Chapter 5: "The New Jim Crow" Summary

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Last Reviewed on March 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1336

Just after winning the nomination for the Democratic Party, future President Barack Obama delivered a passionate speech on Father’s Day to a largely black audience on the subject of “AWOL” fathers in the black community. Media outlets applauded Obama’s respectable message, and some journalists criticized Obama for pandering to white audiences, but none of the news coverage acknowledged that mass incarceration is the reason for the dearth of black men in social spaces—as providers for families or as eligible bachelors.

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Alexander explains this feigned ignorance, citing both the public’s lack of awareness and denial of responsibility. Denial is a simultaneous experience of knowing and not knowing, because it is more difficult to comprehend complex truths than to assign simple explanations to the status quo. Americans are adept at using this denial to defend the colorblind nature of their criminal justice system. Although they know that people of color face discrimination, they do not connect this discrimination to the system of mass incarceration.

Alexander argues that people have a simplistic understanding of racism, based on examples of its most overt form. Therefore, people find it difficult to understand structural racism because they can not accept that such systems do not require obvious discrimination or hatred in order to thrive. Using the borrowed sociological metaphor of a birdcage, Alexander explains how each wire represents a different aspect of the system. Some of these wires, though not constructed to trap the bird, function with others to do so. It is not the single law or institution that creates a racial undercaste but the interconnectedness of many that achieve this goal—even without the public noticing.

This cage metaphor guides the rest of the chapter, as Alexander portrays mass incarceration as a system of social control. The War on Drugs is the mechanism by which individuals are moved toward the cage and through its open door. The discretionary, massive roundup of people of color suspected of criminal activity ensures that black and brown individuals are singled out for entrapment. The corrupt system of mandatory minimums, discriminatory sentencing, and plea bargaining close the cage door, formally controlling individuals while they serve their prison terms. Once the cage door is unlocked, these individuals enter into a much larger “invisible” cage: lifelong legal discrimination and social stigma. Therefore, mass incarceration—literally and figuratively—cages people of color.

Alexander uses Chicago as an example of this system’s success. Despite being one of the country’s most diverse, “vibrant” metropolises, Chicago has one of the highest rates of mass incarceration among its black population. Citing various statistics, Alexander shows that mass incarceration in Chicago reflects the immense scope of the problem: instead of a small minority of urban black people relegated to criminal status, the majority of black individuals are now directly or indirectly affected.

Alexander next discusses the parallels between mass incarceration and other systems of social control. Historically, Jim Crow proponents justified their views as aimed at reducing crime, just as proponents of the War on Drugs would a century later. Legally, racial discrimination is outlawed, yet discrimination based on criminality is permissible. Much like the poll taxes and literacy tests of the past, punitive fees and identification laws exclude people of color from voting. Echoing the three-fifths clause that granted more political power to slave states, prisoners artificially inflate the populations of white rural communities, thus increasing the latter’s political representation. All-white juries trying black defendants is...

(The entire section contains 1336 words.)

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