The New Jim Crow – I want this taught in high schools

I am in such awe of Michelle Alexander.

Her book The New Jim Crow – beloved and recommended across the board by civil rights activists – provides cutting research and insight into how mass incarceration and The War of Drugs targets black and brown people (especially men) and creates a new racial caste. It picks apart historical events, criminal justice concepts, law and government, and somehow makes it all accessible to a layperson like myself.

Good heavens, I want this taught in high schools so badly.

“But when am I ever going to use this?” comes the cry from many a high school student. Usually about math, but I certainly felt it in classes like history, government, and economics. Looking back, those are the three that I really should have been paying attention to because they do affect me. I might not think about them 24/7, but those are forces that are always shaping the society I live in.

But as a white high schooler, economics was “how much do I spend at Barnes & Noble and still have gas money to get home.” Government was “don’t speed and Say No To Drugs.” History was a bunch of dates to be memorized, like when Velociraptor and Deinonychus were first discovered and when racism used to exist.

As a white high schooler living in a Northern, white-majority city, I managed to both sincerely hold Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman as my historical heroes and be utterly jaded by another speaker invited in to talk about how Racism is Bad. It wasn’t until I took a college elective on social ethics did I learn that racism was still very alive and very systemic.

Bring taught The New Jim Crow in high school would have solved all these problems (except the one about economics). Sure, it teaches a narrow portion of history and a narrow portion of government and law, but it gives the important context of application. This is how history and decisions of law interconnect to shape society we live in. This is why it is important to know our history because look! See how it shaped the lives of black Americans in a very tangible way, also racism is very real and here is how it is affecting every level of our society.

Alexander doesn’t just teach facts here, she teaches critical thinking that can then be applied to other trends in history and government and instances of racism. It can prompt students into asking “if these things are connected… what about those things?” And she does it in terms accessible to laypeople.

Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan is the book I would recommend for high schoolers learning about economics. This is a book that also seeks to make an often dry field of study accessible, and he is mostly successful. However, there were points that I still felt like I was getting caught up in jargon and technical descriptions. I never felt that way with Alexander’s writing.

By the end of The New Jim Crow Chapter 2, I was astonished both by how much information she had fit into those pages, but also how much I understood of it. She didn’t leap ahead and assume I knew something. It was like she was setting pace for a new runner, making sure ever step counted. And this is why I don’t just want it taught in colleges (oh boy do I want it taught there too) but in high schools.

This is content our children need to learn and thanks to Michelle Alexander, it’s something they can learn.

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