UConn Reads: Our Book, The New Jim Crow

Book cover of 'The New Jim Crow,' the 2015-16 selection for UConn Reads. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
'The New Jim Crow' is the 2015-16 selection for UConn Reads. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

For the 2015-2016 academic year, the UConn Reads Steering Committee selected the theme “Race in America.” The theme is both provocative and poignant, especially in juxtaposition to various current events (such as Ferguson, Baltimore, and #blacklivesmatter) and several significant anniversaries, including the 50th anniversaries of the March on Selma and the subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The year 2015 is also the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which removed – for the first time in U.S. history — race-based, nation-based quotas from immigration law. 

Book cover of 'The New Jim Crow,' the 2015-16 selection for UConn Reads. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
‘The New Jim Crow’ is the 2015-16 selection for UConn Reads. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners.

Behind this astonishing statistic are others demonstrating that in the past 30-plus years, the prison population has not only multiplied by leaps and bounds but also is disproportionately composed of African Americans and Latinos.

Between 1980 and 2008, the U.S. prison population quadrupled from an estimated 500,000 to 2.3 million people, with the result that currently one out of every 31 adults is under some type of correctional control. Not only do African Americans and Latinos constitute the majority of all U.S. prisoners, but African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of their white counterparts. Since 2001, one in six African American men has been incarcerated; and if such trends continue, one in three African American males born today will likely spend time in prison during his lifetime.

Such demographics – the basis of both a growing prison rights movement and characterizations of an American “prison industrial complex” – are very much front and center in this year’s UConn Reads selection: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

[Michelle] Alexander calls for a new way of seeing mass incarceration not as a criminal issue but rather as a crisis of racial justice and civil rights.

Published in 2010, The New Jim Crow has received considerable acclaim and has been labeled by Cornel West the “secular bible for a new social movement.” Consistent with the overall mission of UConn Reads as an initiative intended to galvanize thoughtful discussion and worthwhile debate, and in line with this year’s focus on “race in America,” The New Jim Crow is evocative, provocative, stimulating, and compelling.

Authored by civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow challenges the idea that race-based discrimination (epitomized by Jim Crow segregation) ended with the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Arguing that the War on Drugs – which began in the 1970s – disproportionately targets men of color and has given rise to a growing “racial caste system,” Alexander calls for a new way of seeing mass incarceration not as a criminal issue but rather as a crisis of racial justice and civil rights.

Such new ways of seeing “race in America” were at the forefront of the UConn Reads Selection Committee deliberations; as a committee, we were faced with the exciting yet daunting task of choosing a book from more than 200 nominations from alumni, students, faculty, and staff. In choosing The New Jim Crow as this year’s book, we as a committee have endeavored to stay true to the capaciousness of the UConn Reads initiative, which treats diverse perspectives and conflicting viewpoints with seriousness and urgency.

Acknowledging that we as a nation still struggle with matters of difference and issues of power, we have chosen a work that we hope opens up much-needed dialogue about “race in America.”

The UConn Reads program was created to bring together the University community – from students, faculty, and staff to alumni and friends of UConn, as well as citizens of Connecticut – for a far-reaching and engaging dialogue centered on a book suggested by the community.

To give your suggestions for UConn Reads programming or for more information on starting your own UConn Reads reading group, contact the 2015-2016 UConn Reads Selection Committee Chair Cathy Schlund-Vials at cathy.schlund-vials@uconn.edu.