Book recommendation: "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness"


Ever since I moved to the U.S., I’ve had to seriously learn about and understand the issue of race in this country. Better yet, I’ve had to rethink my entire relationship with it because where I grew up — The Netherlands (NL) — the topic of race simply isn’t as loaded as it is here (barring the (surprisingly) highly controversial debate around “Zwarte Piet” that dominated the nation narrativie a few years ago and general tensions between the Dutch population and the large Turkish and Moroccan immigrant population in the country).

I’m not saying that race was never discussed in my time growing up, that everyone ignored talking about racism and discrimination, or that people acted as if they were living in a land of perfect equality and happiness. What I mean to say is that the discussions about race were generally only about the “obvious” issues like being tolerant and respectful towards people of different races and nationalities. Don’t be an idiot, and treat people as you would want them to treat you.

I’m fortunate enough to never have experienced explicit acts of racism when I was in NL (and Europe in general). At worst, I had to deal with some insensitive jokes (similar to how comedians like Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock joke about race, although they’re actually very funny) and comments that people didn’t think through before they said them. But I never experienced violence or explicitly malicious acts of racism and I never felt targeted or disadvantaged in any area of my life as a result of the color of my skin. As a result, I simply got on with things in my life.

Moreover, when I was in NL, socioeconomic and demographic statistics were rarely, if ever, put in racial context (and if they were, they were rarely emphasized). When I moved to the U.S. though, the situation was completely the opposite:

Home ownership levels are at x%… but only y% for African Americans. Unemployment is at a%… but at b% for African Americans. Median household income is $x… but only $y for African Americans.

And so on.

Hence, when I moved and started my job here, I realized that I couldn’t keep my head in the sand anymore. Race was far more nuanced than “just don’t be a bigot” and my understanding of the topic would have to evolve dramatically if I was not to sound like a completely ignorant fool. Not only that, but in order to be effective in the work that I do for the community, I had to understand why the conversation about race is so different in this country compared to where I grew up.

It was just my luck, then, that the book club that I’m a part of happened to choose a book that would help me accomplish this educational goal: “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander.

(I know, that was a very extensive preamble.)

The New Jim Crow dramatically increased my understanding of the issue of race in America. It helped me understand how the history of race relations in this country has led to and shaped its present, and why it is such a charged subject. Even though I still have more to learn, I’m happy that I’m at least much better informed on this fascinating subject. More importantly, I can now talk about race in a far more constructive and knowledgeable manner, which is especially important with respect to the work that I currently do.

Quick public-service announcement: You’ll notice that I added a new page to my website titled “Books I’m reading.” The title is pretty self-explanatory, so you can view this by clicking the header in the navigation menu at the top of this page (and every other page on the website).

What is it about?

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander uses extensive research studies and compelling data to chronicle the history of race relations in America — from slavery to Jim Crow and all the way to the present — and argue that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” Regarding the present-day situation with race, Alexander focuses on the devastating effects of the War on Drugs on black men and communities of color in America.

While in the past slavery and Jim Crow laws were the mechanisms used to exercise racial control, Alexander argues that the criminal justice system, particularly by means of the horrendous War on Drugs and selective enforcement of the law, functions as the new and more insidious form of racial control. She also talks about how the concept of “colorblindness” is more destructive than it is helpful because it ignores the systematic disadvantages that people of color have in almost all areas of life in America.

It’s an absolutely fascinating book that showed me how clever use of and tinkering with the law (and lawyers) can create a system that so systematically controls and oppresses people of color that you wouldn’t notice it unless you looked very closely.

All in all, I highly recommend The New Jim Crow. It’s a book of the very highest quality and I guarantee that you’ll like it just as much as I did.

See you, Space Cowboy.