Book Review: The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow can be summarized as this: white people will always find a way to produce a racial caste system in which black people are inferior. It started with slavery, when slavery was abolished it morphed into racist Jim Crow laws, and when Jim Crow was abolished it morphed into Mass Incarceration (AKA The New Jim Crow) through the War on Drugs.

And while I think everyone agrees that Jim Crow and especially slavery were indeed horrific atrocities that singled out black people for discrimination, she fails to make her point that Mass Incarceration is also a system designed by white men to subjugate black men.

She will readily admit that our current laws, unlike Jim Crow laws, do not discriminate based on race and are “colorblind.” Having said that, since there are no actual concrete examples of racism within the law today, she must fabricate racism wherever she can find it. In this book, mass incarceration through the war on drugs is her prime example of the new racist system in place.

The reason the book fails is that her argument is ultimately unconvincing as far as racism goes. Yes, she provides a multitude of statistics and anecdotal examples of black men today ending up in prison, but the fault is never ever with them, it’s always the fault of white people, cops, employers, etc.

I think I may have read half a page where she spoke of personal responsibility, but when the other 99.9% of the book is blaming someone else for the plight of black men, the half a page of personal responsibility feels like tokenism thrown in make it appear as though she’s trying to be objective.

For example: she complains that even when incarcerated people are eventually freed, they are now subject to legal discrimination from employers. She’s not wrong actually, but she fails to make a case as to why this should not be so. Should private employers not have the right to know the criminal backgrounds of potential employees? Must they be kept in the dark about that in the name of fairness even if it could potentially hurt their business? I don’t think so. Imagine some of the other ramifications here.  Imagine a school or a church nursery being unable to discover that a convicted pedophile was applying for a job.  Of course she rarely mentions that white criminals are also subjected to this form of legal discrimination, yet naturally assumes this practice is a racist one all designed to make black people second class citizens.

Additionally, empirical evidence shows that background checks actually help unemployed blacks to obtain employment, as documented in the Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp.451-480 (Oct 2006) as well as Jason L. Riley’s  Wallstreet Journal piece titled “Jobless Blacks Should Cheer Background Checks”
Hyperbole and melodrama runs rampant throughout the book. I quote, “What is completely missed in the rare public debates today about the plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so.” No, they are not barred by law from doing so. Most employers are still free to hire convicted criminals if they choose to, it’s just that most would rather hire a less risky employee. Does everyone deserve a second chance? Sure, but employers are not obligated by law to provide that second chance, and why should they be? She never provides a potential solution for this complaint, other than to prevent employers from even being able to ask I suppose. She also fails to show how background checks are inherently racist since they apply to whites and all other ethnicities as well.

She treats the term “law and order” as a negative thing, as if it’s the new secret code phrase for being racist without being overtly racist. She quotes former President Nixon in a negative light when he said the increasing crime rate “can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them.” President Nixon wasn’t wrong then, and he certainly wouldn’t be wrong to say it today either in a time when protests and riots are commonplace simply because people don’t want to obey the law.

I quote, “They developed instead the racially sanitized rhetoric of ‘cracking down on crime’–rhetoric that is now used freely by politicians of every stripe.” I’m sorry, what are you advocating for? Not caring about crime? Letting crime run rampant? What exactly is wrong with cracking down on crime, especially when a disproportionate amount of violent crime victims are black?

Her conspiracy theory is that the war on drugs was deliberately designed to imprison mass amounts of black people, taking away their right to vote and right to get a job so that they remain a second class citizen for life. She states that the crack epidemic of the mid to late 1980’s was the perfect opportunity to do just that, never mind that the “war on drugs” was started before crack cocaine became an epidemic in black communities. She ignores the fact that harsh sentencing for crack cocaine possession had a majority support from black congressmen.  She even hints that crack was introduced to black communities by the white government specifically so that they would have a reason to imprison them. No evidence of that of course, but the accusation is still made.

She blames the de-industrialization of America as being responsible for a large number of black people becoming unemployed, which may well be true, but she then uses that to justify when they start selling crack to make money. She complains that Bill Clinton put a 5 year limit on welfare, and that felons are barred from public housing, which is paid for by the government anyway. She says they are locked out of “their own homes.” No, public housing is not THEIR home, it’s ultimately tax payers’ home that the government allows them to borrow, and thus they should have the right to refuse that home to people who do not want to obey the law. Why should a felon, who didn’t play by the rules, be allowed housing over poor people that did play by the rules? It’s more victimization of criminals as if they had no choice in committing the crimes they committed. Of course she also bemoans the fact that private housing is allowed to keep felons from living there, as if a private landlord should be forced by law to accept a potentially dangerous criminal.

Here’s potentially the most melodramatic paragraph in the entire book, “Full-blown trials of guilt or innocence rarely occur; many people never even meet with an attorney; witnesses are routinely paid and coerced by the government; police regularly stop and search people for no reason whatsoever; penalties for many crimes are so severe that innocent people plead guilty, accepting plea bargains to avoid harsh mandatory sentences; and children, even as young as fourteen, are sent to adult prisons. Rules of law and procedure, such as ‘guilt beyond a reasonable doubt’ or ‘probable cause’ or ‘reasonable suspicion’ can easily be found in court cases and law-school textbooks but are much harder to find in real life.” Of course no evidence is provided of witnesses being paid by the government or police officers searching people for no reason whatsoever, at least on a widespread scale, but the melodramatic rhetoric is stated all the same. A perfect example of why the book was unconvincing.

She then further bashes police and shows her lack of understanding of the 4th amendment when she complains about police getting consent to search for drugs and subsequently finding some. She likes to put the word consent in scare quotes as if the arrestee truly had no say in the matter. Don’t want police to search you? Then don’t consent, especially if you know you have drugs on you. Can you really complain when police make an arrest in such a case?

She likes to be dramatic and complain that police find pretext reasons to stop cars such as for minor traffic violations and then from there further develop probable cause to search for drugs. There is nothing illegal about this method, as to effectually overturn it you would have to bar officers from making traffic stops altogether. She says, “police have received no training that enhances the likelihood they will spot drug criminals as they drive by and leave everyone else alone.” This statement here really shows her ignorance of police work, as police will often set up on known dope houses and stop cars after they leave them knowing that there’s a high probability that they just purchased drugs there. She doesn’t grasp this and thinks they just randomly stop black people to look for drugs.

Nevertheless, she fancies herself an expert on how police work SHOULD be done, despite never actually having been an officer. She says, “In countless situations in which police could easily have arrested someone or conducted a search without a military-style raid, police blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting and pointing guns and rifles at anyone inside, often including young children.” Easy for her to say what they could have “easily” done when it’s not her life on the line of course. I guess the thought never occurred to her that drug dealers sometimes shoot at officers or try to flush evidence if the police were to knock politely and announce their intentions in broad daylight.  And of course, once again, no culpability rests with the criminal here for putting their children in danger by knowingly possessing illegal drugs in the same home the children sleep at night.

She often makes remarks that people arrested for drugs are never provided legal representation, although it’s required by law that an attorney is provided for them if they cannot afford one. Of course she contradicts herself and in other places will admit that they are appointed a public defender, but will then complain that the public defender doesn’t have the skill or time to devote to their cases like a highly paid private attorney would. I suppose the taxpayer should also foot the bill to provide the very best legal representation for criminals?

Speaking of contradictions, on one page she complains about mass incarceration, and on the next she readily admits that “most people branded felons, in fact, are not sentenced to prison.” and then goes on to complain about how being branded a felon is actually worse than being behind bars. Apparently she isn’t pleased with anything short of NOT incarcerating these folks and also NOT allowing their criminal records to be made available to employers. Essentially she argues for no punishment at all.

She says “the clear majority of Americans of all races have violated drug laws in their lifetime.” Yet in an earlier poll she quoted it showed that only 6.4% of people will violate drug laws.

According to her, even mentioning crime is racist. She says, “There are certain code words that allow you never to have to say ‘race,’ but everybody knows that’s what you mean and ‘crime’ is one of those… So when we talk about locking up more and more people, what we’re really talking about is locking up more and more black men.”

Now, her book was written in 2010, the same year the Fair Sentencing Act was passed, but before it passed there was a mandatory 5 year minimum sentence if you were caught with more than 5 grams of crack cocaine. You’d have to get caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to get the same sentence, so this is one of her arguments for racism in the criminal justice system. But again, the argument doesn’t work, because the tougher crack cocaine sentencing applied to all races equally, just as the more lenient powder cocaine sentencing applied to all races equally. The argument, of course, is that crack cocaine is the “black man’s drug” and powder cocaine is used more often by whites, thus racism is the only answer. But there are explanations for this that don’t point to racism. The first one is that crack cocaine provides a faster and more powerful high than powder and is also easier to consume.

The second one is that crack cocaine was devastating black communities so the mandatory minimum was a good faith effort to battle this tragedy. It should also be noted that the mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine had majority support from black Congressmen, so the idea that it was passed to target black people falls flat unless you’re calling those congressman racists towards their own race.

The third reason this argument fails is because methamphetamine, a “white man’s drug” carried the same 5 year mandatory minimum sentence for 5 grams just like crack cocaine did. The fourth reason it fails is because those mandatory minimums for crack cocaine have been reduced under the Fair Sentencing Act, while sentencing for meth has only gotten more severe.

And for being an obviously educated lady, she makes some embarrassing yet common errors when pointing to statistics. For example she believes it’s racist that black youth “account for 16% of all youth, yet 28% of all juvenile arrests, 35% of the youth waived to adult criminal court and 58% of youth admitted to adult prison.” If all races committed crimes at the same rate this argument would hold water, but we know that isn’t true, so the argument fails. It would be like saying the police hate men because the majority of their arrests are of males despite the fact that men only make up 48% of the country’s population.

The jury selection system is also racist apparently, because prosecutors are allowed to strike potential jurors for any reason they see fit, so long as the reason isn’t overtly because of race. Of course she never considered the other side of the coin and that defense attorneys are also allowed to strike potential jurors for any reason they see fit as well. The double edged sword of this policy was never more evident than in the O.J. Simpson trial when Simpson’s lawyers tried to get every black person they could as a juror because of the racially charged circumstances of that case. She didn’t complain about racism in that case however, even though it’s pretty evident that black jurors’ emotional loyalty to their race allowed for the acquittal of O.J. despite all the hard evidence pointing to his guilt.

You get to the half way point in the book before she even tries to prove racism with any kind of objective evidence at all. While she does concede that laws are colorblind, she charges police officers, prosecutors, judges and juries with enforcing those laws in an unfair manner. To do this, the foundation of her argument is a survey taken that supposedly shows whites and blacks use drugs at more or less the same rate.

And while the survey is taken every year, she cherry picks the one taken in 2000 that showed that 6.4% of whites and 6.4% of blacks surveyed admitted to illicit drug use. More recent surveys show that blacks admit more often to drug use than whites, although the difference is admittedly small.

The problems with using this survey as proof that police discriminate are numerous. The biggest reason is because it fails to account for how police departments spread their resources. If police were spread perfectly evenly throughout a city regardless of where overall crime is the argument may hold more water. But even she admits that blacks commit an overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of violent crimes including murder and robberies. Naturally police are going to focus their resources where most of the crime is occurring, especially since lowering crime statistics is usually the measuring stick that will be used to determine if a police department or Sheriff’s office is operating effectively. Given that police are going to saturate the areas that have the highest percentage of crime, you’re naturally going to have more drug arrests as a result. To prove that’s true, most larger cities now let a computer generated algorithm which factors in crime rates, number of 911 calls, and other variables to determine where their resources would best be spent. Given that the algorithm only takes into account colorblind statistics to produce it’s recommendation, it can’t be said that police leaders are saturating non-white areas out of racism or sub conscious bias.

There are other factors in play here as well, such as poverty. Since the median income of blacks is nearly half of that of whites, it stands to reason that blacks will be less likely to keep up with regular maintenance on their vehicles such as registration and inspection, fixing burned out headlights and tail lights, insurance, etc. All of those things can lead to more traffic stops which subsequently could lead to more arrests which could subsequently lead to finding more drugs.

Another aspect that she attempts to cover is that it would seem that poverty stricken blacks would be more likely to make drug transactions outdoors where police can observe them and then take action, whereas the more wealthy whites would be more likely to do their deals indoors where the privacy of 4 walls can keep police unaware of the activity. She attempts to debunk this idea using an experiment that was done in Seattle. The experiment concluded that Seattle’s police department chose to focus their efforts more on outdoor drug markets in downtown areas instead of indoor markets in predominantly white communities. Racism, is of course, at the root of this in her mind, but she fails to consider that observing outdoor drug transactions in plain view is a much easier fish to catch than trying to locate indoor drug transactions in wealthy white suburbs where the protections of the 4th amendment would make the job of an officer much more difficult because they’d already need probable cause in order to obtain a warrant to go inside.

She then contradicts herself to some extent by saying the downtown areas that WERE observed had just as many white drug dealers and drug buyers as black drug dealers and buyers, but that police chose to look the other way more often with white transactions. The only evidence she provided to prove her point was that the experiment was conducted by 3 former druggies who would know what a drug transaction looks like, and that they supposedly marked their observations in a completely objective manner. In short, there’s no way the experiment could possibly prove that more whites were dealing and selling drugs than blacks without some actual evidence besides their own hunches. Yet this is the shaky foundation upon which her entire “police enforce unfairly” argument rests.

According to her, drug transactions weren’t the only crimes that were enforced unfairly, she also accused traffic enforcement of targeting blacks disproportionately. Here she makes the same statistical error that she made earlier. She says “In New Jersey, the data showed that only 15 percent of all drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike were racial minorities, yet 42 percent of all stops and 73 percent of all arrests were of black motorists.” And yet a 2002 study done in the same state, performed by independent researchers, where a radar gun and a camera were set up that photographed each driver on a particular roadway, showed that blacks were caught speeding at a much higher rate than any other race. Might that explain the disparity in traffic stops? And could the higher arrest rates be a result of outstanding warrants, suspended licenses, the smell of marijuana coming from the vehicle, etc? The author never bothers to even consider these possibilities and simply says more stops = racism.

Making criminals into victims is a common theme throughout the book. She blames cops for a shooting where they ordered the man to stop but he ignored their orders, continued to his apartment building, opened the door, and pulled out an object. The object turned out to be a wallet, but can you blame the officers for being afraid when he ignored their orders?

She even accuses the government of being racist for mandating that driver’s license exams be written in English because it discriminates based on national origin. Never mind that traffic signs are also written in English and that it might behoove drivers be able to read them.

She continues to make false statements like “Those released from prison on parole can be stopped and searched by the police for any reason–or no reason at all.”  Not true.  There are some instances where a probation officer can perform searches to make sure they are in compliance with the terms of their probation, but that’s a condition they agree to in lieu of staying in prison.  Yet she makes it sound like if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime the police can stop you and search you without probable cause.  Completely false!

And while bemoaning mass incarceration, she also finds something to complain about when prisoners are given probation or parole so that they can avoid incarceration. She says “He will also be told little or nothing about the parallel universe he is about to enter, one that promises a form of punishment that is often more difficult to bear than prison time: a lifetime of shame, contempt, scorn, and exclusion. In this hidden world, discrimination is perfectly legal.” So what should be the alternative? Don’t incarcerate them and also don’t expect them to report to a probation officer, don’t allow businesses to even ask if they have a criminal record, etc? One might start to think that she is actually pro-crime.

She falsely states that ex-convicts are unable to obtain a driver’s license. While this may true of some offenses, it certainly isn’t true of the vast majority of them, yet she makes no distinction and leaves the reader to believe that any imprisonment at all comes with a lifetime ban on driving. She also complains that public housing isn’t available to ex-felons, as if the law abiding taxpayers should be obligated by law to pay the rent of criminals upon their release.

Towards the end of the book she tries to examine the root causes of the higher crime rate of the black community. And while she hits the nail on the head that fatherlessness is one of the biggest culprits, she also blames racism for that. She criticizes Obama for giving a speech where he brought up fatherlessness and then says, “The media did not ask–and Obama did not tell–where the missing fathers might be found.” and of course she’s blaming mass incarceration for the epidemic of fatherlessness. Naturally she fails to mention that there are 17 million black men in America and less than 800,000 imprisoned, but of course mass incarceration is to blame for fatherlessness altogether in her eyes.

She even believes that the only reason any white people are arrested whatsoever is so that we can keep a false veneer that the law is colorblind. She says, “We, as a nation, seem comfortable with 90 percent of the people arrested and convicted of drug offenses in some states being African American, but if the figure were 100 percent, the veil of colorblindness would be lost.” Unbelievable.

And what marxist, leftist book would be complete without comparing our criminal justice system with Nazi Germany? She says, “Tragedies such as the Holocaust in Germany or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia are traceable to the extreme marginalization and stigmatization of racial and ethnic groups.” Her statement is true, but to continue to apply it to post-Jim Crow America is ludicrous.

If this book had been written about the discrimination or mistreatment of criminals in general she would have had a much stronger argument, although she still would have been short on solutions to change things without incentivizing crime. And legalizing some drugs is not entirely a bad idea and would certainly do much to reduce the prison population. But the book fails because she fails to be convincing that racism is the driving force behind our increase in prison population, and she offers no plausible solutions besides “Stop locking them up and if they do get locked up pretend it never happened once they’re out.”

The book is well written, I’ll give her that. And I’ll give her credit for actually considering the ramifications of vastly reducing our prison populations as that would result in many prison guards and other criminal justice employees becoming suddenly jobless.  But as a cop I’d be happy to have to find a new line of work if it meant the demand for my services became non-existent.  Ultimately the book is a marxist, racist book that strives for equal results (not equal opportunity) for all people, regardless of effort put forth and regardless of whether some people commit crime and some do not. In short the book victimizes criminals, demonizes police officers, judges and prosecutors, and offers no reasonable alternatives to her complaints.

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