Few find it surprising that Jim Crow arose following the collapse of slavery. The development is described in history books as regrettable but predictable given the virulent racism that gripped the South and the political dynamics of the time. What is remarkable is that hardly anyone seems to imagine that similar political dynamics may have produced another caste system in the years following the collapse of Jim Crow—one that exists today.
— Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
The thesis of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is exactly what the title implies: the U.S. criminal justice system has become a formal if unnamed means of anti-Black racial discrimination and social exclusion analogous to though distinct from Jim Crow. In the United States, Alexander argues, all aspects of this system — from policing to prosecutions to sentences to prisons to post-release restrictions — have not only a disparate impact on racial minorities, Blacks in particular, but were actively designed as a racial caste system and means of social control in the wake of Jim Crow’s collapse. And yet, because the system is officially race neutral and overt racial hostility by individual actors generally cannot be proven, the bulk of society goes around acting as though this racial caste system does not actually exist.
To make her case, Alexander turns naturally to the War on Drugs that began in the 1980s, at at time when drug use was on the decline and considered by virtually no one to be a serious social or criminal issue. Though “mass incarceration” and “the drug war” are not quite synonyms, they are fairly close. As Alexander shows, drug convictions make up a very large proportion of the enormous and unprecedented increase in incarceration rate in the past thirty years, from 300,000 in 1980, shortly before the drug war began, to over 2 million today. Alexander writes:
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. 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. 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. Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs.
Alexander critically exposes the little understood origins of the War on Drugs. Generally, the drug war is traced to the explosion of crack cocaine in urban Black communities, when in fact crack did not become an issue until several years after the drug war was launched in 1982. The drug war has its roots in a combination of the deindustralization and globalization that resulted in mass job loss and a predictable and growing white backlash to the gains of the civil rights movement. The rate of Black unemployment quadrupled as a result of factory closings, while white unemployment increased at a far slower rate. With no new jobs appearing in communities of color, Black men were suddenly no longer needed as workers and therefore disposable. At the same time, unrest was growing among blue-collar white workers as a result of their own unemployment. Instead of creating jobs or addressing class disparities, conservatives harnessed this anger and effectively turned it on the Blacks with whom these whites actually shared exploitation and joblessness.
When crack hit in the mid-80s, years after Reagan officially launched his War on Drugs, he used it as a massive publicity campaign for his program. The media blitz dramatized and exaggerated the now infamous crack epidemic, promoted all kinds of ugly racist stereotypes about poor Black people, and spawned outrageously harsh mandatory sentences and sentencing disparities. At the same time, the sensationalistic public relation campaign aimed at whites was backed up with enormous amounts of money and equipment being funneled to law enforcement who agreed to use it to fight this metaphorical “war” in a quite literally militarized way. As being “soft on crime” became a political career-ender, Democrats, too, got in on the act, instituting increasingly draconian and cruel punishments for the “crimes” of recreational drug use and addiction.
Before delving into The New Jim Crow, I considered myself relatively educated on the subject of the systemic racism of both the criminal justice system generally and the War on Drugs specifically. It wasn’t long after the introduction that I began to realize just how little I actually knew. Knowing that the system is racist is one thing; knowing how that racism legally and practically functions and how it has been actively protected by the highest powers is something else all together. This issue is about much more than just vastly disproportionate numbers of Black men in prisons and jails, or the fact that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. It is about housing, disenfranchisement, the right to work, and the terrorism and social control of policing, probation, and parole.
Alexander’s “New Jim Crow” metaphor does not just describe prisons themselves, but the system that sends overwhelming numbers of Black men there in the first place and then proceeds to keep them on the margins of society for the rest of their lives upon release. This new Jim Crow, like the old one, creates a parallel society to which large numbers of Black people are relegated. From stop and search procedures that are rarely used against whites, especially middle-class ones; to mandatory sentences that lock people away for years on first-time non-violent offenses; to laws designed to keep released felons jobless, homeless, and disenfranchised, this racial caste system is quite deliberately almost impossible for its targets to escape.
Alexander walks us through the workings of the racist criminal justice system step-by-step, showing us how the U.S. manages to criminalize such huge numbers of men of color. The process begins with enormous federal financial incentives given to local law enforcement in exchange for agreement to comply with the drug war by rounding up as many people as possible. As middle-class white communities would be in an uproar if the same procedures used to criminalize Black men were used in their own neighborhoods — especially since, according to drug use statistics, they would result in as many if not more arrests — police concentrate their efforts on low-income, urban communities of color. Alexander horrifyingly pieces together how the Fourth Amendment has been effectively stripped of all meaning for the individuals who are stopped, and stopped extremely regularly, in these terrorizing everyday fishing expeditions. Police are allowed to stop individuals for virtually no reason and then ask to conduct a search without making clear that one can refuse; should one actually refuse, he will normally be arrested on a bogus charge, at which point he will be searched anyway. Meanwhile, virtually all claims of racial bias in this process have been ruled null and void by the Supreme Court, with racial profiling even sanctioned, provided it is not the “sole factor” influencing a stop.
After “the roundup,” Alexander shows how defendants have their charges trumped up and are denied meaningful representation. Often, they are forced to make a decision regarding whether or not to accept a plea deal in an incredibly short period of time, without first being given access to counsel. With extraordinarily high mandatory minimum sentences, charged individuals are almost guaranteed to plead guilty to “lesser” charges that are still likely to result in years in prison — all, usually, for simple possession. In fact, legislators and prosecutors admit that this coercive power to compel guilty pleas is precisely the intent behind minimum sentencing laws. Should defendants actually go to trial, they are likely to face inadequate representation from a vastly overworked lawyer and all or heavily white juries. Alexander further demonstrates that lengthy prison sentences are not the end, as social control extends through parole, which can result in a return to detention for the most minor of infractions — including continued addiction, being unable to make a scheduled check-in, or being unable to pay exorbitant fees. In 2000, 35 percent of all prison admissions were the result of parole violations. And, Alexander exposes, all claims of racial bias during these stages of the process have also been effectively cut off.
Finally, Alexander examines the period of “invisible punishment.” Upon release, ex-offenders face a maze of legal restrictions conjured up by “get tough” politicians largely in the Clinton 90s. Most commonly recognized is the virtual inability to find meaningful employment with a felony on one’s record, despite the fact that such a huge number of convicted felonies are non-violent. Even crueler than the inability to support oneself and one’s family is the fact that failure to maintain employment is a common cause of rearrest as a parole violation. In addition to being unable to obtain or maintain employment, let alone employment that provides enough to genuinely live off, individuals with felony drug convictions are barred from receiving federally funded public assistance in most states, including food stamps. Further, drug offenders are not eligible for public housing, and housing discrimination against not only former felons but also “suspected criminals” is perfectly legal. Public housing recipients are also able to be evicted for any drug crime committed in or even near their homes, even if they themselves were not aware of it, making relatives of usually-poor released prisoners reluctant to take them in, even temporarily. Ex-felons are barred from voting at least temporarily in almost every state, and voting rights are notoriously hard to get back even when ex-offenders are eligible, resulting in enormous numbers of officially disenfranchised Black citizens, and far more unofficially. None of this is to even begin to touch on the social stigma of a criminal record. All up, Alexander convincingly shows that the intent and effect of the new Jim Crow is to punish Black men, who entered the system only because they are Black, into perpetuity.
The New Jim Crow is not without its flaws and limitations. Alexander declines to take up the issue of increasing rates of incarceration for women both cis and trans, though these women are themselves overwhelmingly non-white, instead choosing to focus on the large majority of male individuals swept into the criminal justice system. While Alexander retains a sharp focus on class, she does avoid and ignore other marginalized identities that make one more likely to be targeted by the criminal justice system, such as disability and mental illness. Further, while the system was clearly designed decades ago to target Black men specifically, the more recent and apparently seamless adaptation of mass incarceration to the growing Latino population’s threat to white supremacy — and what this adaptation means — is left for future writers to take up.
While Alexander’s strict focus on the drug war is understandable, it can be somewhat frustrating in its exclusion of all other causes of mass incarceration. Though most of her racial rhetoric is bold, even radical, in various passages toward the end of the book I found myself disagreeing with some of Alexander’s more soft-peddled stances. The economic realities of the (never-named) prison industrial complex, also a huge player in increased incarceration rates and their maintenance, only garner a couple of pages of discussion. And surely, the topic of racism within the criminal justice system is too large for any single book to cover comprehensively, which means that major issues like police violence, prison violence, lack of adequate medical care in prisons, and so on, are barely touched on, if they are broached at all.
Despite the fact that one book cannot be everything, that’s not an insignificant list. And yet, this book is still invaluable in what it does accomplish: a vital primer for how racism and white supremacy function at all levels of the criminal justice system and how they are not mere accidents or unfortunate side effects. The New Jim Crow is compelling and endlessly quotable, a necessary read for anyone whose vision of social justice hopes to actually address race as a major axis of oppression in the United States.