The New Jim Crow Summary

In The New Jim Crow, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander makes the case that the system of Jim Crow never died. It just took a new form in the shape of mass incarceration. Today, African American men are labelled “criminals” and stripped of their freedom, their voting rights, and their access to government programs.

  • The original Jim Crow laws date back to the Reconstruction Era immediately following the Civil War. As soon as freed slaves were given rights, white politicians and former slave owners began imposing a series of laws that segregated African Americans and stripped them of their civil liberties, including the right to vote.

  • Following the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs.” Since then, "three strikes" laws and harsh mandatory minimums for minor drug offenses have resulted in a wave of mass incarceration that has affected African Americans more than any other group.

  • Alexander points to a series of Supreme Court decisions that have reinforced this racially prejudiced system. Police officers are now given wide discretion to stop and search virtually anyone they suspect of drug-related crime, and internalized racial biases lead officers to disproportionately target people of color.

 

Summary

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...

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