Lawyer, scholar, and activist Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, first published in 2010, is seen as nothing less than a phenomenon – a book that galvanized the debate about race in the criminal justice system in a way that had never been done so clearly and persuasively before. In this work, she advances her main thesis that the criminal justice system disproportionately and purposefully targets people of color, rendering them veritable second-class citizens in the same manner as the Jim Crow laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The idea for the book started to germinate when Alexander was working at the ACLU in Northern California in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While she had previously known of racial bias in the system, her work at the ACLU opened her eyes to how mass incarceration functioned like a caste system, leaving the predominately black and brown men in the system in a state of existence devoid of dignity and basic civil liberties. She received a Soros Justice Fellowship to help her with writing the book.
Sales were very high right off the bat; an initial hardcover printing of only 3,000 has now resulted in hundreds of thousands sold. It was on the Times Bestseller List for over a year.
Reviews were extremely positive. Darryl Pinckney for the New York Review of Books lauded “the intelligence of her ideas, her powers of summary, and the force of her writing.” Forbes said she “looks in detail at what economists usually miss;” Publishers Weekly called the book “carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable;” and Cornel West, who wrote the foreword to a later edition, called it “an instant classic.”
The book has won numerous awards, including: the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Nonfiction, the Constitution Project’s 2010 Constitutional Commentary Award, and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s Prevention for a Safer Society.