Often, I hear my students talk about how much progress our country has made since the Jim Crow laws era (laws that worked to limit African Americans’ freedoms and rights).
I had the same understanding when I was their age because that’s what the overarching narrative tells us: our country overcame racism in the sixties, and that was that. No one talked about the era of mass incarceration and the discrimination of the nineties or even that happened right under my nose at school.
Our culture force-fed this myth to all of us. This is why I think people feel on edge when we talk about racism today. They thought it was something they wouldn’t have to confront.
But, the truth is, racism never went away. The strides of the civil rights movement, though powerful, didn’t make the amount of progress we were told because a more subversive method of exerting racist policies came into play during the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a form of racism that is especially dangerous because it is so well-disguised.
“The new system had been developed and implemented swiftly, and it was largely invisible, even to people like me, who spent most of their waking hours fighting for justice.”
Few people explain this better than Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and scholar, claims that though Jim Crow laws ended during the civil rights movement, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration became “the new Jim Crow” laws.
“The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.”Alexander 9
“Mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow… Mass incarceration — not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil rights enforcement — is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. The popular narrative that emphasizes the deaths of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s ‘triumph over race’ with the election of Barack Obama is dangerously misguided. The colorblind public consensus that prevails in America today — i.e., the widespread belief that race no longer matters — has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system.”Alexander 14
The book mainly focuses on the effect the New Jim Crow has on African-American men because there was little attention paid to this population at the book’s publication in 2010. However, the 2020 preface to the book acknowledges societal changes since publication and how mass incarceration disenfranchises all marginalized groups.
“I chose to focus on the experience of black men at a time when little attention was paid to the devastating impact of the drug war on black communities.”Alexander xx
“when men are locked up, the women who love them are sentenced too — to social isolation, depression, grief, shame, costly legal fees, far-away prison visits (often with children in tow), and the staggering challenges of helping children overcome the trauma of parental incarceration. When loved ones are released from their cages, it is often women who are faced with the daunting task of supporting them as they struggle and often fail in a system rigged against them.”Alexander xxiii
“[coinciding] with the criminalization of immigration in the United States, resulting in a new class of ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘aliens’ who are viewed and treated as criminals.”Alexander xxxiv
One of the most destructive forces perpetuating and fueling the New Jim Crow is racial colorblindness.
What is racial colorblindness? “Colorblind” rhetoric claims that skin color isn’t important.
Why is that type of thinking a problem?
There is a lot of literature about that. I’ve linked some resources below that can help explain this complicated matter in full. But I like how Jason Reynolds explains it in Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You:
“Segregationists and assimilationists started favoring the color-blind product nearly a century after the Supreme Court had ruled in favor or ‘separate but equal.’ And it had the same effect. Lip service. The millennium was coming, and people still couldn’t fathom equality, because of color. But they used a new ‘multicultural’ paint to brush over a racist stain. And a single coat wouldn’t do.”Reynolds 224-5
Alexander examines how we still live in an age running on colorblind rhetoric and deconstructs the post-racial era’s myth.
“We are now living in an era of unabashed racialism, a time when many white Americans feel free to speak openly of their nostalgia for an age when their cultural, political, and economic dominance could be taken for granted — no apologies required. It can no longer be denied that the colorblind veneer of early twenty-first century American democracy was just that: a veneer. Right beneath the surface lay an ugly reality that many Americans were not prepared to face.”Alexander xi
“Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”Alexander 2
The system essentially put Americans into castes, or classes. Problematically, these castes harm the well-being of the country in a variety of ways.
“Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration.”Alexander 15
Alexander provides, in the first chapter, an extensive history of how Jim Crow laws and eventually mass incarceration, segregated American society into castes. The Jim Crow era is a complex period of history to understand. Still, Alexander lays out the facts beautifully for any reader hoping to understand this time period better.
“[We] avoid talking about caste in our society because we are ashamed of our racial history.”Alexander 16
“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.”Alexander 17
The author also breaks down common myths about the war on drugs, one of the most potent catalysts behind mass incarceration, and provides the truth with ample research.
|“The war [on drugs] is aimed at ridding the nation of drug ‘kingpins’ or big-time dealers” (76)||“the vast majority of those arrested are charged with relatively minor crimes. In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five was for sales. Moreover, most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity” (76)|
|“the drug war is principally concerned with dangerous drugs” (76)||“arrests for marijuana possession — a drug less harmful than tobacco or alcohol — accounted for nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s” (77)|
Although scholarly in tone, there is no doubt that Alexander knows her stuff. She cites court cases like we reference last night’s sports scores, including McClesky v. Kemp, United States v. Armstrong, and Purket v. Elm. Don’t worry: you don’t need to look them up. Alexander explains them all to you and their role in the New Jim Crow and its erosion of our democracy.
Alexander surveys the entire journey through the legal system: involvement, investigation, arrest, court, jury, prison, and life after sentence. The effects of the racism intertwined with this system have devastating effects on the African American community. Still, Alexander doesn’t neglect to explain how it affects all of us.
One of her most compelling points is that mass incarceration does not make our society safer; in fact, it harms us. With the focus on non-violent drug crimes, perpetrators of violent and more severe crimes remain unaccountable for making amends for their crimes.
“There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.”Alexander 10
“The lie that most people sent to prison are ‘violent offenders’ is dangerous because it perpetuates the false notion that our system of mass incarceration is primarily concerned with violence and that it is well-designed to keep communities safe. In fact, our system is primarily concerned with the perpetual control and marginalization of the dispossessed; it is not designed to respond meaningfully to the harms of violence.”Alexander xxvi
“If we want to reduce violence in our communities we need to hold people accountable in ways that aim to repair and prevent harm rather than simply inflicting more harm and trauma and calling it justice.”Alexander xxix
Often, with conversations about race, we feel tempted to bring politics into it. It’s difficult to distinguish racial justice from politics sometimes because politics often powerfully affect racial justice. But, so do economics and culture. Here’s the thing: racial justice is not Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative — it’s the “and justice for all” part of the Pledge of Allegiance. Even though Alexander makes her support for Democrat President Barack Obama and her contempt for Republican President Donald Trump clear, she doesn’t refrain from praising or criticizing either party when it comes to racial justice. The preface addresses her concerns about the Trump administration, but she wrote the book ten years before during the Obama administration. Clearly, the issue of the New Jim Crow goes beyond politics.
“racial caste systems can grow and thrive even when our elected leaders claim to be progressive and espouse the rhetoric of equality, inclusion, and civil rights.”Alexander xlii-xliii
Something comforting about Alexander’s work is her proposals of clear steps we can take as a country to solve the problems surrounding mass incarceration and the systemic racism of our penal system. This is not a work that points out problems and offers no solutions; instead, Alexander draws on her expertise of civil rights and the laws of this country to propose clear steps forward toward making our society a more just and safe one.
“We must strive to create a nation in which caging people en masse — digitally or literally — and stripping them of basic civil and human rights for the rest of their lives is not only necessary but unthinkable. Nor can our goal simply be to eliminate racial disparities in our criminal injustice systems, as though subjecting more white people to the system would somehow redeem it.”Alexander xxxviii
After reading this book, I certainly felt more motivated to continue pushing for justice and unlearning the colorblind myths, narratives, and propaganda I learned as a young person.
“Every system of injustice depends on the silence, paralysis, confusion, and cooperation of those it seeks to eliminate or control.”Alexander xiii
Ultimately, reading Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is an exercise in empathy. It’s so easy, so tempting for us to dehumanize criminals. It’s easy to ignore what happens in prisons and how mass incarceration affects those around us. But, if we don’t look at a wound, there is certainly no chance of healing it.
“criminality is not truly a limiting principle. All of us make mistakes. Young people, in particular, are prone to bad judgment — as voluminous scientific evidence now attests. Virtually all of us break the law at some point in our lives — drinking under age, experimenting with drugs, committing traffic violations, shoplifting, failing to declare tips or cash income on tax returns, or even committing acts of violence in a schoolyard fight or when our emotions spin out of control. Rationalizing mass incarceration or mass deportation on the grounds that it is meant to rid our nation of ‘criminals’ perpetuates the false notion that ‘criminals’ are a monolithic, deviant group that is fundamentally different that ‘us’ and therefore unworthy of our concern. They can be eliminated without a second thought”Alexander xl-xli
“If history has taught us anything by now, it is that the politics of what supremacy will never redound to our benefits in the long run, and those who profit from the suffering of others will never hesitate to profit from our suffering when the opportunity arises.”Alexander xliv – xlv
Reynolds, Jason and Ibram X. Kendi. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. Little Brown and Company. New York, 2020.
Resources to Understand Why Racial Colorblind Rhetoric is Harmful
- “Colorblindness: The New Racism?” learningforjustice.org
- “The Myth of Racial Color Blindness: Manifestations, Dynamics, and Impact,” American Psychological Association, e-book
- “White parents teach their children to be color blind. Here’s why that’s bad for everyone,” the Washington Post
- “Why Color-Blindness is a Counterproductive Ideology,” The Atlantic
Trigger Warnings: ableism; drugs; incarceration; racism (racial profiling, police brutality, white supremacy, lynching, Black trauma); slavery