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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 952

Like an Optical Illusion

"For me, the new caste system is now as obvious as my own face in the mirror. Like an optical illusion—one in which the embedded image is impossible to see until its outline is identified—the new caste system lurks invisibly within the maze of rationalizations we have developed for persistent racial inequality."
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In this quote, Michelle Alexander speaks to the subtle way in which the “new Jim Crow” operates. Even as a civil rights attorney at the ACLU, Alexander was largely blind to and skeptical of the parallels between mass incarceration and the Jim Crow south. Her point here is that unlike overt oppression of slavery and Jim Crow, this new system operates insidiously under the guise of laws and policies that are officially “colorblind.” Once one investigates the results of these colorblind policies, however, it becomes obvious that they are primarily employed in a way that targets and oppresses minorities.

The Rules of Acceptable Discourse

"As the rules of acceptable discourse changed, segregationists distanced themselves from an explicitly racist agenda. They developed instead the racially sanitized rhetoric of "cracking down on crime."

Alexander argues that throughout US history, racial oppression has never truly gone away but merely changed forms to adapt to the prevailing social codes of the time. When it was no longer socially acceptable to support slavery, oppression took new form through Jim Crow and other legalized forms of racial segregation. After the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, the racial discrimination of the Jim Crow era was no longer socially acceptable. Today, racial oppression is achieved through coded rhetoric about getting “tough” on crime. Though such statements seem racially neutral, most Americans (wrongfully) associate drug crime with the African American community, and as a result, “get tough” policies usually disproportionately impact African Americans.

Virtually Unheard of Anywhere Else in the World

“In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”

What makes the “new Jim Crow” so difficult to combat is the perception that those trapped in the system are there by choice. Unlike for past systems of oppression like slavery and Jim Crow, there is a temptation to believe that those who have been disenfranchised by mass incarceration have, on some level, brought about their own fate; they made a choice to break the law. Alexander points out that this logic is flawed. We all break the law at one point or another, and we all make mistakes; however, some of us are protected from reaping the consequences of these mistakes because of the color of our skin. For example, a young black teenager who experiments with pot is much more likely to be arrested and charged with a crime than a white fraternity member who smokes pot at a party. Alexander uses the example of speeding on the freeway to point out the ways in which we all occasionally violate the law.

Immunized from Claims of Racial Bias

“The Supreme Court has now closed the courthouse doors to claims of racial bias at every stage of the criminal justice process, from stops and searches to plea bargaining and sentencing. The system of mass incarceration is now, for all practical purposes, thoroughly immunized from claims of racial bias.”

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander exhaustively analyzes the legal aspects of the War on Drugs. She cites numerous Supreme Court cases to demonstrate how the legal system has bolstered the mass incarceration epidemic by giving too much discretion to police officers and prosecutors, who (like all of us) are subject to unconscious racial biases. The courts have also made it incredibly difficult to bring racial discrimination claims against policies and practices that have obviously unjustly impacted African Americans. In most cases, defendants need evidence or an admission of overt racism to bring a discrimination claim, even if overwhelming evidence of implicit racial bias exists. This nearly impossible standard has made it extremely difficult for people to challenge the policies that contribute to mass incarceration.

Control Depends on Black Exceptionalism

“There is no inconsistency whatsoever between the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land and the exis­tence of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness. The current sys­tem of control depends on black exceptionalism; it is not disproved or undermined by it.”

Alexander pushes back hard against the notion that we now live in a “post-racial” or “colorblind” society just because we have elected a black president. In fact, rather than disproving the existence of racial oppression, Alexander argues that stories of black success, such as Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, can actually be harmful in that they are often offered as proof that race is no longer a barrier to success. The admirable success of these black individuals is exploited to reinforce the myth that anyone, regardless of race or class, can live the American Dream when, in reality, racial discrimination is still an insurmountable barrier to success for many Americans. The policies that have led to mass incarceration can only continue because most people buy into the illusion that these policies are race-blind. Alexander points out that without a handful of examples of “black exceptionalism,” it would be impossible to ignore how deeply racist our society remains. In this way, high-profile examples of black success actually help support the current “racial caste system.”

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