First-Reading Suggestion: The New Jim Crow

Editor’s note: A group of Brown University students have put together a proposal to suggest “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander for the next first-reading for the class of 2019. They feel that this choice of text for all incoming first-years would be a crucial step toward more honest, campus-wide conversations about issues of race, power, and privilege.  Please consider co-signing and sending in their recommendation to the Dean of the College, Maud Mandel ( If you co-sign, feel free to circulate to as many friends as possible. 

*All you need to do is copy/paste the following into an e-mail addressed to the DOC and sign it with your name. You need not be a Brown student to do so. Suggestions are due by December 5th.*


I _________________ (name) cosign the following proposal:

The stated purpose of first-readings is to provide a common reading experience that introduces new students to the University and to the pleasures and rigors of undergraduate academic life.” Apart from this shared reading, incoming students exist in incalculably disparate contexts and carry incalculably varied histories. But in a culture of genteel ignoring, of strenuous civility for its own sake, Brown has come to serve as a space that equalizes experience. If some of us are poor, we all now have access to the upper-class. If some of us are people of color, we all now can harness certain social capital that makes us “different” from other people of color. The result of this flattening of experience is a culture of student engagement that is unwilling to grapple with difference, unwilling to accept that although we all attend Brown, many of us still struggle against systemic racism, sexism, classism, cissexism, ableism, heterosexism (and so much more)–and often at the hands of institutions and individuals that comprise Brown.

We feel it is important that students recognize their privileges, but through a deeper focus on the “rigors” than on the “pleasures” of academic life, also develop a more nuanced consciousness towards these structures and their impacts on communities. Acknowledging our privileges forces us to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we can exist outside of these systems while at Brown, and academic life can be truly transformative. Over the course of their undergraduate experience, many students will confront the consequences of these structures, and their junctions, simply by living them. But we are less often asked to consider how we perpetuate these structures, within the academy and otherwise, or how these structures affect others differently. As an active rejection of this solipsism, we offer a first-reading that would require students to acknowledge and consider experiences of exceptionally marginalized communities in America, particularly Black and brown communities. Hence, our suggestion The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.

We identify the first-reading as a critical opportunity to begin redefining a culture at Brown that would ask students to constantly grapple with the myriad social constructs that each of us exist within. Brown’s institutions, just as those in the academy and American society at large, perpetuate systems of inclusion and exclusion that are not yet bled of their racist and classist roots. While Michelle Alexander specifically handles the case of contemporary antiblack and antibrown policing and incarceration strategies, embedding these strategies in historical racism and classism, her book can offer lessons for the immediate Brown community. It is our hope that the conversations that stem from the first-reading discussion groups will introduce students to engagement with the intersections of race and class (within Brown and beyond) as well as spark a sustained interest in examining these and other systems of oppression.

In the past several years, Brown has increased the number of students of color admitted, showing initial steps towards a commitment to diversifying the student body. However, diverse representation alone is not enough. As stated in the “Second Report of the Committee on the Events of October 29, 2013”, there is dearth of spaces on campus where students feel comfortable discussing issues of race, power, and privilege. The Committee states, “more must be done on an institutional level to encourage and structure these conversations”. This is our opportunity to encourage faculty and staff to facilitate more of these conversations and introduce incoming freshmen to positive and transformative dialogue on Brown’s campus.

It is not our intention to collapse any person or community’s existence into a tractable form for analysis. Neither do we think that by suggesting The New Jim Crow, incoming students will derive a certain understanding of race and class relations that will holistically elucidate the lived experiences of a Black or brown person in America today. We only hope that students are introduced to and are asked to confront institutionalized racism and classism in the United States and the repercussions that these and other oppressive attitudes have within communities — including the community of students, faculty, and staff at Brown.

It is also important to note the exceptional relevance of reading this text considering the most recent conflicts with institutionalized antiblack and antibrown sentiment in America. These issues came to a head on Monday, November 24, 2014, when a grand jury decided that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the murder of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old boy who was walking while Black in Ferguson, Missouri. We can see that the proceedings were likely skewed by prosecutorial bias, a topic discussed at length in The New Jim Crow.

We hope that students, faculty, and staff will carry through their time at Brown an urge to acknowledge and celebrate difference. We hope that students, faculty, and staff will recognize when they themselves are complicit in the perpetuation of oppressive and destructive systems. We hope this all to begin redefining an engaged member of the Brown community as a person who actively identifies and confronts oppressive structures, wherever they witness or experience them, whenever they are able. In light of the Committee’s report, we feel that assigning The New Jim Crow is a necessary first step towards beginning these conversations.

In solidarity,

Rheem Brooks, ‘16

Jamie Marsicano, ‘15

Cherise Morris, ‘16

Elise Mortenson, ‘16

Eital Schattner-Elmaleh, ‘17

Featured image by Richard Park.

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