The Extraordinary Legacy of “The New Jim Crow”
Michelle Alexander’s seminal book is still reshaping the way people think about criminal justice and race.
In 2010, acclaimed civil rights attorney, legal scholar and New Albany resident Michelle Alexander published “The New Jim Crow,” an excoriating critique of the criminal justice system. It argues that slavery and the Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised and marginalized Black people until the mid-20th century were not eradicated, but merely replaced by the war on drugs and mass incarceration as a means of racial control.
The book won numerous awards, spent nearly 250 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and inspired countless artists, educators and civil rights activists. Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley, who presides over the Southern District of Ohio, calls it one of the most important books of the century. “She had me at the first page.”
Marbley and three others from different backgrounds discussed the book’s enormous impact on their careers and lives over the past decade.
On testing legal assumptions: Marbley, a friend of Alexander’s, says “The New Jim Crow” sharpened his thinking about the role of the courts in mass incarceration. “It makes you think critically about what you’re doing, the impact of what you’re doing, and we all need to do that as judges so that we aren’t just automatons. It helps you stay focused on the purpose of sentencing, and it makes you think critically about how you go about sentencing.”
On motivating storytellers: Mark Lomax II, a local composer, recording artist and educator, cites the book as the spark for his magnum opus on the African diaspora, 400: An Afrikan Epic, which includes 12 genre-bending albums, a curriculum and a documentary. “Her book, and her lectures in particular, and what I would consider her forceful advocacy, impressed upon me the importance not only to tell a whole story, but to widen my perspective of what humanity is and can be.”
On educating artists: “I’m this Jew from the Lower East Side who’d never been to a prison,” says multidisciplinary artist Fury Young about his desire to better understand the experience of mass incarceration for Black men and convey that through music. His Die Jim Crow concept album was inspired by Alexander’s book, and it featured currently and formerly incarcerated Black men at Warren Correctional Institution in Lebanon, Ohio. “The book showed me that ‘the prison thing’—meaning the human rights crisis that it is, and the racial aspect to it, and the history of it, and the war on drugs, and mass incarceration, and ‘tough on crime’ and ‘law and order’—all of that stuff was very vast in America and way bigger than just my New York City bubble that I had experienced.”
On galvanizing new advocates: “Reading the book and learning a lot about the justice system and how it is essentially manufactured to inflict pain upon communities of color, I just felt like I could not fully understand it until I actually met those people,” says Maddie Rettig. While she was studying at Ohio University, “The New Jim Crow” prompted her to get involved with Healing Broken Circles, a community center with betterment programming inside Marion Correctional Institution. Alexander also personally encouraged Rettig to pursue civil rights law, which she now practices at the Marshall & Forman law firm in Columbus. “I feel like the work that I do is making a difference, and I credit that a lot to the book.”