The New Jim Crow tracks the ways that United States' law and custom has evolved from the Civil War to the present to maintain what Michelle Alexander calls America's "racial caste system" in various iterations. The thesis of the book is that the history of race relations in America can be divided into thee major periods corresponding to three such iterations:
1) slavery, which was foundational to American society and culture and persisted in its classical form until the Civil War and reconstruction in the 1860s;
2) Jim Crow, which emerged in the wake of reconstruction as a way to keep the "racial caste" system intact and persisted until the civil rights movement; and
3) mass incarceration, which emerged in response to the civil rights movement just as Jim Crow emerged in response to reconstruction.
The laws and court cases that Alexander tracks in the book are meant to help her tell the story of how these transitions took place in order to prove her overall thesis: mass incarceration is the current way that America maintains its "racial caste" system.
Two important pieces of legislation serve as examples in her analysis of the transition from slavery to Jim Crow in response to Reconstruction. One is the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was intended to "bestow full citizenship upon African Americans" (29). This law, as well as the 14th Amendment, was passed to counter the "black codes" passed at the state level, which returned black Americans to a state close to slavery. The impact of this legislation, however, was "largely symbolic," especially in light of language in the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery except as punishment for a crime. This brings me to the case Ruffin v Commonwealth (1871), in which the Supreme Court of Virginia "put to rest any notion that convicts were legally distinguishable from slaves" (31). Part of Alexander's point in recounting this history is to point out that the civil rights legislation of the 1960s was not the first time that the United States legally abolished one form of structural racism only to have it return in other forms.
This brings me to Alexander's treatment of the transition from Jim Crow to mass incarceration a century after Reconstruction. Much of this revolves around the so-called "War on Drugs." Alexander cites Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who "felt compelled to remind his colleagues that there is, in fact, 'no drug exception' written into the constitution" (61). Alexander's point is that the war on drugs provided exactly the same kind of "exception" to civil rights legislation in the wake of the civil rights movement that the 13th Amendment did to reconstruction legislation a century earlier. The pattern is the same: abolish one racist system but create a zone of exception that you can then fit all the old forms of discrimination into.
Alexander cites a number of laws and Supreme Court cases having to do with the War on Drugs to demonstrate that this is the case. In California v Acevedo, for example, the court ruled in favor of warrantless searches and seizures of property in drug cases, creating the legal grounds for such racist policing tactics as "stop and frisk" that persist to this day. According to Alexander, "The first major sign that the Supreme Court would not allow the 4th Amendment to interfere with the prosecution of the War on Drugs came in Florida v Bostick," in which the court upheld the warrantless search of a man who had been sleeping in the back of a Greyhound bus and ended up being charged with trafficking cocaine.
The key idea is that these cases created "exceptions" to the rights supposedly universally granted to American citizens under the pretext of fighting the War on Drugs. Because of this, police were allowed to specifically target black and brown Americans so as to create a criminalized "under-caste" of people convicted of felony offenses—especially drug offenses—who, due to the provisions of the 13th Amendment, can be disenfranchised for life and put to hard-labor conditions in prison that resemble slavery, and they can be denied public housing and legally subjected to employment discrimination when they get out.