Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Persistence of Racism

Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness explains how the war on drugs has not only targeted young black men, putting more African-Americans in jail today than were enslaved in the 1850s, and demonstrates how going to prison is just the first step in what then becomes a lifelong pattern of absolutely legal discrimination.  Her arguments and evidence are compelling and thorough, and I hope her analysis will contribute to the development of exactly the kind of mass social movement against inequities in the criminal justice system and our obsession with an inaccurate understanding of drug-related crime.

But what I find most compelling about the book is its clear portrait of the persistence of racism despite decades of efforts to educate and persuade Americans to reject their deeply-held prejudices.  As Alexander suggests, we've all learned that we're not supposed to be racist, and few of us would acknowledge that we treat others differently if they look different from us.  She cites studies that show clear patterns of racial bias, even in people who are sure they're colorblind.  (You can try the tests for yourself online.) As Alexander rightly points out, no one is really colorblind, nor should we aim to be.  Difference matters, and overcoming our habit of making assumptions based on race is incredibly difficult.  Doing so on the level of a whole culture is even more challenging. 

As someone who's been teaching college courses on multicultural literature for more than 20 years, and who has long believed that doing so would make some kind of difference, I found this book at once validating (yes, discrimination is real and significant) and depressing (if racism has simply gone into hiding behind seemingly neutral concepts like the war on drugs).  More than anything, I think it's important.  At a time when many Americans are entering discussions about inequality, the ideas Alexander lays out need to be part of the conversation.

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