The New Jim Crow

10802160Michelle Alexander (2012) The New Press

This book is remarkable not so much for its content — while that is impressive, it draws from the work of so many others who have been fighting the prison system and the criminalization of our youth for a long time. There is little that is new here. What is new (at least I think it’s new but I could be wrong as this is not entirely my subject) is the way that it is all brought together with devastating impact through the overarching argument that mass incarceration represents a new system of racial control and exploitation, the third in a series that began with slavery and continued with Jim Crow:

Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service-are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. [5]

In terms of thinking through the meaning of racial caste

I use the term racial caste in this book the way it is used in common parlance to denote a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom. Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration.

It may be helpful, in attempting to understand the basic nature of the new caste system, to think of the criminal justice system–the entire collection of institutions and practices that comprise it–not as an independent system but rather as a gateway into a much larger system of racial stigmatization and permanent marginalization. This larger system, referred to here as mass incarceration, is a system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls–walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws… [12]

This is a system well served by a few people of colour in high positions: ‘the current system of control depends on black exceptionalism; it is not disproved or undermined by it’ and does not require overt white racism: ‘racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago’ (14). Of course, the history of the U.S. has made it obvious that you can always count on indifference, with plenty of hostility and overt bigotry.

It begins with America’s beginnings: ‘Here, in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery–as well as the extermination of American Indians–with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the colonies’ [23]. Here in American many prefer to forget such beginnings, or that ‘The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system–slavery–while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially propertied whites’ (25).

Then came the long struggle for abolition, the civil war, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Increasingly the rhetoric of ‘law and order’ was mobilised against the Civil Rights movement battling to dismantle Jim Crow:

Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political in nature, and federal courts were accused of excessive “lenience” toward lawlessness, thereby contributing to the spread of crime. In the words of then- vice president Richard Nixon, the increasing crime rate “can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them.”37 (41)

This would become a new building block:

As Weaver notes, “rather than fading, the segregationists’ crime-race argument was reframed, with a slightly different veneer,” and eventually became the foundation of the conservative agenda on crime.48 In fact, law and order rhetoric-first employed by segregationists-would eventually contribute to a major realignment of political parties in the United States. [43]

And drawing on the work of the Edsalls

Race had become, yet again, a powerful wedge, breaking up what had been a solid liberal coalition based on economic interests of the poor and the working and lower-middle classes. In the 1968 election, race eclipsed class as the organizing principle of American politics, and by 1972, attitudes on racial issues rather than socioeconomic status were the primary determinant of voters’ political self-identification. The late 1960s and early 1970s marked the dramatic erosion in the belief among working-class whites that the condition of the poor, or those who fail to prosper, was the result of a faulty economic system that needed to be challenged.

And this is where a lot of the stuff I knew but didn’t know came in – the war on drugs. I knew it was terrible, but had no idea just where it had sprung from, how it had come about, and really I didn’t understand just what a new kind of terrible it really was in the inner-cities of this country – having grown up on the border and worked with refugees I connected it always more with the new militarization of the border and post cold-war conflicts in Mexico and Central and South America. I thought poor neighbourhoods had always been that controlled and screwed over by police, not realising that the levels and extent of it were something new (because poor people, especially people of colour, have of course, always been screwed over by police). I’m not even that young, but this is part of the generation gap I suppose. Alexander writes

In October 1982, President Reagan officially announced his administration’s war on Drugs. At the time he declared this new war, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation .72 This fact was no deterrent to Reagan, for the drug war from the outset had little to do with public concern about drugs and much to do with public concern about race. By waging a war on drug users and dealers, Reagan made good on his promise to crack down on the racially defined “others”–the undeserving (49).

I knew the general numbers of incarcerations, but had never connected these to the war on drugs per se

Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in the United States. Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000. 1 Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41 , 100 in 1980-an increase of 1, 100 percent.2 Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result, more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began.3

The percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences (rather than dismissal, community service, or probation) has quadrupled, resulting in a prison-building boom the likes of which the world has never seen. In two short decades, between 1980 and 2000, the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans-or one in every 31 adults-were behind bars, on probation, or on parole. 7 [60]

Nevertheless, black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men. 19 The racial bias inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men .2 For young black men, the statistics are even worse. One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006, and far more were under some form of penal control-such as probation or parole.21 These gross racial disparities simply cannot be explained by rates of illegal drug activity among African Americans. [100]

Again, I knew police in practice mostly did what they wanted to do, but I didn’t realise how statutorily powerful the police are in this war, and how far protections against racism and bias have been eroded. This was both terrifying and infuriating and elicits despair of any change. How can this be possible:

First, consider sentencing. In 1987, when media hysteria regarding black drug crime was at fever pitch and the evening news was saturated with images of black criminals shackled in courtrooms, the Supreme Court ruled in McCleskey v. Kemp that racial bias in sentencing, even if shown through credible statistical evidence, could not be challenged under the Fourteenth Amendment in the absence of clear evidence of conscious, discriminatory intent. [109]

The combination of recent case law has ensured that ‘The Supreme Court has now closed the courthouse doors to claims of racial bias at every stage of the criminal justice process, from stops and searches to plea bargaining and sentencing. The system of mass incarceration is now, for all practical purposes, thoroughly immunized from claims of racial bias’ (139).

This when evidence shows that whites more than any other race are more likely to use and sell drugs. So why the focus on the ghetto? Partly because of the political pay-off against a population far less powerful and spatially removed

The enduring racial isolation of the ghetto poor has made them uniquely vulnerable in the War on Drugs. What happens to them does not directly affect-and is scarcely noticed by-the privileged beyond the ghetto’s invisible walls. Thus it is here, in the poverty-stricken. racially segregated ghettos, where the War on Poverty has been abandoned and factories have disappeared, that the drug war has been waged with the greatest ferocity. [124]

Though more academic explanations have been in the foreground

Numerous scholars (and many law enforcement officials) attempt to justify the concentration of drug law enforcement resources in ghetto communities on the grounds that it is easier for the police to combat illegal drug activity there. The theory is that black and Latino drug users are more likely than white users to obtain illegal drugs in public spaces that are visible to the police, and therefore it is more efficient and convenient for the police to concentrate their efforts on open-air drug markets in ghetto communities. Sociologists have been major proponents of this line of reasoning, pointing out that differential access to private space influences the likelihood that criminal behavior will be detected. Because poor people lack access to private space (often sharing small apartments with numerous family members…[125]


Today, the War on Drugs has given birth to a system of mass incarceration that governs not just a small fraction of a racial or ethnic minority but entire communities of color. In ghetto communities, nearly everyone is either directly or indirectly subject to the new caste system. The system serves to redefine the terms of the relationship of poor people of color and their communities to mainstream, white society, ensuring their subordinate and marginal status. [188]

It redefines this relationship through a new kind of racial segregation, locking up vast populations behind bars, but Alexander argues that more important is its symbolic production of race:

Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen ). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black. [197]

the conflation of blackness with crime did not happen organically; rather, it was constructed by political and media elites as part of the broad project known as the War on Drugs. This conflation served to provide a legitimate outlet to the expression of antiblack resentment and animus–a convenient release valve now that explicit forms of racial bias are strictly condemned. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer permissible to hate blacks, but we can hate criminals. Indeed, we are encouraged to do so (199).

Then, drawing on the work of French Sociologist Loic Wacquant, Alexander frames the economic argument behind today’s mass incarceration

By 1984, however, the black unemployment rate had nearly quadrupled, while the white rate had increased only marginally. 85 This was not due to a major change in black values, behavior, or culture; this dramatic shift was the result of deindustrialization , globalization, and technological advancement Urban factories shut down as our nation transitioned to a service economy. Suddenly African Americans were trapped in jobless ghettos, desperate for work. [218]

Desperate for work in a society outsourcing work, thus become superfluous, and leading to Wacquant’s argument that

the one thing that makes the current penal apparatus strikingly different from previous racial caste systems is that “it does not carry out the positive economic mission of recruitment and disciplining of the workforce.”86 Instead it serves only to warehouse poor black and brown people for increasingly lengthy periods of time, often until old age. The new system does not seek primarily to benefit unfairly from black labor, as earlier caste systems have, but instead views African Americans as largely irrelevant and unnecessary to the newly structured economy-an economy that is no longer driven by unskilled labor. [219]

And so finally we reach the final arguments – the failure of today’s civil rights movement to deal with the real issues at stake. Partially because of the return to legal strategies the movement took after the movements of the 60s, while ‘Lawyers have a tendency to identify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve–i.e. problems that can be solved through litigation. The mass incarceration of people of color is not that kind of problem’ (227). But more importantly because of long-standing strategies for overcoming discrimination:

Challenging mass incarceration requires something civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to do: advocacy on behalf of criminals. Even at the height of Jim Crow segregation–when black men were more likely to be lynched than to receive a fair trial in the South—NAACP lawyers were reluctant to advocate on behalf of blacks accused crimes unless the lawyers were convinced of the men’s innocence.6 (226)

Since the days when abolitionists struggled to eradicate slavery, racial justice advocates have gone to great lengths to identify black people who defy racial stereotypes, and they have exercised considerable message discipline, telling only those stories of racial injustice that will evoke sympathy among whites. [227]

Yet these are the realities of our society – ‘While many black people get stopped and searched for crimes they did not commit, it is not so easy these days to find young black men in urban areas who have never been convicted of a crime. The new caste system labels black and brown men as criminals early, often in their teens, making them “damaged goods” from the perspective of traditional civil rights advocates’ (228). The very nature of the system itself victimises our children in a way that makes it unlikely that NGOs will defend them or take up their cause. This is what has to end. As well as any support of ‘colourblindness’, even if it seems that will solve problems in the short-term: ‘Our commitment to colorblindness extends beyond individuals to institutions and social arrangements. We have become blind, not so much to race, but to the existence of racial caste in America’ [241].

I love most the call to fight this system, fight for everyone incarcerated, and to fight the rhetoric of colourblindness.

Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream-a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for. [244]

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