By Diane Wachtell, Executive Director of The New Press
Books and films offer their creators entrée into a range of media — and access to new audiences — that are not available to those without such platforms. Whether we approve of the way our media is structured or not, the author of a quality work of expository non-fiction or the director of a socially conscious documentary often gets not only reviews, but issue-oriented coverage from print media, radio and television journalists, as well as invitations to write op-eds, calls to keynote relevant conferences and panel discussions, opportunities to comment on current affairs for newspapers, write guest blog spots, and more.
The New Press published Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow as part of our commitment to publishing underrepresented voices and issues, and to publishing books — and ideas — that are most needed in the world. Guided by these values — and not the “bottom line” — we embarked on a journey with Michelle Alexander without any premonition that the book would become a national bestseller or come to be called “the bible” of the criminal justice reform movement. ‘
With the help of hindsight, we have chronicled the success of the book and Michelle Alexander’s meteoric rise as a public intellectual in a case study, recording the specific media hits and events that helped the book and its author wake the country up to the topic of mass incarceration.
While we may never have a full understanding of exactly why this particular book attracted that kind of attention, we now have an excellent current example of a book setting the world on fire and no longer have to hark back to Silent Spring, Unsafe at Any Speed, and The Bell Curve to find instances of books that have moved the needle on social issues. Now, the task before us, especially on the progressive end of the spectrum, is to add greater intentionality to the equation.
Can we create authentic works of literature and film that we can leverage on purpose to bring about social change? What are the most effective tools, methods and practices to create impact with these kinds of cultural artifacts? And, in the long run, what types of partnerships or organizational expansion are required to truly leverage this kind of creative work? Will it be most efficient for the artists and creators to turn their books into advocacy tools? Or will this require a kind of specialized set of skills that should be centralized at an impact/advocacy organization rather than shoehorned into the publicity or marketing departments at publishing houses and documentary film companies?
The New Jim Crow case study offers a detailed picture of what a successful outreach campaign looks like. The New Press worked closely with Michelle Alexander to shape the book itself, garner attention for it, and harness the wave of public response and channel it toward social change. The book’s message has influenced policy and advocacy related to racial profiling, prison privatization, and the collateral consequences of imprisonment, and Michelle Alexander has also spoken at length about the school-to-prison pipeline and the effects of parental imprisonment.
In many cases local campaigns have used the arguments in The New Jim Crow to inform and strengthen their advocacy around criminal justice issues. Highlights include activism on campuses through Students Against Mass Incarceration; standing-room-only events at churches around the country (including an 800-plus audience at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York); marches organized by the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow; and sponsored events featuring Michelle Alexander in partnership with a range of nonprofit organizations, including the ACLU, the Drug Policy Alliance, Demos, the NAACP, and The Sentencing Project. These activities and events provided an opportunity to reach individuals at the front lines of advocating for policy reform.
The New Jim Crow also played an instrumental role in the Center for Constitutional Rights’ legal preparation in advance of the seminal case, Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, et al. — a class action lawsuit that challenged the New York Police Department’s practices of racial profiling and stop-and-frisks, with Judge Shira Scheindlin citing The New Jim Crow twice in her original decision.
Another major result of the publication of The New Jim Crow has been adding Michelle Alexander’s voice to the roster of public intellectuals and “go-to” people contacted by the media to comment on breaking news, thus adding a diverse and progressive voice to the on-going national conversation about mass incarceration and criminal justice.
She has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, including Bill Moyers’s show, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Colbert Report, MSNBC with Chris Hayes, CNN Newsroom, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, Tavis Smiley, NPR’s All Things Considered, Fresh Air, and On Point with Tom Ashbrook, among many others. In March 2012, she was invited to write a New York Times op-ed on the right to trial, and a front-page article ran in the New York Times Arts section on the book’s role in galvanizing the debate around race and the war on drugs. In July 2013, in the midst of the coverage of the Trayvon Martin case, she was invited to write a Time piece about racial profiling. She’s written about Obama’s “failed drug war” for The Nation. For the New York Times, she has also written about why police officers lie, and the legalization of marijuana, and her op-ed “Telling My Son About Ferguson” was featured on the New York Times’ home page over Thanksgiving weekend this year.
Our hope is that The New Jim Crow case study provides the groundwork for better understanding the important — perhaps even essential — role that cultural products such as books and films can play in shaping a field, growing a movement, expanding impact beyond traditional audiences and affected communities, and waging the hearts and minds campaigns that are the precursor to reform. With this knowledge in hand, we can experiment in a meaningful way with leveraging such artifacts in the future.