The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

home_book_cvrThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

by Michelle Alexander

All these years later, it is very difficult to imagine people actually owning other people – human beings being the property of other human beings.  Slavery as the institution it was in America’s history has an abstract feel to it now; we of course read about it, and see movies depicting it, and talk about it, but there is a great feeling of removal from it.  That was a very long time ago, we all think.

The Jim Crow laws of the south, too, are a part of American history that we read about and talk about in the past tense.  We like to see ourselves as a progressive, compassionate people.  And sadly, we’re kind of smug about it.

Slavery ended a long time ago.  Segregation and Jim Crow also ended a long time ago.  Therefore, we are a good society.  We put an end to the egregious mass mistreatment of an entire category of people based merely on the color of their skin.  So, we are good.  We’re certainly not racist.  Racist means blatant hostility towards non-whites.  Racist means saying the N-word.  Racist means discriminating against people of color just because they’re not white.  Right?  And we don’t do those things, so we’re not racist.

Except, not.

Because, as a society, we continue to exclude and mistreat people of color.  We continue to see them (as opposed to us) as less than.  We’re just a lot more subtle about it now.  And largely not even aware of it.  And we rationalize and justify our prejudices by telling ourselves and each other that they bring their troubles on themselves.  They deserve what they get.  Because they’re not like us – law-abiding, upwardly mobile, educated, white.

The problem with this thinking is that white people are no more law-abiding than black people, and the data bears this out.  The data also bears out that black and brown people are targeted by law enforcement far more than white people are – and it’s all under the banner of The War on Drugs.

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander carefully explains how the mass incarceration of blacks – mainly young black males – under War on Drugs really has very little to do with drugs or crime, but has almost everything to do with race and making sure that non-whites – mainly blacks and Latinos – remain largely locked out of mainstream society.  Want to talk about high crime rates in urban black communities, or unemployment among blacks, or lack of education and skills?  Then it’s time to be honest with ourselves and each other and acknowledge that hundreds of years ago white people constructed a system that would severely restrict the ability of blacks to climb to success and belonging in society, and white people continue to maintain that system – just in a different form – today.

A very provocative and important piece of work, I went through The New Jim Crow wielding my highlighter and feeling appalled.  My only criticism of this book is that I wish it were written less dryly – it would be more engaging if it read less like a textbook.  Still, every American should read this.

Who’s the Slow Learner? A Chronicle of Inclusion and Exclusion by Sandra Assimotos McElwee

Unknown Who’s the Slow Learner? A Chronicle of Inclusion and Exclusion
by Sandra Assimotos McElwee

Unlike the countless other memoirs written and published about raising a child with Down syndrome – woman gives birth; woman learns baby has Down syndrome; woman weeps, rails, and wrings hands; woman discovers acceptance and joy in having a child with Down syndrome (I’m not poking fun – this is very much my own story) – Who’s the Slow Learner is a chronicle of the author’s son’s schooling from preschool through high school graduation.  This is a sorely needed book in the landscape of disability and education.

Sandra McElwee recounts her determination to see her son Sean, an only child, fully included in general education classrooms.  A tenacious advocate, McElwee found what a lot of us parents are finding: that inclusion is much easier to accomplish in elementary school than it is in junior high and high school.  From kindergarten through sixth grade, Sean was accepted in his neighborhood public school, and battles for inclusion on his behalf were minimal.  The benefits of inclusion were clear: self-esteem, peer modeling, a sense of community and belonging, and far more learning opportunities for Sean, and lessons in compassion, tolerance, and embracing diversity for the other kids and the teachers.

Once Sean entered seventh grade, however, it all changed.  He entered a hostile environment of blatant prejudice and exclusion.  It took such a toll on Sean’s behavior and self-esteem that his mother finagled for him to skip eighth grade just so he wouldn’t have to return to such an unwelcoming atmosphere for a second year.   In high school Sean slowly found his footing and flourished in making a place for himself in the social structure of high school, but acceptance by the teaching staff was still largely difficult and often hostile.

I read this book with great interest in anticipation of my own son’s IEP meeting that would determine his kindergarten placement for the upcoming school year.  We’ve already had such terrible battles with our school district concerning our son who has Down syndrome – it’s been emotionally and financially draining, to say the least.  I was especially interested because the McElwees are fairly local to me, although not in the same school district, so I thought it would give me a pretty good glimpse of what the future might hold for us regarding Finn’s schooling.

Like I said, this book is different from all the other personal stories of Down syndrome out there, and it fills a gap in the Down syndrome/disability literary landscape that has very much needed filling.


My only criticism – and it’s a big one – is that the writing is very much in need of professional editing.  This is a self-published book, and unfortunately, it shows.  There are too many inspirational quotes (and too many faith-based passages which tend to alienate readers who don’t share the same beliefs), too many typos, not enough formatting, and not enough polish.  It really needs a professional hand – especially for the price (ten bucks for Kindle and eighteen bucks for paperback).  I think this book fills such a needed space, but would have so much more impact – on parents and educators – with a major editorial overhaul.