Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” makes some good points, and regardless of your opinion of her work she has been deeply influential in our country’s politics and culture.
I would suggest when reading her book to balance it out with Thomas Sowell’s book “Discrimination and Disparities” and “Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction” by Judith Grisel.
Sowell’s book offers some explanations to some disparities in society and potential causes that Alexander seems to overlook. Meanwhile, Grisel writes in great detail about the dangers of addiction. Although Alexander’s book seems to be about race and incarceration, much of it is really about drugs. And Alexander seems to mostly avoid one of the uncomfortable truths about drugs: they are very addicting and very harmful. We’ll touch on this.
But first, the good parts.
There are several positives about “The New Jim Crow.”
First of all, Alexander often uses statistics, historical detail, and knowledge of the law. She addresses the Constitution multiple times, including the Fourth Amendment, and she correctly reminds us that even offenders of the law have constitutional rights.
Secondly, she says that the Civil Rights movement has somewhat lost its way in the last few decades, as the “movement” has become more reliant on attorneys and centralized in Washington DC. She says that many attorneys have sought to improve their own lives at the expense of the people they’re trying to serve. Not all the solutions come from Washington, D.C.
Solutions should be decentralized and come from ordinary people. This is probably part of the reason why the Civil Rights movement is viewed with distrust: because we often hear mostly from rich people who discovered how to use the movement to enrich themselves. Alexander seems to realize that. And she explains that change needs to come from culture and not from lawyers winning lawsuits alone.
Thirdly, she advocated for people who are the bottom rungs of society. No one is perfect, and everyone disobeys laws. We do need to be ready to extend grace toward others, especially if they are willing to change their ways and be important members of society.
For example, the person who speeds 10 mph above the speed limit may be endangering more lives than the person doing drugs at home without affecting anyone else. Standing up for people with criminal records is a much harder task than tackling affirmative action cases in colleges and corporate America.
Most importantly, her overall goal is worthwhile. There are probably thousands upon thousands of people in jail, including felons, who could be productive in society. Offering help to them would not just be charity work. It would be something that helps the rest of society. If these women and (mostly) men can be in the workforce and with the families, they would be helping society at large.
But unfortunately many of her plans are deeply flawed. Alexander seems to only focus on the ramifications of crime and not how crime actually hurts society as a whole.
As much as she talks about race, the backdrop is about drugs. She writes that often lower-class whites can be worse drug offenders than blacks. A big part of her argument is that America has a “caste system,” and she argues that poorer whites would prefer that blacks be a lower part of the “caste system” rather than having their own lives improved. She doesn’t offer any evidence that this is true. A visit through many rural towns would prove that poor whites are much more interested in seeing some jobs return than they are in hurting minorities.
But Alexander is too busy obsessing over this “caste system” to actually consider the dangers of drugs. This is why reading this book needs to be moderated with a book about addiction or the formation of habits such as “Never Enough.”
Alexander calls for ending the war on drugs and legalizing marijuana. It’s as if drugs themselves do not wreak havoc on people. She’s almost solely concerned about the punishment and the ramifications of using drugs from a legal perspective.
But drugs themselves do not discriminate in their harm toward people. She calls for ending the war on drugs. Although we should be willing to offer mercy and compassion on people who are drug offenders, we cannot stop warning of the dangers of drugs. We need to continue keeping drugs out of our schools and communities.
She makes the point several times that whites can be just as likely if not more likely than blacks to use drugs. Well, let’s look at what has happened the last several years. Look at the opioid epidemic, which has wreaked havoc on white communities. Drugs are dangerous. I understand that combating drug addiction is a monumental task. And some of our past fights may have been counterintuitive and perhaps caused more harm than good. But we cannot stop that fight. Just because there are many deaths due to drugs does not mean that our fight against drug usage hasn’t saved lives.
No, our entire judicial system isn’t broken
Alexander also radically claims our entire criminal justice and judicial system is based on racism. We need to address some discrimination ad prejudices. But when she talks about our entire system being entirely based on racism, she makes it sound like we need to destroy and burn down our entire system. That is dangerous. That is the kind of talk that makes people feel desperate enough to riot and destroy businesses. That is the kind of talk that helps create an anti-police rhetoric, such as the ACAB movement.
This is why many warn that people like Alexander will usher in a new cultural Marxist revolution. Economic Marxism is based on the concept that one elite group in society oppresses another, and that the entire system is based on economic oppression. This philosophy has heralded in revolutions and caused millions of deaths over the past century. Cultural Marxism is based on the concept that one elite group in society oppresses another, and that the entire system is based on racial oppression.
Alexander talks often about mass incarceration. And she does make some good points showing that prisons and politicians can make a lot of money on prisons. However, she also shrugs at the fact that for the last few decades the crime rate has been increasing. Perhaps it is because we have been doing something right the last three decades. Perhaps we have been putting people in jail that we need to. Perhaps in doing so we have kept our community safer than they would’ve been otherwise, including and especially the communities of minorities.
As Thomas Sowell wrote: “Much of the social history of the Western world, over the past three decades, has been a history of replacing what worked with what sounded good.”
Where we can find solutions
Remarkably, there are ways in which Alexander and President Donald Trump found common solutions. Trump has already signed into law the First Step Act, which reduces the severity of the punishment on smaller offenses and reduces prison sentences. Alexander criticized former President Barack Obama for actually worsening the mass incarceration problem and for not being a good enough spokesperson for less privileged blacks. She also criticized Joe Biden for his record on being overly punitive on felons, especially black felons.
It’s ironic that although she criticized President Donald Trump at the onset of her book, it was Trump who did the most to push her agenda forward from a policy perspective.
So some of her work came to fruition under a Republican president.
So going forward, what can we make of Alexander’s ideas?
Alexander has identified an area in which we could help a segment of the population, grant them the dignity of work, and grow the economy. We can do this by helping to improve the plight of felons and making them more eligible for work. Her focus is of course minorities with felonies. But I don’t think she would mind if some whites were able to get out of prison early also.
However, her solution is not helpful to society as a whole. One of her suggestions would be to “ban the box,” i.e. make it illegal for employers to ask up front about an applicant’s criminal background. However, this is simplistic and does not expand the proverbial “pie.” This simply will help someone with a felony while reducing the chances of someone without a felony from getting a job. It’s just a zero sum policy that does nothing other than slow down the hiring process.
The better solution would be to invest in successful recidivism programs. Keeping the programs accountable will be key. Employers have every right to be wary of hiring felons if doing so would hurt their business. Investing in programs that help former inmates and offering tax credits for employers for hiring felons would be preferable than simply making it illegal to request if someone has a felony on the front end. Her concern is admirable, but her solution falls flat.
Alexander notes a study showing that the two industries that are most likely to hire felons are manufacturing and construction, while the industries least likely to hire felons are those with more customer-facing jobs. She then points out that automation and globalization have caused those jobs to go away. She says that companies and people should remove the stigma of looking down on people with felonies.
This is just the way an academic and liberal thinks. She talks about the way the world should be but doesn’t know how to offer solutions.
The questions should be: how can we increase the construction and manufacturing sectors? Can we not focus on rewarding companies that purchase American-made products? Or how can we remove barriers and regulations that burden manufacturers or construction companies? Can we ease zoning laws for construction companies? Can we implement E-verify so that illegal immigrants are not essentially stealing jobs from our own fellow citizens (including fellow citizens with felonies)?
What Alexander needs to understand is why construction companies and manufacturing companies are more likely to hire felons. Quite simply, it’s because they desperately need workers. Why do they desperately need workers? Because these industries are in heavy demand for workers and they’re willing to be less strict about their requirements.
Alexander has done a great job identifying a problem. The goal is how we can help the marginalized and minorities with criminal backgrounds have a better life and be a part of society.
And she is exactly right that we should not rest as a society until we are able to make them as free as the rest of us. She is right that their Constitutional rights are neglected. She accurately points at Constitutional amendments (such as the Fourth Amendment) about search and seizure and private property rights.
She could benefit if appealing to libertarians and people on the right such as John Stossell, who would agree with her completely regarding Fourth Amendment rights.
This is what America needs to strive for. We strive for freedom for all, not just 90%, and not just 99%.
However, from a policy standpoint she does not seem to understand the solution well. She seems to understand that constantly preaching at blacks about how they need to live better lives does not necessarily help. Well, if preaching at them doesn’t work, what makes her think that preaching at the rest of society is going to help them be less prejudiced? Please don’t misunderstand. To a certain point, the power of the pen is important in helping society understand that a certain group of people is not being treated fairly. However, we can’t just talk about the way the world should be. We can’t make laws that take away the rights from one to give it to another. That is just distributive justice, and therefore the criticism of cultural Marxism would be correct.
We cannot simply force an employer to refuse to hire someone with multiple felony convictions. However, we can invest in successful recidivism programs, we can offer the employers tax credits for hiring felons, and we can educate employers to someone with one felony conviction from several years ago there’s no more of a liability than anyone else.
We also should not stop preaching about personal responsibility.. We can continue to preach about forgiveness, mercy, and grace, but that does not mean we should excuse the sins of excess drug use. We can offer rehabilitation programs, but that doesn’t mean we stop offering consequences such as prison for offenders. Removing dangerous people from the streets does make our community safer. We cannot simply make blanket statements saying that our criminal justice system is unfair and that prisons are overcrowded. We need to view every situation with nuance and discretion. And we need to allow culture and society to change.
Alexander needs to understand the perspective of employers. Employers, whether they are run by whites, blacks, felons or non-felons, have legitimate concerns about liability.
I often hear the statement: “People with felonies did their time and paid their debt to society. Employers shouldn’t expect them to continue having to pay down that debt.” But people who make these statements are missing the point. Employers are not concerned about people “paying their debt to society.” Employers just want to mitigate risk. It’s not about a philosophical belief. Their decisions are about risk management.
Employers are completely justified in being concerned if candidates have a drug conviction, or multiple misdemeanors, or if they have served in jail. Because people who do drugs, people who constantly abuse alcohol, and people who have been in prison often bring a higher liability to employers.
Alexander does a good job showing the perspective of felons. Now she needs to do a better job understanding the perspective of employers. Then we need to bridge those two perspectives so they can be mutually constructive.
Alexander does what liberals and (sometimes) academics do: she talks about the less fortunate, and she calls on people to empathize with them more. Well done. She does a good service to society by doing that. That is only the first part of the battle.
If done right, our country could get hundreds of thousands of people back to work who probably want to work but just need help getting back on their feet. Many companies often are trying to hire but are unable to find the right people. And meanwhile many felons want to get back on their feet but just need an opportunity to do so.
But what are employers to do when they give someone a chance only to have an injury, or someone commit death, or some other bad decision occurring?
The steps must be taken carefully, with strong rehabilitation programs with qualified people who care about their jobs and helping people get back to work.
In short, the advice to Alexander should be: continue with your goal. However, discard the reckless ideas, don’t reject the many parts of our institutions that work well, and better understand the perspective of others to come to a mutually constructive plan.