In The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander presents the history of systemic oppression of black people in the United States and provides a thorough analysis about how this oppression has not ended but rather has morphed from plantation slavery to the racist war on drugs and resulting mass incarceration. While the 13th amendment is hailed as the constitutional amendment that liberated black people from the horrors of chattel slavery, the amendment, in fact, provided a loop hole for the continuation of state and societal oppression against black people by stating that
. . . neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
This exception that slavery could exist as punishment for a crime paved the way for the horrifying Jim Crow laws that essentially criminalized black existence in the United States from the end of the 1870s to the 1950s. Former plantations were literally transformed into prisons, with a famous example being the Angola prison in Louisiana that was formally the Angola plantation. Prisons were quickly filled with black people and the prisons sold the labor of the black prisoners to the state and private corporations. Sounds exactly like slavery, huh?
Michelle Alexander traces this history and details how the war on drugs, which was catalyzed in the 1970s by Richard Nixon and which led to an astronomical increase in prison population, was essentially a war on people of color and the poor—particularly poor black men. The rates of drug use in black communities were not nearly at the level of crisis that a racist media depicted, and while white folks and black folks have been found to use drugs at the same rates, it was poor black communities that were heavily targeted during the war on drugs. This war, a war on poor people of color, led to over a 790% increase in the federal prison population from 1980 to the present day. Laws were constructed during the war-on-drugs era that specifically targeted poor and black (especially poor, black) people. For instance, while crack cocaine and powder cocaine are the same drug (except that crack cocaine contains backing powder and water, and powder cocaine contains pure cocaine), the "Anti-Drug Abuse Act" of 1986 declared that distribution of 5 grams of crack cocaine carried a minimum of a 5-year federal prison sentence while distribution of 500 grams of powder cocaine carried the same 5-year federal prison sentence.
So what's the difference that would cause such a sentencing disparity? Crack cocaine, due to its less pure form, is less expensive and therefore more readily used by poorer folks, while powder cocaine is a more pure form of the drug and is more readily used by richer folks. Again, white and black people are proven to use drugs at the same rates. This class divide is also heavily racialized, with poor black folks receiving sentences for crack cocaine and affluent white folks receiving (though not nearly as often) sentences for powder cocaine. This disparity has since been reduced to a 18:1 disparity, but it still highlights exactly why Michelle Alexander has termed the era of mass incarceration as "the new Jim Crow."