The New Jim Crow

by Michelle Alexander

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Chapter 5: "The New Jim Crow" Summary

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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.

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 still commonplace, and the fickleness of the courts on matters of racial discrimination ensures that no consistent progress is achieved. Like the racial segregation of the past, prisoners are separated from the white...

(This entire section contains 1336 words.)

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majority before returning to racially self-segregated neighborhoods. Finally, criminality defines blackness just as slavery and Jim Crow did.

Society often blames black men for choosing to be criminals in ways it never blamed slaves for their enslavement. Alexander also notes that while white criminals face stigma as well, only black offenders’ criminality is a racial stigma. Fundamentally, black criminality in the age of mass incarceration reflects all black men, whereas white criminality is not used to argue that all white men are criminals. As a result, black men are often treated as if they are criminals, even in the absence of any criminal activity. This results in a societal stigma that affects all black men, even those whose criminal records are nonexistent. The stigma begins when black men are still children, and Alexander insists that police presence in urban ghettos communicates to black youth that they are naturally social pariahs. This process of “making” black men into criminals is necessary for the system of mass incarceration to exert control.

After discussing the similarities between Jim Crow and mass incarceration, Alexander reviews key differences that are often overlooked: While many emphasize the racially explicit nature of Jim Crow as the most crucial distinction from mass incarceration, Alexander suggests this is irrelevant, since both systems rely on unequal enforcement of neutral policies. The more significant difference in her view is the absence of overt racial hostility in public spaces and institutions compared to the brazen bigots of the past. However, Alexander suggests that racial indifference has always been central to any racial caste system’s success, including Jim Crow and slavery. Whites who have a narrow definition of racism may be alienated from a cause they support if critics accuse them of championing a racist system, Alexander says. Instead, Alexander underscores that a lack of compassion or mutuality across racial divides is most responsible for mass incarceration.

Another crucial distinction between these two systems of control is the harm mass incarceration brings to whites. White people also suffer because of the War on Drugs, as the unintended “collateral damage.” In the age of colorblindness, most Americans would be unwilling to accept a prison population that was completely free of white inmates, as this would violate the illusion of race-neutrality. Though whites are negatively impacted, it is clear that African Americans are the targets of the drug war, as shown by society’s shifting perception toward drugs that become associated with white users. Marijuana, for example, is treated as less dangerous than other narcotics because of the shifting demographics of its users during the 1960s.

The most notable difference is black support for harsh policies governing criminality. Though blacks who suffered under Jim Crow were arguably more unified in their discontent, people of color are not generally supportive of punitive measures (as is often claimed), and evidence shows that black people are less inclined to support tough criminal crackdowns, even though they are the population most likely to be victims of crime. Alexander argues that blacks are frustrated with police’s treatment of their fathers, husbands, and sons, but also loathe the high incidence of violent crime in their communities—a phenomena correlated with high unemployment. As a result, many blacks comply with mass incarceration rather than risk an increase in already rampant violence.

The biggest mistake outsiders make when claiming that blacks support tough criminal penalties is believing that blacks are a monolith. On the contrary, black people have always had internal debates over the best approach to gain respect and equality. From the respectability politics of Booker T. Washington and Bill Cosby to the systematic dismantling of W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr., black people hold a range of ideas on the subject. Complicating this diversity of thought is the divide between the black elite and the urban poor, the former of which often claims to speak for the latter, despite historically supporting harmful policies like the Atlanta New Deal “slum-clearing.”

Ultimately, Alexander argues that mass incarceration is deliberately engineered to divide black communities and marginalize black Americans. This marginalization, she says, is more detrimental in some ways than the systems of slavery and Jim Crow. While these systems relied on the exploitation of black labor, mass incarceration renders black people irrelevant to modern society—treating them as disposable outcasts unworthy of attention.


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