The New Jim Crow

by Michelle Alexander

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How does race influence policing according to The New Jim Crow?

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This book examines the unconscious bias that officers and law enforcement officials have against people of other races. While it is clearly wrong and against protocol to express outwardly racist opinions and tendencies, there are many subtle instances of bias.

For instance, the most telling example is the number of people arrested or investigated for minor crimes, such as certain types of drug use. The illegality of drugs like marijuana tends to result in black and minority users being imprisoned or apprehended for use or possession, while white users get warnings or fines.

Additionally, inherent bias can result in an assumption that a minor violation is the result of a larger issue as opposed to a simple solitary violation. For example, traffic violations perpetrated by minority individuals are treated as a problem of the racial group and their defiance of the law, while the same violations by majority individuals are treated as a single aberration in the law, not an epidemic issue.

Overall, the book presents a statistical exploration of crime rates and punishments for various ethnic groups, and it reveals that the bias is real towards individuals from minority groups. This results in a cycle of imprisonment, fines, and punishment that other groups do not have to deal with, maintaining oppression just like the historical Jim Crow Laws did.

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In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that race influences policing in a variety of ways. She points to several Supreme Court cases that have greatly strengthened police discretion, especially as it relates to the War on Drugs. While it might initially sound reasonable that police should be granted a great degree of discretion, Alexander points out that this often results in unjust racial discrimination. Though it is no longer considered socially acceptable to express racist views or to openly discriminate, research has shown that all of us hold implicit racial biases. This means that, regardless of whether one personally feels that racism is wrong, we all (to some degree) make unconscious associations and judgments based on race.

In the context of the War on Drugs, police have a great deal of discretion regarding whom they stop and search. For example, officers can use even a minor traffic violation (such as driving 5 miles over the speed limit) as a pretense to search an individual’s vehicle for drugs, meaning they can search virtually any driver they choose if they follow them long enough to witness a technical traffic violation.

In practice, young black men are stopped and searched for drugs at an incredibly higher rate than white men, and as a result, the millions of individuals who have been incarcerated during the War on Drugs are overwhelmingly African American. Despite substantial evidence that blacks are no more likely than whites to deal or use drugs, most people (including police officers) falsely associate drug crime with the African American community. Racial discrimination in policing is a difficult issue to tackle because discriminatory actions that are guided by internalized racial beliefs or stereotypes are much more difficult to challenge in court than overt racism.

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