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The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is a must-read on the topic of mass incarceration and systemic racism both in the modern era. While history classes may teach us that the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s “ended” systemic racism, it only ended the “Old Jim Crow.”
The “New Jim Crow” is a more subtle but no less devastating form of racism which criminalizes people of color and the poor with the War on Drugs. Since the 1980s, penalties for possessing crack (typically associated with black communities) were over 100 times harsher than penalties for possessing powder cocaine (typically associated with white communities). By 2010, this was lowered to an 18:1 ratio. The government sabotaged the Black Panther Party in Southern California and has even been suspected of trafficking crack cocaine into the United States. The Reagan Administration even blocked DEA officials from cracking down on crack cocaine in order to spread the drugs throughout the Black community. And this long history of harsh and ineffective drug criminalization has led to our situation today, where 1 in every 5 American inmates are in jail solely for non-violent drug offenses.
Mass incarceration, Alexander argues, is a “stunningly comprehensive and well devised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” The book offers an in-depth look into why our prison populations rose from half a million to over two million from 1980 to 2000, and is a critical read on the topic of mass incarceration and systemic racism.
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