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KAAN Community Book Review: The New Jim Crow

by Grace Newton

George Floyd. Ahmed Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Philando Castile. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. And most recently, Jacob Blake.


These names have been in household and nationwide conversations this summer, as people try to make sense of the ongoing police brutality against Black Americans. We have had these discussions over the last several years but none so large as after George Floyd was slowly murdered with a knee to his throat.


Ten years ago, Michelle Alexander wrote, "The fate of millions of people -- indeed the future of the Black community itself -- may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society." When I read about school districts turning away from the police, people intentionally reading anti-racist literature, and protests happening in cities and countries around the world in support of Black Lives Matter, it gives me hope that perhaps we are collectively recognizing the racial hierarchy upon which this country was built and continues to operate.


Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow, is not about police brutality, which has been the focus of current conversations, but her words are just as relevant. Many have asked, "How did we get here?," and "Why does this keep happening?" Through The New Jim Crow, Alexander answers these questions by addressing mass incarceration, which makes the label Black synonymous to the label criminal. Alexander interrogates the War on Drugs as one of the main mechanisms of social control and the creator of the new racial caste system: The New Jim Crow.

The New Jim Crow is a book for anyone who wants the facts, the history, and the major legal cases that have allowed racial discrimination in a "post-racial" society.

Alexander illustrates the backlash that has followed every period of improvement for Black people. After the Civil War, the Black Codes were enacted to limit Black people's newfound freedoms. The Black Codes were overturned during the Reconstruction Era, which gave Black folks full citizenship, public education, and the right to vote. Backlash against the gains made by African Americans during Reconstruction led to Jim Crow, during which segregation was used to drive a wedge between poor whites and Black people. Almost every state in the South had laws that discriminated against Black people in all aspects of life. The end of Jim Crow is thought of as the period of time between the 1945 Brown v. Board of Education ruling and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Alexander argues that the War on Drugs was created in retaliation against the rights Black Americans won during the Civil Rights Era. Even today, we can view events and proposed legislation in the Trump administration as direct backlash toward the first Black president in American history.


The “law and order” rhetoric started in the 1950s in opposition to Civil Rights protesters, but the framework for the “tough on crime” movement was laid by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. By 1968, Nixon’s presidential campaign relied heavily on “law and order,” and during the 1970s, Nixon first called for a “war on drugs.” The Conservative wave took full effect under Reagan, who became a master at codified language that excluded mention of race but produced racialized images. He was embraced by poor Whites who felt abandoned by the Democratic party. True to his word, Reagan concentrated on street and drug crime by halving the number of FBI specialists who worked on White collar crime issues and announcing the formal War on Drugs in 1982.


Within a few years, FBI antidrug funding grew tenfold, and the Department of Defense antidrug funding more than tripled. Reagan gave huge grants to law enforcement agencies that made drug-law enforcement their top priority. When the Crack epidemic struck Black communities in the mid-1980s, rather than investing in drug treatment programs or education, Reagan used this to fuel the War on Drugs. In 1986, the House allocated $2 billion toward antidrug purposes and allowed the death penalty for certain drug crimes. That same year, Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which proposed mandatory minimums and stricter penalties for drugs associated with Blacks than Whites. By the late 1980s, Democrats, too, began to use anticrime rhetoric to gain control from Republicans.

By 1991, one quarter of all young Black men in the United Staters were under correctional control, and in 1992, Clinton claimed that he “would never permit any Republican to be perceived as tougher on crime than he.”

Clinton endorsed the “three strikes and you’re out law,” which provided another $30 billion in crime spending, named new federal crimes, mandated life sentences for certain three-time offenders, and granted more than $16 billion for state prisons and local police forces. These policies created the largest increases in the inmate population of any American president. He drastically cut funding for public housing and made it easier to deny anyone with a criminal history through the “One Strike and You’re Out” initiative – the toughest admission and eviction policy.


In 1972, fewer than 350,000 people were held in prisons; today, there are more than 2 million people in prison. In cities like Chicago and Washington D.C., most Black males will be involved with the criminal justice system during their lives, and many will enter the system unable to afford lawyer fees and unrepresented. Alexander argues mass incarceration is an extension of segregation. In states where formerly incarcerated people can vote, court fees are the new poll tax, and the mass of paperwork and hoops one must jump through are the new literacy test, both of which serve to suppress the Black vote.

Through mass incarceration and the power of the prison label, Black people today are under many of the same Jim Crow restrictions. The War on Drugs is not a war on drugs; it’s a war on Black people.

The ingenious element of the War on Drugs is the illusion of choice. During the slave era, Black people didn’t have a choice whether or not they became enslaved; however, today people can choose to not use illegal drugs. Even though evidence shows the majority of Americans break drug laws at some point with about equal drug usage across ethnicity, African Americans are 80-90% of drug offenders sent to prison in at least 7 states and have a 27 times higher incarceration rate than whites.


The goal of the War on Drugs is to cast Black men, ideally Black boys, aside as criminals. The shame and stigma of the criminal label leads to silence, self-hatred, and repression of collective thought for formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, which limits the ability for collective healing and political action. The other necessary element for the success of the War on Drugs is colorblindness. This allows deniers of the War on Drugs to suggest that white folks, too, are arrested for drug crimes. The White people who are incarcerated for drug crimes are also casualties of a system rooted in anti-Blackness, who are necessary to make the criminal justice system feign randomness. Alexander suggests that had this country learned to love and respect Black Americans after the Civil Rights Era rather than becoming colorblind, the War on Drugs would not be alive today.

Those reading this blog are probably impacted by the adoption community. Adoptees and their allies have a unique lens with which to view the War on Drugs and mass incarceration as vehicles of unjust family separation. Many adoptees suggest that they are proponents of family preservation over adoption. Family preservation work doesn’t have to be a foreign, broad concept. It can begin in this country, with these systems.

During Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, he delivered a speech addressing the Black community in which he stated, "too many fathers are missing - missing from too many lives and too many homes. Too many fathers are MIA. Too many fathers are AWOL." These Black men are not only missing from their families, they are missing from society. There are almost 3 million more Black women than men in communities across the country, with gender disparities as high as 37% in urban areas like New York City. Alexander posits that these men have been victims of the mass incarceration movement and swept up into jails and prisons for crimes that are largely ignored when committed by White people. She compels us:


"Imagine a young man, eighteen years old, who is arrested as part of an undercover operation and charged with two counts of dealing cocaine to minors. He had been selling to friends to earn extra money for shoes and basic things his mother could not afford. The prosecutor offers him probation if he agrees to plead guilty to both charges and to snitch on a bigger dealer. Terrified of doing prison time, he takes the deal. Several years later, he finds his punishment will never end. Branded a felon, he is struggling to survive and support his children. One night he burglarizes a corner store and steals food, toothpaste, Pepsi, and diapers for his baby boy. He is arrested almost immediately a few blocks away. That's it for him. He now has three strikes. His burglary can be charged as a third strike because of his two prior felony convictions. He is eligible for life imprisonment. His children will be raised without a father."


In contrast to Obama's claims that "they have abandoned their responsibilities," Alexander argues that hundreds of thousands of Black men are not able to be fathers, not because they have voluntarily left. Rather, because they were taken away from their families in handcuffs. Due to the increased length of prison sentences and the exponential increase of prosecuted cases, there are more Black Americans in prison, jail or on probation today than there were enslaved in the 1850s, making it less likely that a Black child growing up today will be raised by both of their parents than during slavery.

The connection between adoption and incarceration is undeniable. Incarcerated parents who have not been charged with abuse, neglect, or child endangerment but whose children have entered a foster care placement are more likely to have their parental rights terminated than parents who have abused their children (Hager & Flagg, 2018). One in eight of these incarcerated parents will lose their parental rights forever, oftentimes due the incarceration alone.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) (1997) mandates that child welfare agencies begin terminating parental rights once a child has been in the system for 15 months. This pro-adoption bill was passed by Clinton, during the same time he was trying to prove that he was just as "tough on crime" as his Republican predecessors. The combination of harsher laws and longer sentences (current average 31.2 months) with the ASFA means that children are being taken away from their parents permanently for offenses that wouldn't have previously warranted removal and adoption. But Michelle Alexander reminds us that it is not just the prison sentence that endangers parents to losing their children, it is also the prison label that stays with the formerly incarcerated person forever.


"Take for example, the forty-two-year-old-African American man who applied for public housing for himself and his three children who were living with him at the time. He was denied because of an earlier drug possession charge for which he had pleaded guilty and served thirty days in jail. Of course, the odds that he would have been convicted of drug possession would have been extremely low if he were White. But as an African American, he was not only targeted by the drug war but then denied access to housing because of his conviction. Since being denied housing, he has lost custody of his children and is homeless. Many nights he sleeps outside on the streets. Stiff punishment, indeed, for a minor drug offense -- especially for his children, who are innocent of any crime."


In 2018, Americans championed the slogan "families belong together," while watching our government separate immigrant families at the border. If families belong together, this must mean Black families, too. The mass incarceration of Black Americans as a product of the War on Drugs and systemic anti-Blackness is another form of family separation, whether intentional or not, at the hands of the U.S. government. We are silently witnessing a family separation crisis for the Black community (Hager & Flagg, 2018).

Alexander argues "nothing short of a major social movement can successfully dismantle the new caste system."

This summer started with public outcry in favor of Black Lives Matter, daily protests, and a fierce and rapid cry for long-overdue change. As the end of summer approaches and one season shifts into another, I hope that we do not lose the collective desire for this to be a season of change and of true justice. I recommend The New Jim Crow, to anyone -- whether they have been skeptical or outraged by the continuous murders of Black people by the police. I especially recommend The New Jim Crow to anyone who wants to center anti-Blackness and feels compelled to take their commitment beyond the pages of the book and act with what Dr. Martin Luther King called, "the fierce urgency of now."

Grace Newton is a Chinese adoptee and current graduate student in Social Work at Washington University in Saint Louis. She serves on the Advisory Council for KAAN and is interested in issues related to adoption, race, identity formation, and family preservation. You can learn more about her here, and read more of her thoughts on her blog, Red Thread Broken (redthreadbroken.wordpress.com).

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