The New Jim Crow

by Michelle Alexander

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The New Jim Crow Summary

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander was published in 2010 and argues that Jim Crow lives on through mass incarceration, which strips black men of their freedom, voting rights, and access to government programs.

  • Jim Crow dates back to the Reconstruction Era, when newly freed black Americans were stripped of their civil liberties.

  • Following the Civil Rights Movement, Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs.” Harsh sentences for minor drug offenses have since resulted in the disproportionate incarceration of black Americans.

  • Police officers have broad discretion to target anyone they suspect of drug-related crime, and racial biases lead officers to target people of color.

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The New Jim Crow is Michelle Alexander's eye-opening examination of the racial bias in America’s criminal justice system and its impact on the African American community. As a prominent civil rights lawyer and activist, Alexander draws on her personal experiences and her deep knowledge of United States law to argue that our current legal system is unfairly biased against African Americans—even more so than other minorities.

A Legacy of Oppression

Alexander begins by taking readers back to the days of slavery, arguing that because slave owners didn't consider slaves people, instead thinking of slaves as their property, they were not inclined to give former slaves rights, before or after the United States Civil War. Abraham Lincoln's famed Emancipation Proclamation was, Alexander writes, a largely theoretical document that was unable to end slavery in the South. Even after the Union won the Civil War, former slaves had to fight for the rights afforded to them by the Constitution. This was not an easy task.

Unsurprisingly, disgruntled slave owners and white politicians in the South wanted to maintain the status quo after the Civil War. This meant systematically oppressing African Americans, using both laws and violence to keep the population in check. One way they did this was by funneling African Americans into the penal system and labeling them convicts.

Many African Americans were arrested on trumped up or even nonexistent charges and refused due process. Once in the system, African American prisoners were farmed out to former slave owners and put to work on the same plantations as before. Even worse, now that African Americans were "free," the slave owners no longer had any real incentive to keep them alive. As a result, prisoners were often worked to death.

Life in the Jim Crow South

False imprisonment was just one of the methods the white ruling class used to oppress the African American population. Disenfranchisement was another, and in addition to laws restricting voting rights, many Southern states imposed poll taxes and literacy tests that targeted the poor, illiterate masses. Those African Americans who managed to register anyway were victimized by racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Lynching was extremely common, and hate crimes targeting African Americans were ignored by the authorities.

Jim Crow laws were designed with one goal in mind: making African Americans second class citizens. This was achieved through voter suppression, violence, unfair policing practices, and, most notably, segregation. Segregation mandated the separation of whites and African Americans in everyday life. Black people were forced to attend separate schools, pray at separate churches, sit at the back of the bus, and even drink from different water fountains. These policies were upheld by the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson which declared that black people were "separate but equal" under the law.

In practice, of course, African Americans were not considered equal, and their right to exist was constantly under siege from the white upper class. Even after the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, segregation remained in effect, persisting for ten years or so until schools in the South were finally forced to desegregate. As a result of segregation, African Americans began to cluster in insular urban communities and neighborhoods, where many of them still reside today.

The War on Drugs Begins

Segregation has had disastrous long-term effects on the African American population. It isolated them in their communities, trapping them in neighborhoods with high levels of crime and poverty, where the police were able to label young black men criminals by virtue of their surroundings rather than their behavior. Alexander cites a 2002...

(This entire section contains 1692 words.)

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study conducted at the University of Washington in Seattle, where researchers found that, despite evidence showing that citizen complaints were overwhelmingly about drug activity indoors and in private residencies, Seattle police officers focused on open-air drug markets where black dealers were arrested at a much higher rate than their white counterparts. Note that Seattle's drug offenders and dealers are more likely to be white.

Furthermore, officers spent an inordinate amount of time investing crack dealers, even though heroin was far more deadly, accounting for more deaths than crack and cocaine combined. Researchers concluded that, as there was no logical reason for these allocations of resources, the Seattle Police Department's decisions reflected a "racialized conception of the drug problem." To learn more, Alexander does what any good researcher would do in this kind of situation: she follows the money. The Seattle Police Department's disproportionate focus on black drug crimes is a direct result of the "War on Drugs," which officially began in 1971 when President Nixon described illegal drugs as “public enemy number one” despite the fact that drug-related crime in the late 1960s and early 1970s was fairly low.

Alexander argues that the War on Drugs was a coded way to appeal to working-class whites who resented the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. She notes that the Reagan administration launched an extensive media effort to create a drug hysteria over crack cocaine, a drug used primarily by African Americans. As sensationalized stories about crack began to dominate the news cycle, drug use in general became strongly associated with the African American community—a misperception that persists today. Today, the United States federal government spends millions and millions of dollars per year on grants incentivizing police stations to focus on drug-related crime, a problem that wasn't really a problem when the War was declared.

Mass Incarceration or the “Lockdown”

In the years since the War on Drugs was first declared, drug-related crime has actually gone up, not down. This is due in large part to the disproportionately harsh sentencing associated with drug crimes. In many states, "three strikes" laws have been implemented, which mandate long or even life sentences for all third-time offenders—even if the offenses themselves are relatively minor. Despite arguments to the contrary, the Supreme Court ruled that three strikes laws were not cruel and unusual punishment in the case Lockyer v. Andrade.

The War on Drugs has produced an inordinate number of drug arrests, and mandatory minimum sentencing laws often result in excessively long sentences that are more likely to produce repeat offenders. In fact, drug-related convictions account for two-thirds of the inmate population in the United States. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of incarcerated people in the U.S. rose from 300,000 to over two million. In the same time period, the incarceration rate for African Americans skyrocketed, becoming more than twenty-six times higher. It should come as no surprise, then, that most prison inmates today are African American.

This wave of mass incarceration has had devastating effects on the African American community. It has imprisoned whole generations of young black men, deprived families of their fathers and sons, and brought the African American community great shame. In a supposedly post-racial America, where a black man can be elected president, the idea of "colorblindness" remains a lie. In reality, Alexander argues, we are living in a "new Jim Crow" era that began as backlash to the Civil Rights Movement.

Most felons are released into a world that has no respect for them, and African Americans who have "paid their debt to society" quickly find that this debt can never truly be paid. As a condition of their release, they are required to seek lawful employment; and yet they are required to check a box on job applications that labels them a felon, effectively shutting them out of most professions. When they do find work, their wages are frequently garnished in order to pay child support or the fees that come with their incarceration. After taxes, this garnishing can account for 100% of their paychecks. Faced with such a bleak financial picture, it is not surprising that many parolees return to a life of crime.

The Myth of a Post-Racial America

Though the election of Barack Obama was an important event, he is also an example of what Alexander calls "black exceptionalism." Black exceptionalism refers to the relatively small percentage of African Americans who become highly visible examples of black success and, from the public's point of view, rise above the life of poverty, crime, or drug abuse. Such examples of success are then used to suggest that anyone of any race can overcome adverse circumstances, so long as they try hard enough. In reality, however, this rarely plays out, and once in the system, young black men are rarely able to shake their “criminal” label.

Despite all the evidence suggesting that African Americans are made into criminals by a prejudiced justice system, the system continues to target and disadvantage African Americans. A series of Supreme Court cases has allowed the police to stop drivers for any and all traffic violations, conduct searches without warrants and without letting the suspect know that they can refuse, stop and frisk anyone who appears to be involved in criminal activity (a subjective thing), then use the evidence they gather in court, where prosecutors are free to stack juries with white jurors. In nearly all of these cases, the laws that these court cases uphold were not written with overtly racially prejudiced language, but have been selectively enforced so as to be prejudicial.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Given the mountain of laws, Supreme Court cases, and prejudiced bureaucracies stacked against the African American population, the future does not look bright. Alexander notes that civil rights are in jeopardy, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to fight for these rights in court. What, then, do we do?

The New Jim Crow explains the current state of affairs and outlines the different laws, policies, and court decisions that have brought us to this point. These are the same laws, policies, and decisions that must be reversed in order for African Americans to have justice, but this will not be easy. Alexander believes that everyone, not just African Americans, must first acknowledge that a mass incarceration problem exists. She hopes that the ideas in The New Jim Crow will serve as a jumping off point for scholars, activists, and ordinary Americans as they begin to have a difficult but necessary conversation about the future of racial justice.


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