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In a time when a black man lives in the White House, most Americans believe their nation has moved past racial oppression. Police Shootings may still grab headlines, but adherents to colorblindness view them largely as an isolated problem. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander vigorously challenges this public consensus. By understanding the intensely surprising nature of her argument, then buttressing it with copious evidence and effective counterarguments, Alexander establishes that mass incarceration amounts to a racial caste system nearly as unfair as Jim Crow or slavery.
Since Alexander understands her claim runs against the conventional wisdom of a post-racial society, she constructs her argument to appeal to an immediately skeptical audience. Among her strongest devices for relating to her reader’s potential incredulity towards her argument is a personal anecdote. Alexander remembers considering a sign that claimed the War on Drugs is a reincarnation of Jim Crow as “an absurd comparison” just a few years before writing a book that made essentially the same claim (Alexander 3). This example underscores that even racially conscious people who happen to be uninvolved in the criminal justice system tend not to see the parallels between it and past forms of oppression as well as incarcerated people do (4). Recognizing that even well intentioned readers may not be initially receptive to an argument is critical to making an effective case; in doing so, Alexander meets the readers at their (possibly mistaken) views, allowing her to continue without putting off her audience. In order to help readers understand how a deeply discriminatory system can thrive in an ostensibly colorblind society, Alexander proceeds to explain the historical context that permitted such a blemish. She notes that the “rules and reasons” used to uphold racism “evolve and change as they are challenged” (21). Much like slavery gave way to Jim Crow, racism’s versatile nature allowed it to persist even after the Civil Rights movement, as Republican politicians of the 1970s and 1980s used “law and order” rhetoric to enact tough anti-crime policies whose true objectives were to appeal to southern whites through racially charged language (41). Background information contextualizes Alexander’s case in readers’ minds. Historical context and a personal anecdote allow Alexander to ease her reader into the bulk of her argument, making an apparently ridiculous claim seem at least plausible.
Of course, merely understanding that the notion of a racial caste system exists may shock readers is not sufficient to persuade them, so Alexander supports her claim with mountains of diverse evidence before refuting potential concerns. She mixes anecdotal evidence that allows her to appeal to pathos with statistical data that allows her to appeal to logos. For instance, when discussing the toxic effects of the criminal justice system’s flaws, Alexander opens chapter 3 with the story of Erma Faye Stewart, an innocent woman whose life was uprooted by a guilty plea for a nonviolent drug crime, forcing her to face discrimination in housing, employment, and government benefits (97). She proceeds to cite a slew of statistics from several sources that show the scope of the problem, such as those proving that up to 80 to 90 percent of people imprisoned on drug offenses in many states are African-American (98). All told, Alexander cites no fewer than 500 sources throughout The New Jim Crow, whose citations consume more than 30 pages (263-296). This vast, diversified portfolio of evidence allows Alexander to appeal both emotionally and logically to her audience, creating a more unified argument. Later in the text, she again employs research and logic, this time not to construct her case but rather counter anticipated rebuttals to it. A “predictable response” from conservative pundits to the plight of black communities due to mass incarceration is to blame communities of color for embracing “gangsta rap and the culture of violence” (170). While Alexander concedes that this may be a tempting position to take, she turns the argument on its head by contending that these cultural trends are not the cause of oppression, but rather the reaction to it, comparing statements such as “black is beautiful” to similar slogans in the gay community (171). This comparison in particular is important because it underscores the similarities between race-based mass incarceration and forms of discrimination that white people may be more familiar with, helping build on the bedrock of Alexander’s argument presented earlier.
Michelle Alexander produces an altogether effective argument with clear implications for society in The New Jim Crow. Her argument’s thorough evidence and her strong awareness of her audience create a clear, persuasive case that constitutes a highly effective argument, especially considering the challenge to conventional wisdom it presents. Alexander’s careful construction of her argument allows the final chapter to be largely devoted to considering the societal implications of knowledge of mass incarceration. She makes explicit her advice to civil rights organizations seeking to improve the lot of poor people of color: Do not be afraid to advocate on behalf of convicted criminals and the downtrodden, as those who stick to traditional civil rights advocacy techniques should “labor under no illusions” that they are meaningfully addressing mass incarceration (229). More generally, the book’s striking argument makes it clear that white Americans can no longer maintain colorblindness or ignore racial issues; rather, they must bravely confront racism and criminal justice inequality head-on, or black men will continue to be more familiar with the jailhouse than the White House.
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