New Jim Crow and Why Talking About Mass Incarceration Matters

The New Jim Crow

I recently attended a talk by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, put on by the Penn Humanities Forum. Her talk was the first of a series of talks this year and next on the subject of violence. In reading her book, my response has been one of great sorrow and anger. As a black woman well versed in our nation's legacy of racism and racial violence, it is especially hard to have my eyes open to this massive system of racial control that thrives in the age of Obama. I've found myself repeating the Psalter's song based on Psalm 6: My soul is greatly dismayed. How long, Lord? Return, and rescue my soul.

Our system of mass incarceration is violence, Alexander argues. It is a violent system that condones torture in our over reliance on solitary confinement, that strips away the civil rights of a certain class of people crippling their ability to find work, housing, to vote and to even access food. It is a system that destroys families, that uses military tactics and weapons against civilians, that arbitrarily destroys and seizes private property. It is a system that degrades people and depends on fear. It is a system that creates a permanent underclass locked out of main stream society.

Alexander's remarks touched on many issues close to the heart of those of us at Shalom House and many of us at Circle of Hope. She connected the dots between militarism, poverty, the war on terror, our drone program, racism, our surveillance state and mass incarceration.

Read the PRISM review of The New Jim Crow.

The core belief that sustains the New Jim Crow and all of these systems, Alexander argued, is the belief that some people are not worthy or love, compassion or care. We label people as the enemy and otherize them in an effort to rationalize and normalize the violence we perpetrate against them. In the system of mass incarceration, black and brown men are cast as dangerous, disposable and not worthy of care.

During Alexander's talk, I found myself angered, moved to tears, and caught in the familiar place of despair where I ask "How long, Lord?" But her talk ended with a call to action and hope.

Alexander called on us to work to lift the veil that hides this system of mass incarceration  from the public view by helping to kindle "a great awakening from our colorblind slumber." I feel that our conversations about this topic and our Jim Crow book club are a step towards that. Twelve of us have committed to read the book together and engage in open and honest dialogue. Its a start. We are waking up from our colorblind slumber.

Alexander also spoke of the need to start new underground railroads for those coming out of prison and trying to restart life under the prison label. Opening our communities, our businesses our circles of hope to those cast out of mainstream society. This part of her talk helped give me some hope–something I can do. As we continue to read The New Jim Crow and discuss it, I want to challenge our small group to think of how we can open our circle of hope to offer real hope to those living under the prison label.

Finally, we have to strike back at the system of mass incarceration by challenging its core assumption that some people are not worthy of care, love and compassion. All forms of racism and social control, Alexander argued, are rooted in our inability to see the humanity in others. We can advocate and speak out against this system, challenging our overly punitive social mores. As Christ followers, we reject the notion of us versus them, of punitive violence over restorative justice. We follow a savior who broke bread and shared drinks with people cast out of mainstream society and he challenged the pious who questioned his choice of company.

Next Monday at 7pm we meet again at Shalom House to discuss chapter 3 of Michelle Alexander's book. I am sure I'll be angered and heart sick as I re-read the chapter and prepare for our talk. But I'll also be encouraged that we are reading this together, that we are talking and ripping off veils, and that we are seeking ways that we can respond as Christ followers. If you haven't joined us yet but would like to, please do! Even if you haven't read all of the book or even bought it yet, you're welcome to join the conversation.

In His Peace,

Candace McKinley is a member of Shalom House, a community of intentional peacemakers in Philadelphia. The Shalom House is hosting a weekly book club to discuss Alexander's The New Jim Crow. For more information, visit

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