When Michelle Alexander released her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in 2010, she had a difficult time getting anyone to pay attention to it. The U.S. was still relishing a bit in the euphoria of the possibilities of a post-racial milieu following the election of its first African-American president. Ferguson and Charleston hadn’t happened yet, and there was little public discourse about the historical legacies of debtors prisons, lynchings, and Confederate monuments. President Obama was such a shining (if blinding) symbol of how far America had come, that few had an appetite for discourse on America’s abysmal record of incarcerating African Americans.
But then came the execution of Troy Davis in 2011—a death penalty case out of Georgia that raised significant questions about how fair the criminal justice system is for African Americans and the poor. The New Jim Crow suddenly started enjoying wider circulation, thanks to its exhaustive look at the ways in which black lives have been devastated, disenfranchised, and disappeared by the American criminal justice system. The book was re-released in 2012 and it became a certified hit, topping almost every best-seller list and winning numerous awards.