Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Michelle Alexander has quickly become one of the most prominent and impassioned voices speaking out against mass incarceration in America today.  She will be speaking  on a panel with several others, including Angela Davis and Cornel West, at Harlem's Riverside Church on September 14th.

Analytically, I think the analogy to Jim Crow has real problems which are examined in this excellent piece by James Forman:  Forman, the son of the American civil rights leader of the same name, counts himself as an ardent opponent of the policies of mass incarceration.  However, Forman skillfully points to some very obvious, but often overlooked, differences between the old Jim Crow regime and the contemporary American criminal justice system.

Perhaps, though, notwithstanding flaws in the analogy, "The New Jim Crow" might ultimately function as an effective frame for building a mass movement against the injustices, unfairness, and destructive tendencies of the American criminal justice system.  I attended a talk by Alexander at Riverside Church a little over a year ago, and judging from the size and excitement of the crowd in attendance, the New Jim Crow frame certainly seems like it has the potential to mobilize people who are already inclined to view the American criminal justice system as not merely unjust and unfair, but racist at its very core.  Over time, however, the more difficult problem will be persuading those who are not already given over to such an assessment--and this is a goal that Alexander very much wants to accomplish.  I think there is some cause to doubt that the New Jim Crow frame will accomplish this far more ambitious aim.

Another problem with the New Jim Crow argument that Forman does not touch on is that, while it offers an extremely radical diagnosis of the problem, Alexander and other proponents of the view have little to say on the ever-important question of "what is to be done?"  My sense, too, is that what little there is in the way of suggestions about what to do or what to even aim for, they tend not to be terribly radical.  Radical diagnosis, in other words, has not yet been matched with a radical vision.  Yet I should think that, if mass incarceration (or even just the drug war) really is tantamount to a New Jim Crow regime, the only acceptable solution would be to end it outright.

But what precisely would that mean?  I would think that, at a minimum, the decriminalization or legalization of drugs would be on the table, but I have serious doubts about whether many proponents of the New Jim Crow frame would go along with that. What then? 

Yet another question that has long weighed on my mind is how a critical criminologist (or any other kind of critical scholar) ought to respond to an argument like Alexander's.  How important is to get things right?  Are there times when critical scholars ought to overlook flaws in arguments for political or moral reasons?

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