The New Jim Crow

by Michelle Alexander

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Student Question

What events followed the Civil War, according to The New Jim Crow?

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In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander points out that the freed slaves were not able to automatically exercise their new legal rights. Former slave owners and prejudiced politicians were absolutely opposed the idea of former slaves having equal rights. In order to preserve the status quo, they used both the law and outright violence to prevent former slaves from participating fully in society. In a cruel twist, the very constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery also became the means by which a new and legal slavery-like system was created. The Thirteenth Amendment outlaws slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, many African Americans were unjustly arrested and forced into the penal system in the aftermath of the Civil War. Once they were labelled “convicts” and imprisoned, it became legal to send these individuals out to work on the same plantations that had once used slave labor. Even worse, now that they were no longer the legal “property” of the plantation owners, the plantation owners had no financial incentive to keep the prison workers healthy. As a result, many African Americans were worked to death on the very plantations they had supposedly been freed from. Michelle Alexander argues that, to this day, mass incarceration is the primary means by which the United States unjustly oppresses and controls African Americans.

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