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. She served as the Director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project and cites her time at the ACLU as the point at which she began to formulate the ideas that would later become the basis for The New Jim Crow. Alexander admits that she initially, like most Americans, felt that the real racial progress had been made since the days of Jim Crow, even amidst growing challenges to policies aimed at correcting racial disparities, such as affirmative action. As a civil rights activist, Alexander believed her role was to work to eradicate the lingering effects of segregation such as unequal access to education, poverty, and crime.
Alexander writes that she was first exposed to the idea of a modern racial caste system when she saw a flier that read “The Drug War Is the New Jim Crow.” At the time, Alexander dismissed this comparison as absurd and sensationalist, believing that though the criminal justice system, like all social institutions, was undoubtedly infected with racial bias, it was by no means a uniquely racist system. The longer Alexander studied mass incarceration, however, the more parallels she began to see between the modern criminal justice and past systems of oppression.
Over the course of her research, Alexander realized that racial oppression in the United States is much worse than she had initially thought. Millions of African Americans are shut out of mainstream economies and society, yet unlike during the days of slavery or Jim Crow, the current racial caste system is largely invisible. Alexander thoroughly documents the laws, policies, and court cases that have contributed to the “new Jim Crow,” demonstrating how easy it is for low-level drug offenders to end up as lifelong second-class citizens.
Alexander says that The New Jim Crow is for people like herself who, ten years ago, thought the idea that we are living under a “new Jim Crow” was silly—in other words, people who care deeply about racial injustice but, for whatever reason, do not yet recognize the magnitude or depth of America’s racial issues. Upon its release, The New Jim Crow quickly became a best-seller, winning critical acclaim and several awards. Today, The New Jim Crow is taught in college courses around the country, and Alexander’s central argument has helped reshape the conversation about mass incarceration.