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Right now, the country is having the most public, detailed discussion about race and racism we've had in decades, which is a good thing. The heat generated by the discussion is intense on both sides, or I should say on all sides, since you hear such a wide range of viewpoints. Look at the passionate and wildly different reactions to the deaths of black men and boys at the hands of police. Look at the contrasting reactions to the controversy over the Confederate Flag. With controversy flying and tempers flaring, you might conclude the divisions are deeper now than they were before. I don't know if that's true. More likely, the divisions are just more out in the open.
Lately, I've felt an increasing need to understand the history of race and racism in this country and the way it manifests itself today. Along with trying to keep up with the events and analyses in the media, I've read a few books that have given me a deeper understanding of a subject which, being a white man, I can only know secondhand. A few days ago I recommended the book, Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an important, beautifully written book I believe will be read and talked about for decades. Today I want to recommend a very different book: The New Jim Crow
by Michelle Alexander. The book, published in 2010, discusses the War on Drugs, the policing of black communities, our legal system, and mass incarceration, subjects that were talked about far less five years ago when the book came out than they are today. It's reasonable to say that Alexander's book brought focused attention to those problems and laid the groundwork for the way we're talking about them now. It's still the best text on the subject I've read.
Alexander is a Civil Rights lawyer, and she writes the book like a lawyer arguing a case. She brings together numerous incidents and witnesses, creating an overwhelming preponderance of evidence to prove her point. Alexander creates a complex thesis which is hard to summarize in a few words. Basically, she shows how the crackdown on drugs and crime has been directed disproportionately toward black people and black communities and how harmful it has been to black lives, comparable in ways to the Jim Crow laws which legalized segregation and discrimination before the passage of Civil Rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s.