Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Politics & Prose

Byron Borger


May 4, 2012

By Byron Borger

This is a continuation of a series of articles introducing new books significant to the principled practice of public justice.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander (The New Press) $19.95 

With a foreword by Cornel West calling it “the secular bible for a new social movement of the 21st century” (echoing a line of Martin Luther King), this book has been called historic, explosive, magisterial, compelling, extraordinary, “an instant classic.”

Alexander argues a large, indicting thesis: The staggering inequities in the “War on Drugs,” waged disproportionately upon urban blacks, are rooted in an impulse for racial control. Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State, a former staff member of the American Civil Liberty Union’s Racial Justice Project and a former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Blackmun, is a scholar of jurisprudence and seasoned in criminal justice reform. 

This book is valuable for its passionate explanation of “mass incarceration.”  That the U.S. currently imprisons a larger percentage of our black population than did South Africa in the height of the anti-apartheid movement is only one of an avalanche of facts and comparisons that no caring citizen will fail to be moved by.  Her painful statistics make us wonder why, with drug abuse being a multi-ethnic phenomenon, and whites dealing as much crack-cocaine as blacks, the war rains down so exclusively on urban neighborhoods.  She explains how being hauled into the prison system marginalizes people for the rest of their lives, debilitating their ability to get jobs and loans, disenfranchising felons from voting, estranging them from civil society, etc.

Space does not allow for a critical evaluation of her claim that this unjust policy of incarceration of blacks is a racially motivated “new Jim Crow” which goes unchallenged because of racially insensitive complicity. Alexander raises some of the most profound questions any society can ask.  Her documentation and storytelling are powerful.  Criminologists, policy analysts, urban ministers and any citizen concerned about the health of our commonwealth simply must engage in conversations around this volume.  Whether or not she is right about the creation of a new racial caste system—numbering in the millions!—this is a matter of great urgency.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics Ross Douthat (Free Press) $26.00 

Douthat is a young New York Times columnist and a scholar much in demand.  As a conservative Catholic with some awareness of evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism, he is well-equipped to write this sweeping volume which illustrates the decline of orthodox faith in the 20th century and into the 21st.  He doesn’t cover much new ground, but his reporting and reflecting is fabulously interesting.  He perhaps thinks a bit too highly of the 1950s era of Niebuhr, Sheen, Lewis and such, but he exposes the trajectory away from robust thinking and Biblically based faith with insight and vigor.  He then explores how this drift becomes manifest in uncritical nationalism, an over-inflated trust in the therapeutic, and a consumeristic narcissism that underlies much contemporary spirituality.  Douthat pokes at the goofy religion of Oprah, the materialism of Joel Olsteen, as well as more serious targets.  Considered by some as a jeremiad, Douthat helps us think through how a public faith must be faithful and how a serious contribution to the public good can best be made by those with seriously orthodox foundations.  This has been given rave reviews by the likes of Timothy Keller and Alan Jacobs, as well as the upbeat Jesuit James Martin and “crunchy con” Rod Dreher. 

When God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $25.99 

Agree or not with every detail of his historical analysis or every jot and tittle of his exegesis, there is no doubt that this is one of the most important books of Biblical scholarship this year.  Wright has made an extraordinary contribution to the educated layperson by writing stimulating, informed, serious works that are a delight to read and are as intelligent as they are artfully told.  The Center for Public Justice has long been inspired by political theologians and public intellectuals in the Reformed tradition who have made much of the Kingship of Christ.  Indeed, Wright himself draws on some of the same insights as Abraham Kuyper, who insisted that the gospel itself is the Kingdom coming.  This new study is a forceful message about the heart of the gospel story, and how so many of us have missed this “Kingdom vision.”

Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”