Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575
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. Alexander writes that she was elated when Barack Obama won the election in 2008, and like millions of other Americans, she saw his victory as a symbol of America’s racial progress. She, along with other civil rights activists, were excited to have a president who seemed to appreciate the racial component to the War on Drugs. During the campaign, Obama was forthright about his youthful use of marijuana, and he seemed cognizant of just how differently his life could have turned out.
Alexander argues that activists, herself included, should have been a little bit more skeptical about Obama’s commitment to ending the War on Drugs, especially given that his running mate, Joe Biden, was one of the biggest “drug warriors” in the Senate. Indeed, during his campaign, Obama walked back on many of his more progressive criminal justice positions, including his opposition to the death penalty. Once in office, Obama revamped many of the most ineffective and damaging policies of the War on Drugs, and Alexander notes that Obama’s budget was actually much worse than Bush’s in terms of the ratio of money devoted to law enforcement as opposed to drug treatment programs. While the Obama administration made some positive changes such as reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine, Alexander writes that such changes are only “the tip of the iceberg” and have done little to dismantle the overwhelming racial bias of the criminal justice system.
Alexander also examines Barack Obama’s symbolic impact on race relations in the United States. As the first black president of the United States, Obama is arguably the most visible example of black success in the world. Alexander acknowledges that her argument—that systemic racialized oppression is alive and well in America—may initially seem unbelievable given the many well-publicized examples of “black exceptionalism” such as Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Eric Holder, or even celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Beyonce.
Alexander argues that rather than disproving the existence of a racial caste system, high-visibility examples of black success are actually essential to the system’s existence. We live in an era of supposed “colorblindness,” a society in which it is no longer socially acceptable to overtly discriminate based on race. Successful black individuals like Obama are often held up as proof that racism has virtually disappeared from American society, a perception Michelle Alexander argues is categorically incorrect.
Systems of racial control have always existed, argues Alexander, and rather than disappearing, they simply evolve to suit the needs of the time. When it became no longer socially acceptable to oppress African Americans as slaves, Jim Crow was born to ensure that the newly-freed slaves would remain second-class citizens. In our modern era, the overt racism of segregation is no longer socially acceptable, and thus racial control is achieved under the guise of crime control. The mass incarceration of African American men does not offend the public conscience because it has come about through drug policies that are ostensibly race-neutral. Alexander argues that without highly visible examples of “black exceptionalism” such as Barack Obama, it would be impossible for the public to ignore the deep racial injustices that still plague our society.