7 min read ⌚
Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Racism is a thing of the past, right?
Well, add a little adjective such as “Overt” before that sentence, and Michelle Alexander may just agree.
But that only makes it worse.
Read “The New Jim Crow” to find out how.
Who Should Read “The New Jim Crow”? And Why?
Things have certainly improved for African-Americans during the past half a century. In fact, we are ostensibly living in a colorblind society.
Or, at least, that is the way they want you to think.
And by they – we have no one specific in mind: the government, the politicians, the conservatives, the alt-right parties, the uninformed…
The point is, they themselves don’t know it: just like everybody, they are biased. And even though there are numerous stats which prove – in plain numbers – that we have a long way to go to equality, no one seems to be talking anything about it.
Michelle Alexander is one of the very few exceptions.
So, if you are interested in racial justice and the new forms through which systematic racial oppression works in the United States – you must read this book.
If you are not – well, once again, you must read this book.
About Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander is a writer, civil rights advocate, litigator, and a visiting professor of social justice at Union Theological Seminary (New York City).
In 2005, she won a Soros Justice Fellowship and went on a successful law career, becoming a U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio and winning the Heinz Award in Public Policy in 2016.
She currently holds a joint appointment at the Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.
Published in 2010, “The New Jim Crow” is her only book so far.
“The New Jim Crow PDF Summary”
Slavery is a thing of the past, right?
Well, depends on how you look it at it.
As Michelle Alexander explains in “Hidden Colors 2: The Triumph of Melanin”: “Today there are more African American adults, under correctional control, in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850 a decade before the Civil War began.”
Something to think about, right?
Especially in view of Michel Foucault’s ideas extrapolated in “Discipline and Punish,” where he conveniently argues that prisons are just a new – and improved – form of public executions.
In fact, Michelle Alexander echoes Foucault when she writes:
Today’s lynching is a felony charge. Today’s lynching is incarceration. Today’s lynch mobs are professionals. They have a badge; they have a law degree. A felony is a modern way of saying, ‘I’m going to hang you up and burn you.’ Once you get that F, you’re on fire.
So, in other words, there are no slaves today – but there are prisoners.
And the majority of them are African Americans (and Latinos), serving for petty crimes – done regularly by white people too!
So, it’s basically Slavery 2.0!
In fact, the very idea of the criminal justice system – says Alexander – is to fashion second-class citizens, just as the Jim Crow laws did in the 19th century.
If you’ve ever watched “Les Mis,” you know what we’re talking about. Because it’s not just going to prison, it’s what happens to you afterward.
You’re stigmatized for life.
You can’t vote, you can’t socialize, and it’s almost impossible to get a job – resulting in life-long poverty, which was usually the reason behind the first criminal offense!
So, how did we get here?
Basically, it all started with Reagan’s War on Drugs.
Just as many other political decisions, this one too had a wicked background: appealing to the white majority and nothing more.
Statistically, people of all races buy and sell drugs at the same rate; but the War on Drugs wasn’t based on statistics.
And we went into paradox overdrive mode: black people were punished for life for buying/selling marijuana, and murderers escaped unscathed.
This resulted in a self-perpetuating cycle of crime and lack of trust in the system Jill Leovy comprehensively describes in “Ghettoside.”
Hence – mass incarceration, the New Jim Crow.
Just think about it!
One-fourth of the number of prisoners in the world are Americans – even though the United States makes up for only 5% of the world’s population.
And of this number, almost 40% are African-Americans – even though they make up only 12-13% of the American population.
Maybe African Americans are just more prone to crimes.
In fact, Michell Alexander says,
The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior.
But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives.
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.
And if they arrest you for drugs, don’t expect a fair trial like the ones you see on TV.
Statistics say that, most probably, you’ll be judged by an all-white jury, even though jury selection should be by definition colorblind.
And even in the case of their best intentions, they – like anyone else, for that matter – will be implicitly racist and will find it easier to vote for a longer sentence for someone who is not white.
The worst part?
People don’t even talk about things such as this.
Because they are convinced that we’ve left the Jim Crow laws far behind us.
And that the justice system is about as good as we can make it.
In fact, it’s just a covert version of the one you can read all about in Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
America, we need more Atticuses!
Key Lessons from “The New Jim Crow”
1. Incarceration Is Slavery 2.0
2. The Old Jim Crow vs. The New Jim Crow Laws
3. Is There Anything We Can Do?
Incarceration Is Slavery 2.0
We doubt that you’ve ever thought about it this way.
You should – as Michelle Alexander so convincingly argues.
Not because there are similarities in theory, but because there are similarities which are backed by statistics.
4 out of 10 prisoners in the United States are African Americans; even though, there’s only 1 African American in 10 inhabitants of the U.S.
Even worse, 1 in 4 prisoners in the world (!) is American.
And mass incarceration (mainly of African Americans and Latinos) started with the Reagan administration and consistently wins points for political parties.
Even though it’s unjust and racially prejudiced, in that it imprisons African Americans for drug-related crimes for life, turning a blind eye to the fact that whites buy and sell drugs almost at the same rate.
And that’s statistics talking for you.
The Old Jim Crow vs. The New Jim Crow Laws
The old Jim Crow laws were enacted in the middle of the 19th century and made sure that African Americans will remain second-class citizens for almost a century.
In theory, these laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but in practice, they are still around us.
Michelle Alexander claims – even more than you think.
And mass incarcerations, she adds, is the gateway to these new covert Jim Crow laws. Because the criminal justice system, just as the old Jim Crow laws, works by exploiting white resentment.
And the similarities don’t stop there!
Both the old and the new Jim Crow laws systematically exclude black people from juries and segregate neighborhoods by race. In addition, they are both based on racial profiling – even though in the case of the new ones, nobody is saying anything about it.
And that may be the only difference: the lack of activism and outrage.
Instituted by a pseudo-colorblind language the claims of which are not supported by stats.
Is There Anything We Can Do?
Michelle Alexander doesn’t claim that she has a solution to the problem – that’s not the point of the book.
She just wants to make sure that everybody knows about the problem so that somebody starts thinking about how we can overcome it.
However, in her opinion, there are few things that can be done, like abolishing the private prison system, introducing law enforcement profiling and transforming the public consciousness.
The last one may be the most important part of the equation.
Because by subverting the colorblind language and rhetoric we may finally be able to start calling the things by their real names.
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“The New Jim Crow PDF Quotes”The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed. Click To Tweet The fate of millions of people… may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society. Click To Tweet Racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago. Click To Tweet African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct. Click To Tweet Through a web of laws, regulations, and informal rules, all of which are powerfully reinforced by social stigma, they are confined to the margins of mainstream society and denied access to the mainstream economy. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Tough-on-crime “law and order” policies first implemented by Nixon and greatly intensified by Reagan during the War on Drugs have resulted in the devastation of the black communities on par with the pre-Civil War era.
Michelle Alexander presents voluminous evidence to prove this. And, as Darryl Pickney writes, even though she “is not the first to offer this bitter analysis, [The New Jim Crow] is striking in the intelligence of her ideas, her powers of summary, and the force of her writing.”