Reflections from Discussions on Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”

A Friend and I organized a discussion series at Third Haven Friends Meeting about Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. (See here for a link with information about the discussion series.) What follows are my reflections at the end of the discussion series, written to share with my Meeting.


  • “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” pg. 6
  • “One in three young African American men will serve time in prison if current trends continue…” pg 9
  • “Between 1980 and 984, FBI antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million. Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,026 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to $181 million. By contrast, funding for agencies responsible for drug treatment, prevention, and education was dramatically reduced.” pg. 49-50
  • “When the War on Drugs gained full steam in the mid-1980s, prison admissions for African Americans skyrocketed, nearly quadrupling in three years, and then increasing steadily until it reach in 2000 a level more than twenty-six times the level in 1983… The number of whites admitted for drug offenses in 2000 was eight times the number admitted in 1983… Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” pg. 98
  • “The racial basis inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men… One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006.” pg. 100
  • “African Americans were more than six times as likely as whites to be sentence to prison for identical crimes… African American youth account for 16 percent of all youth, 28 percent of all juvenile arrests, 35 percent of the youth waived to adult criminal court, and 58 percent of youth admitted to state adult prison.” pg. 118

This is the truth we have been hiding from: that our United States prison systems are mostly full of young African American men; and that they are full not because young African American men are more likely to commit crime, but because they’re more likely to be arrested and incarcerated because of crimes committed. This is particularly the case with the “War on Drugs”, which has been used disproportionately against African American males to imprison them in federal courts with mandatory minimum sentencing, whereas their white counterparts are instead more likely to be tried in state courts, where mandatory minimum sentencing rules may not apply.

Michelle Alexander’s book, “The new Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness”, argues that incarcerating young African American males through the “War on Drugs” was done intentionally as a method of control for African American males after the Civil Rights movement. While some may find her premise difficult to believe, what is made abundantly clear in her book are the statistics that show African American males are being imprisoned for the War on Drugs at an obscenely high rate compared to their white male counterparts. For anyone who cares about equality, justice, peace—which I would hope would be all Quakers everywhere—the system has to be changed.

The question then becomes: what can I do? What can we do?

The first step, as always, is education and conversation. Nothing will change if we are unwilling to discuss race in our criminal justice system. We at Third Haven took this first step during our book discussion group on “The New Jim Crow”. L.A. and I will continue to make ourselves available to any who wish to discuss this issue further or who were perhaps unable to attend the discussions. Other recommended books include:

  • “Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin”, an African American Quaker who was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington;
  • “The Soul Knows No Bars” by Drew Leder, a Baltimore Quaker who teaches philosophy in local prisons;
  • “Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights”;
  • and “Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice” by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye;

all of which are available in Third Haven’s library; and “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson, about the “great migration,” the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to the North and Midwest, which is not available in Third Haven’s library, but is available through the Maryland library system.

But what next? As individuals, there are two kinds of actions we can take: local and federal. Federal actions may include: rallies for social justice, emailing Congress and lawmakers to change the laws that support racism in our justice system. There are several non-profit organizations directly involved in ending mass incarceration and the racism in our justice system. They are:

  • Drug Policy Alliance: See this link for a flier that contains a brief summary of “The Drug War, Mass Incarceration, and Race”.
  • Center for Constitutional Rights: They’re the group that sued the NYPD for racial profiling in their Stop & Frisk policies.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Since the publication of “The New Jim Crow”, the ACLU has become more involved in ending mass incarceration and racism. See this link for information about marijuana prosecution in Maryland.
  • The Sentencing Project: This group is primarily involved in research about mass incarceration and racism. They’re the group that funds the kind of studies that provide the statistics Michelle Alexander uses in her book.
  • All of Us or None: Supports people in prisons and those released from prison, particularly those with children.

Local actions may include: investigating local policies regarding the War on Drugs, petitioning local agencies to become more aware of racial bias, encouraging venues to sponsor events about the subject, writing letters to the editor, supporting our local prisoners by donating books to the prison library or becoming involved in groups such as Alternatives to Violence, and more.

We can take any of these actions as individuals or collectively, as a Meeting. But what it all comes down to, Friends, is that we must care. We must open our eyes to the racial reality of our society. We must be willing to acknowledge race before we can confront racism. As Michelle Alexander says,

“Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was [Martin Luther] King’s dream—a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.”

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8 Comments

Filed under equality, leadings, oppression, racism

8 responses to “Reflections from Discussions on Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”

  1. I have some gentle pushback about the premise that “there are two actions you can take: local and federal.” There’s also personal actions and systemic actions. Personal actions include attending conferences and trainings that address not only interpersonal and individual racism, but also systemic and structural racism. Quakers especially have an opportunity to join other Quakers at the annual secular event, the White Privilege Conference. More info for Quakers is here.

    ….Systemically, much like setting up a book study group, individuals can set up anti-racism/White privilege discussion groups at work, in the neighborhood, at a public library, at for parents and administrators… We can also look into actions and events that communities of color are organizing and make plans to attend there as a way to practice the discipline of being in meaningful solidarity with the people of color whose lives are being impacted by systemic racism.

    One thing is for sure: I’ve made much progress in undoing my own internalized superiority by going with other White anti-racists to events where people of color have meaningful influence over what happens–be it about organizing a protest, preparing for a panel discussion, or setting up a small (or large!) conference.

    Just keep showing up and keep taking the time to self-educate….

    Blessings,
    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  2. Jim Schultz

    Serious prayer about The Religious Society of Friends taking a positive position on decriminalizing drug use should be paramount. When the rich get a drug habit they can afford to go to a nice rehab center while those less fortunate get to go through the criminal justice system which only increases their inability to survive modern society’s economic pressures. Quakers need to step up to the drug problem with legal reforms and funding of rehab programs for the 97%, black and white.

    • T.

      Both FCNL (http://fcnl.org/issues/incarceration/) and AFSC (http://www.afsc.org/goal/healing-justice) are involved with mass incarceration issues. As that’s not their primary focus, I didn’t include them in my list of non-profits, but it was in fact AFSC who first gave me the idea to host this discussion on “The New Jim Crow”: http://www.afsc.org/story/facts-about-mass-incarceration-people-color-us .

      The following statistic really jumped out at me both times I’ve read “The New Jim Crow”:

      “Between 1980 and 984, FBI antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million. Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,026 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to $181 million. By contrast, funding for agencies responsible for drug treatment, prevention, and education was dramatically reduced.” pg. 49-50

      The result of the change in funding is obvious: instead of (poor) drug addicts getting treated, they get sent to jail. If we could just change our federal funding, it seems clear that we could change the results.

  3. Meg

    Philadelphia Yearly Meeting issued a statement about the drug laws back in 2000. I can’t find the full text, but know there was an event about it during the 2000 Republican convention. The Quakers were the only religious body involved. And the racial imbalance was one of the points.
    We should dig up that history.

    • T.

      Found it!

      Minute on Drug Concerns
      Approved by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in session, March 26, 2000

      Friends for over 300 years have sought to live “in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.” Today our country is engaged in a “war on drugs” which bears all the hallmarks of war: displaced populations, disrupted economies, terrorism, abandonment of hope by those the war is supposedly being fought to help, the use of military force, the curtailment of civil liberties, and the demonizing of the “enemies.” While we are all affected by the war on drugs, we are painfully aware that particularly victimized are people of color, the poor, and other less powerful persons.

      In addition, drugs continue to do terrible harm to people in our country and throughout the world. Our federal, state and local governments need to put much greater emphasis on strategies that act to remove the causes of drug addiction and provide for education, treatment, and research into the causes of addiction.

      We call upon Friends to work toward exploring ways in which the vast sums now being used in this war can be diverted toward treatment, research, and education on the dangers of the use of illegal drugs and inappropriate use of legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco. We also call upon Friends to be mindful of the ways in which our behavior and our speech support this war and the misuse of drugs.

      Some Friends, presently under the weight of this concern, are working toward the development of political alliances to change government policy. Other Friends are working to develop ways to reach out to people in and out of the Religious Society of Friends suffering from addiction and to help them call on the Holy Spirit for aid in freeing themselves from this terrible burden. We urge Friends to support those who carry this concern and pray that others will join them in finding paths that lead us toward peace, reconciliation, and healing.

      http://www.pym.org/annual-sessions/previous-years/2000-2/minute-on-drug-concerns/

  4. Please join with other Quaker congregations in working against mass incarceration, too. The AFSC meeting/church liaison program is inviting Quaker meetings/churches to get involved. John and Gail Fletcher have been involved for several years working for change in Oklahoma, they took AFSC’s mass incarceration workshop at the FGC Gathering last summer, they came to the Corporation and serve as AFSC liaisons to their meeting and this year they are inviting SCYM as a yearly meeting to come together around the concern and are bringing Lewis Webb, AFSC staff, to speak. Here is a page on our website which outlines 5 ways congregations can get involved, including and in addition to reading The New Jim Crow. http://afsc.org/story/5-things-your-congregation-can-do-support-prison-concerns

  5. What you’ve said is true and important.

    What you’ve left out is the role of an economic system maintained by an economically-corrupted political system.

    White racial bias certainly contributes to our image of drug-users & dealers, that’s thrown so much misplaced indignation into respectable support for locking-em-all-up policies. It would help if more people really understood what drives drug use psychologically, understood it from inside as the product of our common humanity as that is all too commonly crushed in typical childhood development.
    [See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpHiFqXCYKc ]

    The serious policy omission is “How can a person find Right Livelihood in a corrupt and dysfunctional economy?” If we fix the drug laws but continue to maintain an economic system of unemployment, misemployment, and white-collar kleptocracy, what will young black (or white, anymore) people need to do to gain sustenance & respect?

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