The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the age of Colorblindness (Book Review)

  • Oishi Sen
  • July 26, 2020

Content :

Since its publication on January 5, 2010 by The New Press, the book has held its position in the New York Times Bestseller list for more than a year. Seldom does a book have as profound an effect as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America but have simply redesigned it. She was born to an interracial couple in Chicago, Illinois. The book derives its title from Alexander\'s central premise, which, is that mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow. In the 312 pages of the book, Alexander advances a compelling and intellectual conversation addressing the deliberate systematic imposition of legal restrictions upon the blacks by the correctional system in the United States. She aims to radically reverse the readers’ perception of the relationship between the criminal justice system and violence. Behind a façade of colorblindness, the U.S. criminal justice functions as a contemporary system of racial control.”

"Jarvious Cotton\'s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Klu Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole."

“Following the civil war, southern legislators designed Jim Crow laws to thwart the newly emancipated black population, notably curbing voting rights. Jim Crow laws restricted blacks’ access to housing, education, employment, and the franchise. The wave of policies Jeremy Travis calls” “invisible punishments,” “restrictions of particular rights and entitlements, function as the New Jim Crow. Such punishments are insidious as they are often devised through administrative regulation, separate and apart from the judicial process, and it is difficult to track how many individuals are affected by these invisible punishments as they vary by state. The consequences include difficulty finding a place to live upon reentry to the community because of limited access to public housing, and bleak job prospects. Under the laws, the black people were increasingly relegated to convict leasing camps that were, in many ways, worse than slavery. The Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954, and a simultaneous swelling Civil Rights Movement, led to the downfall of Jim Crow. However, law and order rhetoric and politics paved the way for the emergence of the New Jim Crow. If Jim Crow was an effective means of controlling the black population, then modern mass incarceration, Alexander argues, is its successor. Even after the Jim Crow has been wiped off, an astounding percentage of the African American community still find themselves subjected to those laws, much like their grandparents and great grandparents.”

“The nodal point of Alexander’s argument is the War on Drugs. She first critiques what she calls the roundup, meaning police practices that are the point of entry for blacks’ involvement with the criminal justice system. She illustrates how fourth amendment rights have been eroded by Supreme Court decisions expanding the circumstances under which police may stop, interrogate, and search people under the guise of consent. Police fight the War on Drugs in predominantly African American and Latino communities, independent of the prevalence of drug use among whites. Drug convictions have greatly fuelled the prison population in the U.S., and an extraordinary number of those accused have been black, which is not coincidental. Alexander asserts that the Reagan administration’s””“war on drugs” “shifted the legal goalposts, leading to a situation in which mass incarceration”“emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-designed system of racial social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow”. She refers to it as the drug “war” “for it was not against the crack cocaine but propaganda against the black people. About a decade ago, 55% of the adult black males in Chicago had a felony record. Through her forceful writing, Alexander outlines how the Reagan government exploited 1980s hysteria over crack cocaine to blame the black population, so much so that black and crime became interchangeable. Alexander doesn’t understate the devastation caused by crack cocaine, quoting the historian David Kennedy’s observation that it”blew through America’s black neighborhoods like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”But if the war on drugs was simply a question of controlling crime then college campuses, rather than black ghettos, would have been a safer bet. In 2000, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that white students used crack cocaine at eight times the rate of black students. Alexander draws stark comparisons with the prosecutions of drunk drivers. Cocaine is a scourge in US society but drunk driving (by white men 70% of the time) results in far more violent deaths, yet drunk drivers are often charged with misdemeanors.

“First, the book challenges us to question how and why so many of us, as in, the public at large, such as scholars, intellectuals, and policy makers, choose to marginalize the centrality of race in the story of mass incarceration even as we superficially acknowledge its continued significance. No scholar can credibly deny the racial implications of mass incarceration. The numbers alone, in all their variations, tell a sobering story. Half of the prison population is African American; 8 percent of black children have an incarcerated parent; one in three young black men are on probation, parole, or in prison; and countless black men and women leave prisons to begin the process of re-entry into their families and communities. Such statistics are repeatedly reported, and fortunately a number of scholars have performed very sophisticated analyses of the impact of incarceration on the life chances of African Americans. Alexander begins by first providing us a rich historical context for this state of affairs, focusing on the repeated cycle of black advancement and subsequent oppression. After Emancipation, Southern whites felt threatened by the prospect of a free black population competing for low skilled jobs. Ku Klux Klan violence provided one means of intimidation and social control, but Southern states, in particular, quickly moved to codify blacks’ inferior status through poll taxes, grandfather clauses and vagrancy laws. These Jim Crow statutes provided a legal means of ensuring blacks could not achieve equality with whites.”

“As the subtitle of the book indicates, mass incarceration exists within the paradox of increasing opportunities for blacks in the political, educational, and economic arenas; during an era of supposed colorblindness. This is not such a paradox, however, because in the United States, opportunities for blacks have always existed dangerously close to subsequent restrictions on advancement and equality. Emancipation begat Jim Crow, Brown v. Board of Education the residential segregation Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton called American Apartheid, and affirmative action policies mass incarceration. The history, of course, is more nuanced and complex than this, which is what makes Alexander’s analysis so engaging. In addition to the legal barriers, people with felony convictions face societal scorn and stigma that makes reintegration a long and arduous process. Alexander provides great detail about these parallels between Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow, including the role of popular culture in reinforcing stereotypes that blacks are inferior and criminal, while being clear that there are also differences between the two systems. Most importantly, race operates in different ways under the New Jim Crow. While blacks under Jim Crow faced overt hostility and violence, the New Jim Crow, Alexander suggests, is not entirely driven by explicitly racists views held by individual actors, but rather various systems that converge, in a seemingly race neutral fashion, to trap blacks in the system of mass incarceration. She uses the analogy of a bird cage, in which any single bar is insignificant, but when placed together, one has an all encompassing cage, much like a prison cell and the invisible punishments that follow incarceration. Alexander maintains that this undercaste is hidden from view, invisible within a maze of rationalizations, with mass incarceration its most serious manifestation. Alexander borrows from the term racial caste, as it is commonly used in scientific literature, to create undercaste, denoting a stigmatized racial group locked into inferior position by law and custom. By mass incarceration she refers to the web of laws, rules, policies and customs that make up the criminal justice system and which serve as a gateway to permanent marginalization in the undercaste. Once released from prison, new members of this undercaste face a hidden underworld of legalized discrimination and permanent social exclusion.”

“According to Alexander, crime and punishment are poorly correlated, and the present US criminal justice system has effectively become a system of social control unparalleled in any other Western democracy, with its targets largely defined by race. The rate of incarceration in the US has soared, while its crime rates have generally remained similar to those of other Western countries, where incarceration rates have remained stable. The current rate of incarceration in the US is six to ten times greater than in other industrialized nations, and Alexander maintains that this disparity is not correlated to the fluctuation of crime rates, but can be traced mostly to the artificially invoked War on Drugs and its associated discriminatory policies. The US embarked on an unprecedented expansion of its juvenile detention and prison systems.”

“Alexander writes that Americans are ashamed of their racial history, and therefore avoid talking about race, or even class, so the terms used in her book may seem unfamiliar to many. Americans want to believe that everybody is capable of upward mobility, given enough effort on his or her part; this assumption forms a part of the national collective self-image. Alexander points out that a large percentage of African Americans are hindered by the discriminatory practices of an ostensibly colorblind criminal justice system, which end up creating an undercaste where upward mobility is severely constrained.”

“Alexander believes that the existence of the New Jim Crow system is not disproved by the election of Barack Obama and other examples of exceptional achievement among African Americans, but on the contrary the New Jim Crow system depends on such exceptionalism. She contends that the system does not require overt racial hostility or bigotry on the part of another racial group or groups. Indifference is sufficient to support the system. Alexander argues that the system reflects an underlying racial ideology and will not be significantly disturbed by half-measures such as laws mandating shorter prison sentences. Like its predecessors, the new system of racial control has been largely immune from legal challenge. She writes that a human tragedy is unfolding, and The New Jim Crow is intended to stimulate a much-needed national discussion about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States. Alexander appeared in a 2012 documentary Hidden Colors 2: The Triumph of Melanin, in which she discussed the impact of mass incarceration in melanoid communities. Alexander said:” 

“Today there are more African American adults, under correctional control, in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850 a decade before the Civil War began.”

“Alexander was inspired by (as she wrote in the New York Times):”

“the astonishing changes that have been made in the last several years on a wide range of criminal justice issues” “including Florida restoring voting rights to more than 1.4 million people with felony convictions. But she is skeptical about the technological fix championed by enthusiasts of algorithms determining who should or shouldn’t be incarcerated. Notwithstanding improvements to the US judicial system, this distressing book offers important lessons for all societies that claim color-blindness but enact policies that scapegoat marginalized groups. Color-blindness leads to denial, believes Alexander; better to strive for color-consciousness.” 

“This already compelling book ends with the bold assertion that affirmative action policies may be inadvertently contributing to the New Jim Crow. Alexander argues that civil rights leaders are reluctant to take up the cause of mass incarceration as a system of racial inequality because of the fear that defending blacks who have committed crimes tarnishes the image of the entire black community. Hence, championing issues such as affirmative action, housing discrimination, and economic equality is less risky to impression management, with a greater likelihood of producing tangible changes. Affirmative action, in particular, Alexander says, may be the racial bribe that prevents us from critiquing and challenging the system of mass incarceration with true depth. She acknowledges that these are challenging problems that cannot be adequately addressed within the scope of her book. Alexander’s book is crucial reading for those who study the criminal justice system, as well as historians, legal scholars, and policy makers. In addition, it highlights the need to view mass incarceration through the lens of racial and social justice. It is troubling to call The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness satisfying, because the message it conveys is so disturbing. Yet, the work is a fine achievement because it forces the reader to view the present alongside an era we thought we left far behind, rendering the devastation of the New Jim Crow.”