Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Power of Perception -- and the Pen

This New York Times article details how a recent book on race and criminal justice became a best-seller and is changing perceptions even in unlikely places.

The book is Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, and it

marshals pages of statistics and legal citations to argue that the get-tough approach to crime that began in the Nixon administration and intensified with Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs has devastated black America. Today, Professor Alexander writes, nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out. That is a familiar argument made by many critics of the criminal justice system, but Professor Alexander’s book goes further, asserting that the crackdown was less a response to the actual explosion of violent crime than a deliberate effort to push back the gains of the civil rights movement.
For many African-Americans, the book — which has spent six weeks on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list — gives eloquent and urgent expression to deep feelings that the criminal justice system is stacked against them. ... 
The book is also galvanizing white readers, including some who might question its portrayal of the war on drugs as a continuation of race war by other means. ...
Rick Olson, a state representative in Michigan, was one of the few whites and few Republicans in the room when Professor Alexander gave a talk sponsored by the state’s black caucus in January.
“I had never before connected the dots between the drug war, unequal enforcement, and how that reinforces poverty,” Representative Olson said. “I thought, ‘Gee whiz, let me get this book.’” ...
The Rev. Charles Hubbard, the pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, a mostly white evangelical congregation in Garland, Tex., said he had started carrying the book with him everywhere and urges fellow pastors to preach about it, though he acknowledged it could be a tough sell in Texas.
“I think people need to hear the message,” he said. “I don’t think Anglo folks have any idea how difficult it is for African-American men who get caught up in the criminal justice system.”
The article is a much-needed reminder that changing public perceptions is at the core of work on criminal justice reform -- including sentencing reform. We're in the changing-hearts-and-minds business here at FAMM. Building empathy for offenders -- and getting others to understand the bitterness and sense of unfairness so many feel toward the system -- is long, arduous work. Whether you agree or disagree with Alexander's conclusions, it is good news that people are taking notice and starting to try to understand the impact of and anger over racial disparities in the criminal justice system.