The New Jim Crow 

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness 

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5 stars
A painful but necessary look at America's 21st century racial caste system

I remember well the chills I felt listening to Barack Obama’s victory speech from Grant Park in November 2008. As a recent immigrant to the United States, it seemed like I was witnessing an important new beginning for a country that had struggled with the legacy of slavery and segregation for so long.

Two years later, legal scholar Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, taking stock of America’s criminal justice system and issuing a warning against premature optimism in light of Obama’s victory. As the title suggests, Alexander’s book links America’s globally unique system of mass imprisonment with the decades of post-slavery segregation, discrimination and voter suppression known as the Jim Crow era (named after a racist blackface caricature).

The new racial caste system

Alexander’s thesis is that the system of segregation has simply been replaced by another racial caste system, one which is compatible with America’s newly found ethos of “colorblindness”. Through the “War on Drugs” and related “anti-crime” campaigns heavily targeting poor, black communities (without a plausible justification for this racial bias), the United States swept millions of African-Americans into the criminal justice system.

Massive sentencing disparities such as the whopping 100:1 weight ratio determining crack cocaine vs. cocaine sentences (reduced to 18:1 with the Fair Sentencing Act) kept them there for much longer. Upon release, they are stuck with felony records that are the basis for legalized discrimination ranging from voter disenfranchisement in some states, to housing and employment discrimination. They are a despised underclass which anyone can hate without repercussions.

Through one Supreme Court decision after another, apparent constitutional protections have been eroded at every step of the way — from racially biased policing to unfair sentencing and all-white juries. On page 119 (2012 paperback edition), Alexander notes poignantly:

It is difficult to imagine a system better designed to ensure that racial biases and stereotypes are given free rein—while at the same time appearing to be colorblind—than the one devised by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This system, which never exclusively targets African-Americans but is heavily biased against them, has been established by both Democrats and Republicans. Its foundation was laid by Ronald Reagan and his new “War on Drugs”, while mass incarceration itself was perfected by Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” administration.

Michelle Alexander supports these observations with countless studies and statistics. Her writing is provocative but always grounded in the facts, and her conclusions are inescapably correct.

Importantly, Alexander notes that the “new Jim Crow” is not simply a “gentler” successor to the system of racial segregation that preceded it; it is in many ways more pernicious. Millions have been demonized and caged like animals. But because the system operates largely without open declarations of racist beliefs, it is difficult to challenge or even talk about without predictable “then just don’t commit crimes” responses (ignoring that white people go free for the same crimes that black people are punished for).

The system endures

Since Alexander’s book was published, no major criminal justice reform has been implemented, and America continues to lead the world incarceration rankings. Its prisons are known for human rights abuses, from shackling pregnant women (even during delivery) to forcing prisoners to endure extreme heat (and sometimes die from it). It practices solitary confinement for long periods under horrific conditions, and even forces prisoners to share cells designed for solitary use, leading to predictable results.

Barack Obama was succeeded by a far-right reactionary with open sympathies for white nationalists and other despicable groups. Indeed, Donald Trump ran a playbook “law and order” campaign frequently employing racist stereotypes, primarily targeting immigrants. After losing the popular vote by millions, he was swept into office by an electoral system that was designed to boost slave-owning states’ voting power based on how many slaves they owned.

The new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is keen to reboot the War on Drugs once more, and has already reinstated harsher sentences for low-level drug offenses. For-profit prisons, police militarization and civil forfeiture are en vogue again. Together, these measures ensure that mass incarceration will be with us for years to come. And by pardoning indisputably racist, vile and criminal Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Donald Trump himself has sent a clear message about his expectations from law enforcement.

An essential guide to an ugly reality

New developments notwithstanding, seven years after the first edition, Alexander’s book remains an essential guide to uncovering the reality of America’s new system of racial control. It is a difficult, painful read, but it opens our eyes to the scale and severity of this challenge.

Though written by a legal scholar, Alexander is critical of tunnel vision and the “NGO-ization” of liberation movements. Indeed, if you previously thought that the US Supreme Court is on the side of moral progress, this book will convince you that it all too frequently simply bolsters the prevailing systems of control. Though Alexander advocates no specific political philosophy, she endorses broad movement-based politics in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. (including his frequently forgotten Poor People’s Campaign).

Alexander’s scholarship has predictably been questioned by people invested in the status quo, but it is rock solid. When looking at attempted “rebuttals”, be sure you’ve actually read her entire book (she anticipates many responses), and that you’re familiar with the “stock and flow” distinction.

Also note that Alexander does not explore in-depth the connection between the drug war and violence; other scholars have demonstrated that drug-related violence is the inevitable byproduct of aggressive prohibition politics. Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream about the drug war, while not as rigorous as Alexander’s work, is an easy read and very complementary (see my review).

Finally, while The New Jim Crow is well-sourced, it uses statistics primarily to underscore its key points; for extensive charts and data, see sites like the Sentencing Project, Vera, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Brennan Center.