The New Jim Crow' Book Review: the Depth of Systemic Racism
In preparation for this book review essay, I read 'The New Jim Crow' by Michelle Alexander to expand my knowledge and understanding of racial trauma occurring in the United States. As an MSW student, strengthening my awareness of oppression and social marginalization is essential to genuinely engage with diverse populations in all social work practice levels. In 'The New Jim Crow', the author, Michelle Alexander, explores racial disparities occurring primarily among African American men tied up in the criminal justice system due to the mass incarceration that began with the war on drugs in the United States. It is clear that such disparities are nothing new and are only a continuation of the discrimination and oppression that has always existed in our society against people of color. Alexander provides compelling evidence to support her claims of a new caste system that targets people of color and views them as second class citizens.
I began reading this book with an undeveloped understanding of the depths to which systemic racism is ingrained in our society and of the wire birdcages that hold African Americans hostage in a carefully crafted system of oppression. I read parts of the book out loud to my family, which I found helpful because it generated further discussion and questions regarding how our current system operates against minorities as a form of social control. This essay serves as a reflection of my experience reading 'The New Jim Crow'. The more I read, the more I felt mislead by our current system and the racism stitched into our society's fabric in such a way that makes it effortless to overlook or, worse justifiable. Discrimination and oppression will exist in America until we stop pretending that it doesn't.
Critical Synthesis Part I: 'The New Jim Crow' Book Review
My understanding of racism in the United States, specifically towards African Americans, has previously been skewed by my privilege, media, and primary education. I had a false impression that racism was an issue of the past. For a long time, this was something that I believed to be true. I knew that racism was real and occurred but honestly thought that we had come a long way. How can there be widespread racism when we no longer have slaves? How can there be racism when there is no segregation? How can there be racism when we've had our first black president? I wasn't witnessing overt racism in my day-to-day life; therefore, I assumed it was under control. 'The New Jim Crow' illuminated the truth that lies just beneath the surface, challenging my previous assumptions.
The truth is that discrimination towards people of color did not end after slavery or the Jim Crow era. It was redesigned through the criminal justice system. Before the civil war, it wasn't necessary to create laws enforcing segregation. Slaves were already aware of the racial hierarchy. Following the war, although it did not happen right away, laws were created enforcing the segregation of whites and blacks, again, sending a loud message that African American's are inferior to white people and nothing more than second class citizens. Slavery and segregation laws are apparent forms of racism and oppression. The new caste system is much more under the radar, precisely why it needs to be discussed.
The new caste system begins with the war on drugs. The war on drugs is something that has preoccupied my mind before reading 'The New Jim Crow'. It consumed my attention not so much from a racial viewpoint but from my experience of knowing people caught up in a system that does not support their recovery or chances of future success. As a result of this, people leave jail and often return because there is no clear path to redemption that would allow them to live a fulfilling life. 'The New Jim Crow' solidifies this truth as Alexander draws attention to the evolution of racial bias and oppression in the United States. The racism that was once in your face and easy to identify is still there, only this time it has been camouflaged.
When Ronald Reagan declared the war on drugs in 1982, the media fueled the publics' fear of black people with drug war propaganda. The propaganda implied that black people are to blame, and it also supported the creation of a criminal profile used to arrest black men in mass quantities. They created a false narrative so they could continue discriminating and controlling people of color legally. They found ways to make discrimination legal and acceptable to the public, and once we label a black person a criminal, their chances of rebuilding their lives in a meaningful way fade away.
What I didn't realize previously is how disproportionately black men are discriminated against and oppressed by the criminal justice system than people of other races. As far back as I can remember watching television, I can recall people of color portrayed as less than human beings. Many shows and movies throughout time have portrayed black men as violent criminals. Thus, they have reinforced the mentality that black men are dangerous and cannot be trusted. I grew up with a fear that Michelle Alexander points out was purposefully and strategically planted to justify black men's unjust treatment. A fear that had me avoiding specific neighborhoods and locking my car when a black man was walking by for most of my life. It didn't occur to me that this behavior was a form of racial microaggression. Society taught me that this was how to stay safe, but in reality, the real message was not to ever trust a black man, which is what they want because it supports the narrative that people of color are dangerous and require monitoring. The new caste system involves finding ways to label black men as criminals. Next is the prevention from obtaining quality representation to force them into pleading guilty, so we can then legally strip them of their rights as human beings and deny them access to the building blocks of a meaningful life.
I can recognize a change in my understanding of oppression and racism after reading 'The New Jim Crow'. As I mentioned before, I was previously under the assumption that racism was not as big of an issue now as before the end of slavery and the enforcement of Jim Crow laws. I felt that as a country, we had made decent progress. As a white person, I realize now that I could live my whole life unaware of the imbalances of justice, freedom, and equality between black people and other races. I can do that because it does not touch my life the way that it does there's. That is a privilege I have as a white person.
As I continue to reflect, I recognize that I grew up in a world with conflicting messages about race and diversity, or perhaps the alternative message has been a part of the camouflage all along. One message is that black men are dangerous criminals, justifying the mass incarceration. I now know that black men do not commit crimes at a higher rate than white men. They are racially profiled by police officers who have been received monetary incentives for their arrests. On the other hand, there are messages spread by the same media and systems that created fear of people of color in the first place, spreading awareness about the importance of equality and appreciating diversity. The conflicting messages keep everyone else controlled in a sense as well. Racism is a complex issue, and I don't think we can tackle it unless we dismantle the entire system.
As a future MSW practitioner, I understand that my job will involve working with people from many different walks of life. My human experience has been from the vantage point of a white person. I need to understand that my experience is one of privilege. I must actively work to practice cultural humility in my profession as I interact with people of different backgrounds, including race, culture, sexual orientation, gender, religion, age, ability, education, and socio-economic background. My reflections challenge me to think about the direct and indirect racism faced by people of color, including microaggressions' racially insensitive jokes and exposure to racism through the media, such as the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. All of which harm the mental health of black people. Knowing that there are more white social workers than any other race, I find myself curious about how people of color feel coming to a white person for their mental health needs. The history of racial trauma makes me wonder about my interactions with people of color and what we both assume about each other, given the history of racial hierarchy in our country. I wonder if future clients will be willing to trust me with their experiences or if they will only see me as someone who will further oppress them.
Critical Synthesis Part II
As a future social worker, I understand my responsibility to advocate for human rights and social justice in the world and educate myself on the disparities within it. In the NASW code of ethics, it states that 'The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty'. It also states that 'Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients'. Necessary steps I can take to become an agent of change will include empowering clients to advocate for themselves. When clients feel empowered and become their own advocates, they can create positive changes in their lives. Another way I can advocate for human rights and social justice is through policy change. I can do this by collaborating with community members or my agency to create changes that will improve vulnerable populations' well-being and lobbying elected officials to gain their support and involvement on complex issues such as oppression. The most important part, I believe, is to continue to raise awareness about the disparities of the world. Regarding the oppression of people of color, we need to challenge the false narratives and biases towards this population.
One important thing that I could do in the future to integrate a human rights and social justice framework into my approach as a social worker is to make sure that the resources my future role has access to be shared equitably among the populations we are serving. I also want to be mindful that I am not assuming people's needs for them and that I provide a space where they feel safe and secure and are willing to voice their needs and share their experiences. Wherever I end up working in the future, I think we must be mindful of our policies and how they may be oppressive to any of the people we serve. The best example I can think of is a person who is going to a methadone clinic and clinic workers using their power to control a population that is already vulnerable in many ways. More than likely, this person does not have a home, a car, or a job and is at the will of the people working at the clinic. The person working may deny them access to treatment because they were a few minutes late. They were late because they don't have a car and had to find a ride. They are then asked to stay in the building for an unexpected meeting with the doctor and are told this will take at least 20 minutes. Probation is calling in 10 minutes, and if they don't answer, they can be considered non-compliant, which has other negative consequences. They try to explain this to the worker and are told that they will put a hold on their account if they don't stay for the appointment, preventing them from getting their treatment. Their ride is waiting, irritated, and this person may not have a ride the next day because of the power struggle happening inside. These situations do occur, forcing already marginalized people to make decisions that add another wire to the birdcage. My point is that as social workers, we have to do our best to make sure that any services we provide do not create further oppression or discrimination. We have to remain mindful, be aware of our personal biases, and understand that it will be a lifelong learning process.
From the Ife text, I learned that both a human rights and social justice approach need to be present in practice because only focusing on social justice can suggest revenge as a mode to address issues. Many social justice issues violate human rights, and I agree with Ife that both approaches need to be present in our practice. In addition to this, Ife points out that laws themselves can be oppressive and discriminatory in the justice system, and as social workers, we have to acknowledge disparities. By overlooking inequalities, we accept them, and as agents of change, we should hold no interest in maintaining the status quo.
Summary and Conclusive Thoughts
My biggest takeaway from 'The New Jim Crow' is that America is racist. Throughout time, racism hasn't decreased in our country; it has only become more adaptable to the level of racism that society is willing to accept. In the past, there weren't always laws protecting black people's rights, and even today, there are loopholes that allow the oppression and discrimination of people of color to continue. Before reading more in-depth about the drug war and mass incarceration, I was under the impression that our justice system did not care about people in general, regardless of race, which is also unacceptable. We need criminal justice reform, and for that to happen, we need to acknowledge the imbalances within our current system as a collective. We have to stop denying that racism exists in America. I have realized that we are all racist. I am still having a difficult time accepting this, but it is true. I understand that it is not my fault, but it is my responsibility to change. It does not feel good to admit that you are racist; however, I am creating awareness by recognizing it, which brings me a step closer to change. We need to normalize calling the world out on their racism. There should be zero tolerance for racism in a country that prides itself on its diverse population. Society continues to use the past as an example of how far we have come in an attempt to paint a false picture of a changed nation. It is important to reflect on our history and acknowledge progress, but we shouldn't invalidate the truth: racism never actually went away.
- Alexander, M. (2012). 'The New Jim Crow': Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Revised Edition). New York, USA: The New Press Inc.
- Ife, J. (2012). Human Rights and Social Work: Towards Rights-Based Practice (3rd ed.). New York, USA: Cambridge University Press.
- National Association of Social Workers. (2017). Retrieved December 12, 2020, from https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English