists say promotes a false understanding of mass incarceration in the United States and serves to reinforce the status quo by quietly separating mass incarceration from its most defining and central features.
I had already read The New Jim Crow upon my recent arrival to San Francisco from Geneva. Having been praised as a “must-read” by nearly all reviewers, from The New York Times and National Public Radio to Socialist Alternative and the International Socialist Review, I was not at all surprised to find the book being heavily championed in social justice circles. During General Assembly at an Occupy Oakland meeting I was handed a printed except from the book framed between the slogans “End The New Jim Crow” and “The New Jim Crow Has Got To Go.” When asked about the praise and popularity of the book the graduate student and activist from the University of California Berkeley explained that social justice advocates had been “anxious to have their claims affirmed by popular research” and that The New Jim Crow had met this need.
Weeks later, on my second visit with Occupy Oakland attitudes toward the book had shifted dramatically. Outside an auditorium where civil rights activist Angela Davis was speaking on police brutality, demonstrators gathered around a table bearing a banner with red letters that read “The New Jim Crow Supports the Status Quo.” Assuming that the table was simply passing out literature on mass-incarceration, I was particularly surprised to find that organizers intended their slogan to mean that support for the status quo was being provided by Alexander’s analysis in The New Jim Crow, rather than by New Jim Crow itself.
Alexander’s support for the status quo, wrapped in social-justice anti-drug-war packaging, became all the more clear to me once annoyed former supporters of the book pointed me toward the first serious challenge to Alexander’s work, a radical polemical review entitled “Black Out: Michelle Alexander’s Operational Whitewash,” written by Joseph D. Osel, a political sociologist and independent researcher. Following his review, other intellectuals have also made contentious assessments of the book and organizations that seek to decolonize movements of social change, People of Color Organize!, for example, have discredited the book, urging a re-thinking of The New Jim Crow and arguing that its conceptual framework has been “made malleable for white-middle class consumption,” calling it a “white liberal consumer product.”
In his second devastating analysis, “The Strange Career of The New Jim Crow,” Osel shows how and why The New Jim Crow uses clever rhetoric and research to mask its allegiance to power and makes the case that the book’s discourse seriously “misleads its readers, mystifying and obscuring the true coordinates of the problem and its potential solutions,” calling the book a “counterrevolutionary protest.” A harder look at the book’s rhetoric and a close reading of other radical critiques, Greg Thomas’ “Why Some Like The New Jim Crow So Much,” for example, confirms Osel’s contentious hypothesis and reveals that The New Jim Crow takes as natural and apolitical that which is in reality problematic and political. It reveals that the book obscures the most basic economic mechanisms of mass incarceration, excludes or dismisses more radical and revolutionary perspectives on the subject, and serves the emotional interests of wanting social justice advocates while limiting actual disruption of the system of American mass incarceration. The book seems to be, as one occupier put it, “white capitalist bourgeoisie rhetoric, dressed-up as black social concern.”
The great success of The New Jim Crow rests on the fact that it provides a cathartic release for its readers without seriously threatening oppressive hegemonic assumptions. The book, for example, doesn’t even contain the word “capitalism” and excludes the voices of all radical black thinkers, political prisoners, anti-prison activists, black power advocates, and the most useful philosophies to the subject of mass incarceration. Like many others I was admittedly an unsuspecting victim of this rhetoric, was drawn in easily by the book’s memorable title and by my own desire to see my concerns realized. Furthermore, like other former champions of the text I now consider a re-thinking of New Jim Crow essential and indications are that this re-thinking is now underway. The larger more perplexing problem, however, is that The New Jim Crow was ever acceptable in the first place.
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