Book Review: The New Jim Crow

BookReviewLogo Review by Heather Stewart

In this powerful work of scholarship and social critique, Ohio State University Law Professor and former director of the Racial Justice Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Michelle Alexander, provides an unparalleled look into the system of mass incarceration in the United States. Her analysis proceeds with a particular eye towards the deeply racialized elements of mass incarceration, of which she contends comprises a new and complex system of “racial caste” (12). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess (The New Press, 2010) provides a compelling case for Alexander’s challenge to the widespread belief that American society, with its Barack Obama presidency and pervasive “colorblind” ideology, has finally achieved racial equality (11). Alexander takes readers through the criminal justice system in the United States, showing how racial inequality and race-based discrimination is ubiquitous at every step.

6792458Tracing how the racialized system of mass incarceration grew out of the remnants of slavery and Jim Crow, as well as a series of discriminatory governmental policies and court decisions, Alexander shows us that far from ending racial caste in America, the powerful elite have merely found a clever way to redesign it. Tucking the new racial caste system away within the confines of a “legitimate” institution—the well designed American prison-industrial complex—functions to render it invisible, as well as resistant to change. The New Jim Crow is both a response and a challenge to the systematic invisibility of the racial dynamics of the American criminal justice system, as well as a call to action for racial justice advocates to take on the task of ending mass incarceration as their crucial aim. Alexander calls for a radically new approach to racial justice—one that puts a focus on ending mass incarceration at its center and rejects the deeply ingrained commitments to “colorblind” ideology (whereby individuals claim not to “see race” or that policies are “race neutral” when indeed they disproportionately affect people of color in practice).

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MedHum Monday Book Review: Riotous Flesh

Riotous Flesh book coverIn Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2015), historian April R. Haynes “tells the story of how masturbation became a reviled sexual act charged with political meaning in the United States” during the antebellum period (4). While masturbation, or “onanism,” had long been understood as a problematic sexual practice, prior to the 1830s Americans were largely unresponsive to calls for widespread moral panic. Yet by the late nineteenth century, masturbation — “the solitary vice” — was commonly understood as a dangerous habit. Social reformers and the medical establishment alike held it responsible for a wide range of social and personal ills. At the dawn of the twentieth century it had become a cornerstone of white, progressive America’s policing of bodies considered deviant.

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