The New Jim Crow

by Michelle Alexander

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The New Jim Crow Characters

The main characters in The New Jim Crow are Michelle Alexander, Barack Obama, and Richard Nixon.

  • Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow. Her central argument is that the oppression blacks faced under Jim Crow never truly disappeared. Instead, it evolved into our present system of mass incarceration, which exerts social control over minorities.
  • Barack Obama is an example of what Alexander calls "black exceptionalism." His visible success obscures the systemic racism in our society.
  • Richard Nixon successfully exploited racial biases among poor whites to win the presidency. As president, he declared a "War on Drugs" that continues today.

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Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow. Alexander graduated from Vanderbilt University and, inspired by the influential civil rights lawyers of the 1950s and 1960s, attended Stanford Law School and become a civil rights attorney. (Read our extended character analysis of Michelle Alexander.)

Barack Obama

Barack Obama was the forty-fourth president of the United States. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander evaluates Barack Obama’s presidency both in terms of his approach toward mass incarceration and his symbolic significance as the nation’s first black president. (Read our extended character analysis of Barack Obama.)

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton was the forty-second president of the United States. Despite being a Democrat, Clinton used the same racially-charged rhetoric that had proved so successful for past Republican presidents, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. (Read our extended character analysis of Bill Clinton.)

Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon was the thirty-seventh president of the United States. During his presidential campaign, Nixon, a Republican, famously pursued a “Southern Strategy” that was intended to siphon off Southern voters who traditionally supported the Democratic party. (Read our extendedcharacter analysis of Richard Nixon.)

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was the 40th President of the United States. During his presidency, Ronald Reagan escalated the “War on Drugs” that Nixon first declared in 1971. Alexander argues that the Reagan administration deliberately promoted a media frenzy over crack cocaine, a drug associated with the African American community. Reagan then exploited the public’s fears about a crack epidemic to justify a rapid expansion of law enforcement agencies.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most famous activists of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. is often remembered for advocating love, peace, and harmony between the races, but Alexander argues that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s goals were much more expansive and radical than a “colorblind” society. Before his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. was planning the next stage of the Civil Rights Movement, which was to focus on economic justice for all races.

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks was an influential figure in the Civil Rights Movement who famously refused to sit in the colored section of a bus. Most people don’t know that civil rights leaders deliberately chose to publicize Rosa Parks over Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, two other women who defied Jim Crow laws, because Parks (unlike the other two) had an unblemished reputation. Alexander cites this decision as an example of the “politics of respectability.”

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois was a respected and influential African American writer. He is best known for his book The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois strongly disagreed with Booker T. Washington’s belief that the black community should focus on self-improvement rather than challenging segregation and racism.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington was an influential author, educator, and leader during the late nineteenth century. Washington urged the black community to focus on improving themselves rather than challenging the racism of American society. It is understandable, Alexander writes, that some blacks felt that it was safest to simply accept segregation—this helps explain why some African Americans were initially resistant to the Civil Rights Movement.

Jarvious Cotton

Javious Cotton’s great-great-grandfather was a slave and, therefore, could not vote. Cotton’s great-grandfather was killed by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote, and his grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting due to literacy tests and poll taxes. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like millions of...

(This entire section contains 823 words.)

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other black men, has been labelled a felon. 

Clinton Drake

Clinton Drake is a fifty-five year old Vietnam veteran who was twice arrested for possession of marijuana. As a repeat offender, Drake was facing ten to twenty years in prison for possession of less than $10 worth of marijuana. He took a plea deal to serve only five years in prison. Now released, Drake considers it a grave injustice that he is unable to vote, especially as he and his sons have all served in the US military.

Willie Horton

William "Willie" Horton was a black man who raped a white woman and assaulted her fiance while on a weekend furlough from prison. While campaigning for president, George H. W. Bush often brought up Horton’s case to arouse the racial fears of white working-class voters and paint his opponent as “soft” on crime.

Kevin Phillips

Kevin Phillips was a Republican strategist during the 1960s and 70s. Phillips correctly predicted that Republicans could realign the political landscape and become the majority party by focusing on racial issues and using coded racial rhetoric to appeal to white voters. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” successfully appealed to white Southern Democrats who disliked the Democratic party’s pro-Civil Rights position, marking the beginning of this political shift.


Michelle Alexander