In Defense of The New Jim Crow: A Response to the First-Readings Feedback


On December 1st members of Students Against the Prison-Industrial Complex (SAPIC) submitted to the Dean of the College a proposal nominating The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander as the first-reading for Brown’s Class of 2020. As an introduction to the university, the first-reading is an opportunity to engender a culture that critically engages with and confronts structures of power that oppress some members of the Brown community while privileging others. Thus, we believe that Alexander’s analysis of the mass incarceration and anti-Black and anti-Brown policing that destroy people of color and their communities must be seriously considered. As the proposal was co-signed by more than 400 members of the Brown community in just seven days, we were pleased to see The New Jim Crow’s inclusion in the final four books under consideration – until we read the descriptions of each book in an email from the Dean of the College on February 6.

Despite its complexity, The New Jim Crow received a summary notably shorter than the other books. Though all four books introduced in the email are and should be considered as first-reading selections, the email was riddled with language that neutralized The New Jim Crow while favoring the remaining three works. According to the Dean of the College, To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind is a “gripping account”; Citizen: An American Lyric is “compelling,” “powerfully performs” and is “poignant”; Burnt Shadows contains “acutely observed, powerfully rendered chapters,” “remarkable sensitivity,” and “fascinating individuals.” The email evokes no such congratulatory language in its description of The New Jim Crow. Rather, the Dean of the College provides an account of Alexander’s work that demonstrates a seemingly unbiased tone absent of adjectival endorsement. Yet with the validation of the three books that follow, the neutrality of The New Jim Crow’s description disregards and discredits it as a book worthy of first-reading consideration. If unnoticed, this semantic decision serves to implicitly encourage members of the Brown community who have not yet read The New Jim Crow to pick up one of the other three books instead.

The Dean’s description is additionally inadequate because it neglects to include details of The New Jim Crow that are essential in providing an accurate – however brief – understanding of the work. While the summary mentions people of color it never mentions that mass incarceration overwhelmingly targets Black people and communities. Such exclusion serves to erase a discussion of Blackness that is essential to the book. Further, the description never mentions racial profiling, police brutality, and a legacy of slavery in America – topics that are covered extensively in the work and which might resonate with potential readers. A lack of space to include these crucial elements is not a sufficient excuse considering The New Jim Crow’s terse summary compared to the other three books.

These exclusions are especially perplexing in light of the email’s description of Citizen, which centers Blackness and mentions police brutality. We do not compare the two summaries to discredit Citizen as an important option for the first-reading; on the contrary, based solely on its description we endorse the consideration of Citizen as a book that critically engages with racism and anti-Blackness as well as sexism and other intersections. Instead, we note the presence of this language in the description of Citizen to illuminate its absence in the description of The New Jim Crow.

In light of the incomplete description of and implicit bias against The New Jim Crow in the Dean of the College’s email, we question the first-reading committee’s motives. We question if placing The New Jim Crow in the final four considerations for the first-reading, a decision surely demanded by its support in the first round, is purely symbolic and not indicative of an honest consideration of the book by the committee.

While the Dean requested that individuals invested in this process respond in their own words, we submit this second open letter to be cosigned by students, faculty, and staff to challenge the bias and erasure contained in the Dean of the College’s email and to demand, as members of the Brown community, that The New Jim Crow be adequately and responsibly considered.

In Solidarity,

Students Against the Prison-Industrial Complex

Editor’s Note: Students Against the Prison-Industrial Complex (SAPIC) request that you co-sign the above statement by emailing it directly to Dean Mandel at with: “I, ______ (name), cosign the following statement:” appended to the top.
1 Comment
  1. My reaction to the email was that the language describing The New Jim Crow was diminished because the book is better known. To assess whether this was true, I googled the four books:

    “Citizen: An American Lyric”: 40,400 hits
    “To Be a Friend is Fatal”: 24,400 hits
    “Burnt Shadows”: 38,200 hits
    “The New Jim Crow”: 387,000 hits

    This wasn’t a terribly empirical study, but I think the fact that The New Jim Crow gets 10 times as many hits as each of the other three books is telling. To put that in perspective, you get 2.3 million hits when you search for “The Cat in the Hat” and only 300,000 when you search for “Fox in Socks.” Therefore, if you wanted people to consider both books, you might use more compelling language to describe Fox in Socks. More people will have heard of The Cat in the Hat, and familiarity is a powerful force. Perhaps the first-reading committee shouldn’t be attempting to level the playing field, but that’s a different story.

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