The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a book that was authored by Michelle Alexander. The author’s argument in this book is that overcrowding that is experienced in America’s prisons is as a result of latent racism in America’s criminal justice system. Alexander defines mass incarceration as the “the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison .” This mass incarceration locks out significant percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream economy and society.
In this book Alexander seeks to show that if mass incarceration is the body, then the War on Drugs is the mass along a skeleton of a deeply engrained culture of racism in America. Alexander also includes the definition of mass incarceration as a “racial caste system.” This is consistent with the pattern during the periods of Jim Crow and slavery. Racial caste system is a system of racialized social control. Alexander develops a critique to this system because it produces a “racial undercaste” who are locked into an inferior position by both law and the customs of the society. This is the New Jim Crow.
The first chapter of the book is a discussion of the three strategies that were used by the whites to maintain their domination in the society – slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration. According to Alexander, all these systems were developed by the white elites in response to class-based and grassroots movements that advocated for greater social and economic inclusion of the black minority. For instance, the drug war was developed by white Americans and coded with a racist agenda. There was a biased strategy in the manner in which it was implemented. This is because it involved arresting drug offenders mainly in inner cities instead of also focusing on college campuses and corporate boardrooms. The political elite used the media to create the perception that the black males were violent and dangerous members of the community. However, during this time, studies have shown that even the whites used to sell drugs. The result of this is that the persons who were arrested by the police were disproportionately poor male members of the minority group. The white elites developed these policies in order to develop a wedge between the poor blacks and the poor whites so as to weaken the political union among the poor people.
Alexander has a legal training and bases her arguments on different secondary sources including newspaper articles, policy reports, historical and sociological texts among others. The author uses these sources in Chapters Two and Three to describe the ways in which the surveillance systems, policing and imprisonment work to create disparities among the imprisoned populations. The Latino and Black populations account for 75% of the persons imprisoned for drug use . Alexander’s legal knowledge is brought to fore when she analyzes the Supreme Court decision in McCleskey v. Kemp which is one of the decisions that anchored racism as a way of life for Americans . Alexander also explains the earlier Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio (1968). This is a case which empowered police to stop and frisk people without probable cause if the police officer has a reason to believe that the person stopped has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime . Alexander explains how these laws affect people especially the black males. Through this, Alexander evokes the readers to question the stereotype of who is arrested and why they are arrested. Alexander informs the readers how the complicity in the system has worked to disadvantage the blacks thereby creating heavy devastation on the members of this race. A significant proportion of the persons arrested are poor people hence cannot afford a good lawyer. Through this analysis, the readers can ask the question of whether the government has fulfilled its duty to the citizens and whether it is fair to subject citizens to such treatment. Are these the democratic ideals that America is proud of?
In Chapters Two and Three, Alexander states how the police and prosecutors use their discretion to determine the people who are incarcerated in prisons . As has been mentioned, this is a selective fight on the War on Drugs that result in disproportionate arrests of Latino and Black people. The Supreme Court has anchored this system in law and practice by asserting that racial bias in sentencing cannot be challenged under the Fourteenth Amendment if the petitioners cannot prove discriminatory intent in the prosecution and sentencing. There are certain questions that can be considered in this case. The first question is the attitude of the African Americans to crime and punishment. Do the African Americans consider crime and punishment as discriminatory or they consider crime and punishment as a means of controlling behavior. The other question is the effect that mass incarceration of blacks has on other races in the United States. This is based on the notion that Alexander oversimplified the issue of War on Drugs while taking the focus away from other forms of crime, such as violence on the streets especially among the low income communities .
This is a “colorblind” system of justice that has produced a racial undercaste. Chapter Four of the book describes how felons are locked as undercaste by virtue of law. It is important to note that felon is a label that is ascribed to convicted persons. This label permanently locks the victims into a social and economic subordinate position. Even after they complete their jail terms, such persons find difficulty securing jobs because of discrimination that is brought upon them. They are also denied housing opportunities among other public assistance, such as eligibility for food stamps . The reading of this chapter evokes feelings of empathy on the labelled felons due to the challenges that they experience. How does the society expect them to reintegrate if the society is not providing the necessary social support. Is the purpose of incarceration for ‘character change’ or social control because if it is intended for character change, then the society should be ready to accept the freed convicts back into the society.
In Chapter Five, Alexander compares the New Jim Crow to the old. In this, she states that there are more African Americans who are in correctional control today than they were enslaved in 1850 . However, just like the old Jim Crow, the New Jim Crow legalizes discrimination, segregation and disenfranchisement of the African Americans. In the old Jim Crow period, race was stigmatized due to shame of slavery. This then became shame for the second-class citizen. This was the time period when African Americans were not accorded certain rights, such as the voting rights. This made them be considered as second-class citizens. However, there were different programs that were implemented which improved the social and political participation of African Americans. Currently, the American society still discriminates against the African Americans. The shame in the current setup is on mass incarceration and criminality. The stigma and shame associated with criminality creates silence in the African Americans. This is because the stigma initiates an erasure of humanity from the eyes of the other members of the society thereby justifying the inhumane treatment that the African Americans are subjected to.
There are many instances in which African Americans have experienced confrontation with police officers some of which have been violent resulting in death of innocent persons. However, the New Jim Crow is not a perfect match of the old. This is because racial hostility may not be as prevalent as during the old times. Furthermore, there has been increased participation of African Americans in social, economic and political processes. One of the effects of this is the recent election of President Barack Obama as the President of the United States. In most instances, members of the African American communities have been silent on their negative experiences.
The New Jim Crow is a reality which the United States cannot ignore. The reason for this is that this phenomenon has an implication on the life and future of the nation. Alexander states that the nation should stop “colorblindness” meaning that the societal members should learn to recognize and appreciate the racial differences. This means that there is need for development of cost-effective criminal justice system that is fair and just to all persons irrespective of their races. This system should focus on legitimately curbing crime. The effect of this will be reduction in the number of incarcerations which will help reduce the amount of tax bill that is used to maintain prisons. The savings can be used in provision of other social services, such as education and healthcare.
The New Jim Crow is a call to arms. However, the author does not call for violent confrontations. Rather, the author calls for advocacy and improvement of the social and economic conditions that African Americans are exposed to. In the book Alexander does not suggest for abandonment of litigation and policy. However, there is need for consideration of the whole-sum of the issue in order to ensure that the society wins the whole battle instead of winning isolated battles and losing out on the larger war.
- Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2012.
- Embrick, David G. “Book Review: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Humanity & Society 37, no. 2, (2013): 178-180.
- Forman, James. “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow.” Racial Critiques 87, (2012): 102-146.
- McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987)
- Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)