Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1267
Leading with an anecdote about a convicted felon named Jarvious Cotton, Alexander argues that people of color in the United States are suffering from the unfair ways in which the criminal justice system targets black and brown people. Once one receives a conviction, one is permanently denied job opportunities, voting rights, and social services. Alexander—who previously viewed these as unfortunate consequences of institutional bias—explains how she reached the conclusion that mass incarceration is actually a system of social control that aims to relegate people of color to second-class status.
Alexander briefly touches on the now-obsolete discourse of social scientists in the 1970s who predicted the eventual abolition of prisons due to their lack of effectiveness and the trend of declining crime rates. This prediction, which seemed plausible at the time, now seems laughable given the rise of mass incarceration in the years since.
Alexander refers to mass incarceration as the New Jim Crow, a racial caste system that bars people of color from mainstream society and economy. Though she acknowledges that many will argue her assessment is hyperbolic, Alexander maintains that mass incarceration is the next major hurdle for the civil rights movement.
The rest of the introduction outlines the contents of each chapter. Alexander explains that her book primarily focuses on African American men as victims of the New Jim Crow, though she hopes other scholars will pick up where she has left off to discuss the unique relationships other genders and minorities have with the criminal justice system.
The Rebirth of Caste
Alexander uses the impotence of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment as examples of how racial progress has been thwarted throughout history, despite reforms. She uses the phrase “preservation through transformation” to describe how white supremacy adapts to the changing rules that govern how society defines and addresses race. In order to achieve their goals, those who want to maintain a racial hierarchy must appeal to the underlying racial anxieties of (mostly poor) whites without directly invoking race.
First, Alexander traces the development of Southern slavery. What first began as an economy reliant on indentured servants and both white and black slaves transformed as the demand for free labor increased. Bacon’s Rebellion, a revolt against the wealthy Southern planters in Virginia, united blacks and poor whites and inspired fear among plantation owners.
Once this rebellion and others like it were quelled, planters implemented measures to deter future cross-racial alliances. Importing more African slaves, who were unfamiliar with European languages and customs, while granting poor whites new privileges not extended to blacks successfully divided the races.
The system of slavery also helped to shape the American constitution, which allowed for states’ rights and a weak federal government to ensure that Southern slaveholders could maintain the systems they had built. Alexander argues that slavery played an important role in the very foundation of our burgeoning nation’s government.
During the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War, Southern whites, fearful of unrestricted blacks, developed vagrancy laws—which made it illegal to be jobless—and criminal codes that forced many freed slaves to serve white planters as punishment for criminal violations. Alexander suggests that these were the seeds of the mass incarceration of the present.
Despite many positive changes during this period, including voting rights and increased education, many of the laws designed to protect former slaves from abuse were not enforced. Furthermore, policies that enforced segregation became the norm, which led to the development of black codes collectively referred to as Jim Crow.
A particularly cruel component of the post-Reconstruction era was its convict colonies, where black “criminals” were subjected to conditions even worse than slavery and death rates were high. Alexander notes that in the period after Reconstruction, dubbed Redemption, the prison population ballooned at ten times the rate of civilian growth. Redeemers from distinct political parties hoped to sway Southern blacks during this period.
Unlike the paternalistic liberals and the harsh conservatives, new Populists advocated for an alliance among all of the region’s poor against the corporate elite, a philosophy that gained traction among black voters. However, conservatives used intimidation, bribery, and violence to obliterate this alliance of poor Southerners, using blacks as a scapegoat. Soon, Jim Crow laws were passed across the region, as conservatives stoked racial hatred and encouraged a universal system of segregation.
The overwhelming success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s abolished Jim Crow segregation laws while earning the approval from whites outside the south. Alexander suggests that the genocides of World War II, a fear of communism, and new social realities contributed to white endorsement of civil rights. Alongside the legal protections won during the movement, overt racism became politically incorrect. As a result, white conservatives who wanted to maintain racial hierarchy were forced to reevaluate the language they used to promote their ideology. Support for segregation was reframed as a belief in “law and order,” which allowed whites to avoid accusations of overt racism in a new political climate that no longer condoned it. This shift occurred just as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, and many southern conservatives criticized the tactics of black protestors as illegal and chaos-inducing. It was relatively easy for these same conservatives to connect civil rights with the deterioration of law and order as the FBI reported widespread increases in violent crime. Alexander notes that the media often supported this narrative, thus popularizing the notion that blacks were criminals.
Legislators who once supported segregation laws became proponents of “tough on crime” bills, which gained support among racist whites and urban blacks who were anxious about crime increases in their communities. Alexander then explains how the political parties in the United States realigned following the Great Depression: the poor, many of whom were black and/or southern, benefited most from Democratic New Deal measures. Over time, the Democratic Party consolidated broad support from both urban blacks and rural whites, an alliance that cemented the party’s national dominance. In an effort to undermine this dominance, Republicans attempted to split Democratic support by subtly courting racist voters in the 1970s; this was one component of the “Southern Strategy,” which was successfully employed by President Nixon.
By the time Ronald Reagan ran for president, the Southern Strategy had already proved effective. Poor whites were more affected by civil rights reforms than the upper-class, white liberals who championed such reforms (and were largely insulated from their impact). Thus, poor whites were very receptive to Republican claims that the Democratic Party was disconnected from their concerns. This realignment of political support, in which poor whites joined forces with (traditionally) corporate elite Republicans, allowed “law and order” rhetoric to flourish even further. Racialized stereotypes of “welfare queens” abusing social programs and gangbangers dealing drugs became popular tropes in Republican political campaigns. A surge in crack cocaine use in inner cities—which Alexander attributes to rising unemployment as globalization caused urban manufacturing jobs to disappear—led Reagan to announce a “War on Drugs.” The popular media’s sensationalized treatment of the crack epidemic cemented public support for Reagan’s drug “war,” and new crime laws were implemented, including mandatory minimum sentences, special punishments for crack distribution, and felony restrictions on public housing.
To compete with Republicans for white swing voters, Democrats adopted a similar tough-on-crime stance, and the Democratic Clinton administration adopted policies that increased the country’s prison population to over 2 million by 2000. Alexander cites Clinton’s famous “three-strike” rule and the creation of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) as particularly influential in creating a new racial undercaste.