The New Jim Crow

by Michelle Alexander

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Bill Clinton

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Bill Clinton was the forty-second president of the United States. Despite being a Democrat, Bill 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. Eager to win over white, working-class swing voters, Clinton positioned himself as a new kind of Democrat who, like his Republican opponents, was not afraid to get “tough on crime.” To prove that he was not “soft” on crime, Clinton flew home to Arkansas just before the New Hampshire primary to witness the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally handicapped black man. Though by this point, incarceration rates had skyrocketed, Alexander writes that neither Democrats nor Republicans were interested in abandoning the “tough on crime” stance that had so resonated with working-class whites.

Once elected, Clinton advocated for tougher criminal justice policies, including a federal three strikes law, an expanded list of federal crimes, and a drastic increase in state grants to facilitate the expansions of state prisons and police forces. Far from reversing the trend of mass incarceration that had begun under Republican presidents, a report from the Justice Policy Institute found that the Clinton administration’s crime policies resulted in “the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.”

In keeping with their Republican-inspired crime agenda, the Clinton administration went on to target welfare, a program that many working-class whites resented as a giveaway of their hard-earned tax dollars to poor, undeserving blacks. Clinton fundamentally changed the way welfare operated and created a block grant called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF only allowed welfare recipients to receive assistance for five years—hardly enough time for a family to accrue the savings necessary to pull themselves out of poverty. Under TANF, anyone convicted of a felony drug offense (no matter how minor) was permanently banned from receiving welfare assistance and food stamps.

Clinton also pushed for harsher drug rules in public housing projects, advancing a harsh “One Strike and You’re Out” admission and eviction policy for federally-assisted public housing. As the War on Drugs unquestionably targeted African Americans above any other race, these new policies had a devastating effect on impoverished African American communities. Alexander notes that those arrested for drug crimes (even those who are innocent) are often pressured to accept plea deals for lighter sentences rather than risking a heavier sentence by going to trial. These individuals usually have no idea that pleading guilty to a federal crime may shut them and their families out of public assistance programs for life.

Alexander cites the case of one African American man whose public housing application for himself and his three children was rejected due to an old drug possession charge. The man had pled guilty and was sentenced to only thirty days in prison due to the minor nature of the offense, but to his surprise, his guilty plea meant that he was permanently shut out of public housing. Unable to secure a place to stay, the man lost custody of his three children and ended up homeless.

Deprived of food stamps, housing, and shut out of the job market, many released felons find it virtually impossible to get back on their feet and reintegrate into society. Alexander argues that the harsh and overly-punitive policies of the Clinton administration have helped create a “new Jim Crow” era in which millions African Americans are branded “criminals” and, as a result, face a lifetime of legal discrimination.

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