Review of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander has produced the best book ever written on mass incarceration and the war on drugs.

The new Jim Crow isn’t just the old version implemented through different means; it is a new order rooted in different assumptions. There has been a real change in the way people view race. Today, assertions that appear to tolerate or promote racial inequality or blatant white supremacy will be rejected by the vast majority of Americans, conservative or liberal. Alexander believes this change in thinking isn’t just cosmetic, it is real. The New Jim Crow represents a new kind of racial caste system designed by people who embrace colorblindness.

The author admits that she once viewed the idea that mass incarceration consitutes a new Jim Crow as simplistic, extreme and overblown. Her years working for racial justice with the ACLU of Northern California gradually changed her mind.

The policy of mass incarceration is rooted in the assumption, unspoken and often unacknowledged, that poor black males are both dangerous and economically superfluous. Therefore, they must be controlled using the war on drugs and prison. Ms. Alexander places particular emphasis on the radical reduction of opportunity and basic civil rights that inmates encounter when they leave prison. The term “re-entry” is inaccurate, she says, because it suggests that inmates return to the free world. In reality, ex-offenders move from prison into a world devoid of opportunity and basic human rights. Not surprisingly, few can survive in a world designed to encourage failure. Most end up returning to prison.

Alexander argues that the rapid progress of black professionals had made it difficult for most Americans to believe that a large portion of the black community has been forced into a permanent new caste (she intentionally avoids the word “class”) very similar to slavery or life in the Jim Crow South. This kind of bondage, and the social pathologies associated with it, is an intentionally constructed reality sponsored by politicians skilled at fomenting racial division and a big business community that no longer needs uneducated laborers.

The war on drugs was declared by the Reagan Administration in 1982, three years before the crack epidemic hit the streets of American cities. When law enforcement showed little enthusiasm, financial inducements such as the Byrne grant program were established as a not-so-subtle financial inducement to get with the program.

As in the days of slavery and the Old Jim Crow, poor whites are still encouraged to resent and fear poor blacks. This eliminates the possibility of an interracial human rights movement rooted in shared interest. Issues like affirmative action, welfare and crime are used to keep uneducated and economically strapped whites voting for politicians funded by the corporate sector.

The New Jim Crow enjoys broad bi-partisan support. Alexander points out that Bill Clinton won the White House by showing that he could be as tough on crime as anybody. Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs was embraced by Democrats as well as Republicans and received the endorsement of most members of the Black Congressional Caucus.

Alexander demonstrates that Supreme Court rulings since 1985 have made it impossible to make claims of racial bias in the criminal justice system unless you can produce documented evidence of overt racial hostility. Simply by offering a race neutral rationale for a practice, law enforcement officers and prosecutors are given carte blanche permission to do virtually anything without oversight or accountability. She points out that a civil suit filed in response to the egregious injustice in Hearne, Texas (the basis for the film American Violet) only succeeded because the prosecutor was dumb enough to use racial epithets. (Few realize it, but a similar argument could be made in connection with the legal victory in Tulia, Texas).

The criminal justice reform community, Alexander says, used a civil litigation strategy to win Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and has stuck to this strategy ever since. Unfortunately, this approach no longer works. Legal precedent now makes it virtually impossible to attack mass incarceration or the racial bias implicit within the war on drugs from within the legal system. “Lawyers have a tendency to identify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve,” she says, “problems that can be solved through litigation. The mass incarceration of people of color is not that kind of problem.”

The criminal justice reform movement is ineffectual, she suggests, because it takes a piecemeal approach to reform, assuming, incorrectly, that the system is interested in adopting best practices designed to produce fair and equal justice.

Any movement to end mass incarceration must deal with mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not as a system of crime control. We need an effective system of crime prevention and control in our communities, but that is not what the current system is. This system is better designed to create crime, and a perpetual class of people labeled criminals, rather than to eliminate crime or reduce the number of criminals.”

Once this is understood, Alexander says, we will stop complaining that mass incarceration is a failed public policy.  “Saying mass incarceration is an abysmal failure makes sense,” she argues, “only if one assumes that the criminal justice system is designed to prevent and control crime. But if mass incarceration is understood as a system of social control—then the system is a fantastic success.”

If we fail to grasp this fundamental fact, she asserts, we will end up tinkering eternally with the machinery of mass incarceration but will never end it.  This leads to the central challenge of the book:

The central question for racial justice advocates is this: are we serious about ending this system of control, or not? If we are, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done. The notion that all of these reforms can be accomplished piecemeal—one at a time, through disconnected advocacy strategies—seems deeply misguided. All of the needed reforms have less to do with failed policies than a deeply flawed public consensus, one that is indifferent, at best, to the experience of poor people of color.

The goal, therefore, must be to change the national consensus, and that is a mammoth undertaking.

In reality, Alexander points out, if the American prison system was scaled back to its size in 1975 (when many reformers considered it egregiously over-grown) four out of five prisoners would have to be released and at least one million employees of the criminal justice system would be out of work. In other words, mass incarceration and the war on drugs aren’t going down without a fight.

Any effort to downsize dramatically our nation’s prisons would inspire fierce resistance by those faced with losing jobs, investments, and other benefits provided by the current system. The emotion and high anxiety would likely express itself in the form of a racially charged debate about values, morals, and personal responsibility rather than a debate about the prison economy . . . The debate would inevitably turn on race, even if no one was explicitly talking about it.

Michelle Alexander argues that incremental criminal justice reforms will be absorbed and adapted to the needs of the New Jim Crow. To change the system we must get a feel for the big picture.

What is needed, therefore, is a bottom-up interracial movement much like the civil rights movement. The big need, initially, is for consciousness raising, beginning with folks in the Black community and those within the reform movement who have been snookered into believing that colorblindness is the goal. Ms. Alexander uses Jena as an Old Jim Crow story and laments the fact that activists and the media could only respond to Old Jim Crow symbols.

Michelle Alexander comes very close to conclusions reached independently by Friends of Justice. On virtually every page she drives her thinking deeper than previous writers have been willing to go, backing up her conclusions with rock-solid scholarship. Better still, Alexander is a gifted writer. You won’t find yourself laying this book aside with a guilty yawn—it is riveting. As Alexander suggests, many activists confuse the practical mechanics and basic assumptions of the Old Jim Crow with the current regime (we saw a lot of this in Jena). We are ineffective because we over-simplify and mischaracterize a complex situation. Critics of the war on drugs often write from a quasi libertarian perspective that fails to grasp the full racial implications of the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Alexander has been deeply influenced by sociologists like Loic Wacquant, but her focus is less technical and more practical.

If you can only afford to buy one book this year, make it The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

19 thoughts on “Review of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow

  1. FOJ recognized early on that the economic superfluity of young blacks (not just the men)played a major role in the Tulia Drug Sting.

    Re Hearne and Tulia, if Tom Coleman had not used the N word in Tulia, it’s doubtful the Tulia fiasco would have been undone.

  2. One of the first brochures of Friends of Justice urged citizens to “Defeat the New Jim Crow”. Many thought that this was too radical a claim and aim. But Michelle’s book validates both our definition of the problem and our strategy.

  3. It will be interesting to see the effect from the government changing the formulas that punish crack abusers more than cocaine abusers.

  4. I have ordered the book. I think I saw it reviewed in NY Times; maybe it was somewhere else.

  5. Alan I have just put the book on order.

    I suspect that it won’t tell me anything that I don’t already know from other sources, Friends of Justice prominent among them. Reading between the lines of Nate Blakeslee’s “Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town” should lead any open minded and rational reader to the same thesis. What astonishes me is that it has taken so long for someone to develop this theory, that many thousands at least have not been screaming about the same facts for the last 30 years. Particularly surprising to me is the failure of black civil rights leaders to recognize the mountainous pile of racist malice driving the drug war. Why have so many of them failed to see through the rationalizations used to justify this counterattack against the pitifully few successes of the civil rights movement.

    If I were describing a package of teaching aids for a course on racism, it would include Michelle Alexander’s book as well as Nate Blakeslee’s mentioned above and the documentary films “Blue Eyes” and “A Class Divided” on the anti-racism methods developed by Jane Elliott.

  6. I picked up my copy of “The New Jim Crow” last Thursday, put a plastic cover on it on Friday and started reading last night (Sunday Night). I did not put it down until 5:00. It is depressing reading but it also very difficult to put down. I intended to read only the introduction and chapter 1 but did not stop until well into chapter 5.

    I do not believe that this system of such frightening efficiency in railroading blacks into the prison industrial complex could have come into being without considerable animosity towards blacks. There may indeed be some racists who sincerely believe that they are not racist, but there must also be some who think the N-word while smiling politely and inwardly cheering as each young black male disappears into the system. Many Jim Crow level racists have learned to rein in their tongues, and let the laws criminalizing normal human behaviour do the lynching for them.

    Charles points out that the Tulia travesty would not have been overturned had Tom Coleman better guarded his speech, but as far as I can see, from Nate Blakeslee’s book, the Judge who sealed evidence of Coleman’s bad character, the sheriff and the district attorney who tried to preserve his hard won convictions had a similar level of anti-black malice.

    Michelle Alexander’s overall thesis is no surprise to me, what did surprise was the level of evil committed by the sainted Ronald Regan, the US supreme court and Bill Clinton that she describes.

    The obvious way to attack racially discriminatory laws would seem to be to use statistics, but the US Supreme Court has used convoluted logic to make it impossible for plaintiffs to get hold of the prosecutorial records to analyse them for disparate treatment unless they already have evidence of such double standards.

  7. Re: the paragraph that begins with “Charles points out that the Tulia travesty would not have been overturned . . .”

    I think this illustrates Ms. Alexander’s (and Alan Bean’s) point perfectly. Tom Coleman was old Jim Crow. The judge, sheriff, and prosecutor were new Jim Crow. While their levels of sophistication were not exceptionally high, they were sophisticated enough to know that you could not go around using the N word and showing explicit racial bias. The prosecutor came close with his references to the glove–“the glove fits”–and the way he would mockingly draw out the pronunciation of Kareem Abdul Jabbar White. The jury got the point. This is just a big black nigger in the defendant’s chair. He made the point without using the word. My wife Patricia was working in the census in 2000 as a supervisor. Our house was her office. One of the workers was in our home and somehow the drug sting came up. He had been summoned to the jury venire for one of the trials. His comment, “I knew that nigger was guilty soon as I seen him walk into the courtroom.” He, unlike many of the jurors on the Curtis Flowers trial, did excuse himself on the ground that he had a previous opinion. So much in Ms. Alexander’s book rings so many bells. I hope to write a response to it after I finish reading it.

  8. They may not use the N-word but the malice and malign stereotypes still exist in the minds of new Jim Crow whites. One suspects that if they were certain that they were in the presence of correct thinking persons who would not relay their words to others not right thinking that they would relax and use the N-word.

  9. This Alternet article describes a small step in the right direction as New York state stops counting prisoners in the locality in which they are imprisoned and instead counts them in their home districts for the purpose of drawing electoral boundaries.

  10. Carlyle, I have no argument with your 8/19 2:31 am comment. The more “colorblind” whites use code. The prosecutor used the image of O. J. Simpson’s glove incident. He just said, “The glove fits.” He didn’t even have to use OJ’s name. It was all code. There wasn’t even a glove in evidence. The code translated into the jurors’ minds, “That nigger got away with murder because the glove didn’t fit. This time the glove fits. This one’s not goin’ to get away with sellin’ poison on the streets. The [non-existent] glove fits this time.” The difference in Coleman and the judge, sheriff, and prosecutor was that Coleman didn’t understand or care about colorblind code. The others did.

  11. Click to access colorofcrime2005.pdf

    Can someone explain to me why those conclusions are incorrect? Or, are they correct? And does that explain the rampant incarceration of black males? I know that every crime I’ve been a victim of has been from a black male perpetrator, and blacks are a minority in the USA. Is this random chance? Or is there a significant statistical correlation between race and violent criminal acts? The stats are there, the only question is what they imply.

  12. I’m watching Michelle Alexander on PBS, and I am furious! I’m so tired of the excuse “it’s because I’m black”. Although I can appreciate Michelle’s agenda, please consider the following: Michelle says “black people are fed into the system of incarceration”. PLEASE, if anybody (black or white) does not break the law, we would not be having this conversation. Everyone person I know (white or black) who have NOT been arrested and jailed, is because they have NOT broken any laws. So please, stop using the race card as an excuse to why more blacks are in jail. If they broke a law, even a one time drug charge, they will be subject to what Michelle may deem unfair. So, the answer is, DON’T BREAK THE LAW, then you will not be subject to any unfairness, plain and simple! Michell, if you want to “do good” by black males, be “proactive” by putting your efforts into prevention instead of being “reactive” and writing books about it.

  13. Linda, I would invite you to e-mail Leonard Pitts (see a recent post on Friends of Justice blog for his e-address) and enter his drawing to give away fifty autographed copies of Michelle Alexander’s book.

    I would ask you some questions. (1) Have you ever been pulled over for “driving while white”? (2) Why is it that non-anglos are cited for drug law violations in far greater proportions than anglos, when drug use abuse is proportionately very near the same? (3) Why is it that non-anglos, when cited, are far more likely to be convicted than anglos? (4) Why is, when convicted, that non-anglos received harsher sentences and serve more time than anglos? (5) And this is probably the most important question, Do you believe in equal justice under the law?

    Charles Kiker

  14. I just became aware of Michele Alexander and her book THE NEW JIM CROW today watching a fund raiser by FSTV and Saint Amy Goodman. As I listened to the video all the statistics sounded right on, as I recall what was happening in Detroit in last years of the last century and first 5 years of this century, During those years I found myself working with young black mothers and the high school age sons. As I put the events of jailing young black men for almost nothing and imprisoning them I found myself warning my students against the War on Drugs as an excuse to populate the private and public jails, to disenfranchise them for life, destroying their chances at a full life. So I shared some of Micheles experiences and her statistics sound right on.

  15. If you critique the book, then you’ll see that she does not make much sense.

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