The worst book I have ever read is probably Ta-Nehesi Coates’s Between the World and Me. I wrote about Coates’s esteemed book for City Journal in “An updated racial hustle” and quoted enough of it that an intelligent reader can make his own assessment. Coate’s book, however, is more of a pamphlet than a book. It was published in miniature dimensions in hardcover so that it could be tricked out to 152 pages and priced at $24.00.
Challenging Coates’s place on my all-time worst list is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which comes with the heft of a real book. Unfortunately, Bill Gates has now included Alexander’s production on his list of 2020 favorites. Silvia Ascarelli writes at MarketWatch:
Gates says he picked up this book by Michelle Alexander, published in 2010, as part of his own effort to deepen his understanding of systemic racism and calls it “an eye-opening look into how the criminal justice system unfairly targets communities of color,” especially through the War on Drugs.
The 10th-anniversary edition was published before this summer’s Black Lives Matter protest in the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings, and Gates is looking for more of her insights.
“She’s so good at explaining the historical context behind the injustices that Black people experience every day, and I am eager to hear her thoughts on how this year might have moved us closer to a more equal society,” he writes.
I wrote about Alexander’s book on Power Line in 2015. Though dated, what I wrote still applies. This is an abridged version of what I wrote then:
If you’re trying to get a handle on the race-based assault on law enforcement, unfortunately, you must acquaint yourself with Michelle Alexander and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Published in paperback in 2012, the book is now in its eighteenth printing with a new foreword by Cornel West. In his foreword, West declares it “the secular bible for a new social movement.” This he believes.
What social movement is West talking about? It’s the one we’ve seen on display in Ferguson and Baltimore and elsewhere across the United States over the past year. It’s a social movement that has taken root in the White House and the Department of Justice.
Alexander’s book represents the state of the art in the assault on law enforcement in the name of racial disparities. The American Civil Liberties has placed itself at the heart of this movement for at least 20 years. As with David Harris, Alexander’s work on the issue originated in her work for the ACLU; Alexander served as director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in northern California.
Alexander now pursues her assault from within the academy as an associate professor of law at Ohio State University [Alexander is now a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times]. She holds a joint appointment at the Kiran Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. She clerked for Abner Mikva on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and for Harry Blackmun at the Supreme Court.
As you might expect given her background and her appointments, the book comes in a scholarly wrapping. It footnotes assertions of facts and data with citations to sources in the traditional style of legal scholarship, but the footnotes frequently fail to support the text. Moreover, and more to the point, basic scholarship that contradicts her theses goes missing. Following David Harris’s tack in Profiles In Injustice, Alexander’s scholarship is a pretense.
Alexander’s husband — Carter Mitchell Stewart — served as United States Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio from 2009-2016 [Stewart is currently Managing Director at Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation]. As such, he had first-hand experience in the operation of the criminal justice system. If one were to take the book seriously, one would conclude that Alexander’s husband was instrumental to “the new Jim Crow” that she decries. In her acknowledgements, Alexander graciously notes: “As a federal prosecutor, he does not share my views of the criminal justice system.” Alexander apparently doesn’t even take herself seriously.
Alexander cites none of the essential scholarship on race and crime rates. She doesn’t mention Alfred Blumstein. She doesn’t mention Michael Hindelag. She doesn’t mention Patrick Langan. She doesn’t mention James Q. Wilson, She doesn’t even even mention Michael Tonry’s scrupulous summary of the scholarship in Malign Neglect.
Alexander’s book is not itself a work of scholarship. It is a polemic. It is, more accurately, a work of obfuscation in the service of political propaganda. As propaganda, it is an unsavory piece of work at that.
If one attempts to take it seriously, one will find it a source of frustration. Alexander announces in the first sentence of her preface: “This is not a book for everyone.” It is one of the few genuinely truthful sentence in the book.
Alexander’s book has gone mainstream. It spent 35 weeks on the New York Times paperback best seller list. The book deserves serious critical attention.
Some knowledgeable conservative scholar needs to attend to Alexander’s book. It is a deeply false and pernicious work. To my knowledge, however, the closest we have to such a necessary critique is the Spring 2008 City Journal essay by the invaluable Heather Mac Donald: “Is the criminal justice system racist?”
In her key chapter on crime rates and incarceration, I found Alexander deserving of recognition by one of James Taranto’s coveted “Fox Butterfield, is that you?” queries. In the New York Times Butterfield has expressed puzzlement over the “paradox” of falling crime rates and a growing prison population. The possible cause-and-effect relationship between the two has escaped Butterfield. Taranto recognizes such obtuseness with his recurring query. In chapter 3 of her book, Alexander performs the full Butterfield: “Today violent crime rates are at historically low levels, yet incarceration rates continue to climb.”
Whole thing here.