Chapter 1: "The Rebirth of Caste" Summary

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Last Reviewed on March 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1266

Introduction

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1266 words.)

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