The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Seldom does a book have the impact of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Since it was first published in 2010, it has been cited in judicial decisions and has been adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads; it helped inspire the creation of the Marshall Project and the new $100 million Art for Justice Fund.

Book Summary - The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Key Insights

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness tackles a topic that is both highly nuanced and critically important: the criminal justice system’s failure to treat people of color (POC) as legitimate members of society. Alexander’s best-selling book likens the systematic discrimination currently facing POC to the Jim Crow Laws of the early and mid-1900s, which deemed African Americans second class citizens and denied them irrevocable civil rights.

Through insightful and engaging prose, Alexander voices the ongoing struggles of the black community and the many prejudices that continue to negatively influence this population.

Key Points

War on Drugs

In 1982, United States President Richard Nixon declared a war against drugs.

At the time, only two percent of the U.S. population believed that illegal drug use was the most urgent political problem the country was facing.

So, why initiate a war over an issue that 98% of the nation was not concerned about?

Ultimately, it was a political tactic. The War on Drugs was less about illegal substances and more about appeasing the white individuals who lived in rural areas and were resistant to the ongoing progression of black civil rights.

By the mid-1980s, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was formed. Over the next six years, the DEA would spend more than $1.4 billion addressing illegal drugs.

Throughout Reagan’s administration, the number of incarcerated individuals climbed significantly even though the overall use of narcotics had declined.

To this day, there are more than 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons, many of whom are POC and are serving time for drug-related offenses.

Consider this. If you are young and black and live in Washington D.C., there is a three in four chance you will end up in prison during your lifetime. On a larger scale, this equates to 75 out of every 100 people serving time. If you fit this description, you are much more likely to face a prison sentence than your non-POC peers.

But why?

Some people believe that more blacks being put behind bars means that there are simply more black people committing crimes.

However, the data tells a different story.

It is proven that people of all races buy and sell drugs at a similar rate. In fact, white people are statistically more likely to be involved in illegal drug activity than individuals of any other race.

To put this in perspective, there are more black people in U.S. prisons than there were in South African prisons during the apartheid. Even China, Russia, and Iran have lower incarceration rates than the United States.

Mass Incarceration

So, what do we do about this?

First, we need to look at the U.S. criminal justice system itself.

In this country, drug sentencing is unusually punitive and harsh. While a standard prison sentence for a first drug offense in most developed countries is roughly six months (or even just a fine), the U.S. has initiated a mandatory five to ten year sentencing for the same crime.

The police themselves play a critical role in this disparity.

In the United States, Police can stop and search any person they encounter. If an officer decides to search black men only, there is no safeguard protecting the accused from bias.

Many times, accused POC plead guilty because they cannot afford to pay for a high-quality lawyer or other legal fees. Research shows that two out of every five inmates plead guilty when they are actually innocent in order to avoid a costly trial.

Racial Profiling

Some Americans adamantly dispute the notion that the criminal justice system discriminates on the basis of race.

These well-meaning individuals believe that we live in a post-racial society where the police are colorblind and do not consider race when making law enforcement decisions.

So, why does police work produce such racially-based outcomes?

This is where unconscious bias comes in.

While most police officers do not consider themselves racist, their brains have trained them to make unconscious connections based on race.

For instance, picture a drug dealer. How would you describe this person?

Is the individual you envisioned black?

If so, you are not alone. According to a 1995 survey, more than 95% of subjects who were asked this question identified the drug dealer as having black skin. At the time of the survey, only 15% of the drug users in the United States were black. And yet, it was still incredibly common for people to associate blackness with dealing drugs.

A police officer pulling over a black man and searching his vehicle may not be outwardly saying “I am doing this because you are black,” but it is important to consider the unconscious bias that could be suggesting the man as a suspect.

Bias is also represented in modern media. Many times, reporters refer to black neighborhoods as “crack dens” and even call groups of black people “black addicts” in order to sensationalize their stories, further reinforcing the community’s negative perceptions of black culture.

Systematic Discrimination

Consider the following. A black man was found guilty of drug charges and went to prison. Three years later, he was released. Most people would assume the man then gradually re-builds his life. Even if he was racially profiled, the injustice has ceased now that he is out of the prison system. Or not.

The black man’s time served was only the beginning of an arduous journey.

But why?

Former drug felons who are released from American prisons are denied the ability to participate in public housing programs and/or receive federal food stamps. In addition, private landlords can discriminate against the formerly convicted, requiring them to check a box on their application that could prevent them from being able to rent. Furthermore, if a person has been convicted of a felony, securing employment becomes almost impossible.

Contextually, it is important to remember that most of the people impacted by these laws are in prison for minor, non-violent drug offenses.

Based on these exclusionary policies, the likelihood of a former drug felon successfully re-entering society is very low. Instead, the majority of drug felons end up back in prison--many within six months of release--because they are caught in a vicious cycle that prevents them from ever getting back on their feet.

Social Control

The Jim Crow legal system came to fruition following the collapse of slavery in the United States. Fortunately, these oppressive laws were brought down by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

However, with the War on Drugs, oppression of the black community re-emerged as a critical issue once again. The War on Drugs began in 1971 during the Nixon presidency but became much more widespread when President Ronald Reagan took office in 1980. In the first term of his administration, Reagan signed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which established federal minimum sentences for drug violations, developed increased penalties for marijuana possession, and increased the FBI’s drug enforcement budget from $8 million to $95 million. With these changes to the criminal justice system, incarceration rates--particularly for POC--skyrocketed in the early 1980s.

Politicians used the War on Drugs to repress the black community. Essentially, this was a diversion tactic to distract voters by moving attention away from other pressing issues. Instead of uniting the country, this period in history was focused on division, as society took a “tough on drugs” stance which appealed to poor white voters, but masked the real problem: attitudes towards African Americans and other POC.

Critical Consciousness

So, how can we change the situation for the better?

First, we must disavow the notion of colorblindness. While this principle can be well-intentioned, it denies the plausibility of a society discriminating based on race.

In order to dismantle systematic racism, we must first be able to acknowledge that the problem exists. And, even if we are uncomfortable, we must be open to discussion within the black community. Research contends that many white people will actually go out of their way to avoid talking to a POC due to the possibility that a topic related to discrimination will come up in conversation. They are scared of saying something offensive.

But, is saying the wrong thing really worse than saying nothing at all?

Not if you learn from it. We can only have open conversations about race to the extent that individuals--both POC and white people-- are willing to engage and learn.

Further, the black community itself needs to step up and raise awareness on the subject of mass incarceration. We talk a lot about racial justice in relation to privilege (such as in regard to affirmative action), but we talk very little about racial justice in relation to the underprivileged. This is an important distinction and requires a perspective shift.

Main Takeaway

The present-day system of mass incarceration in the United States has resulted in a population of African Americans who are unfairly persecuted and overlooked in the eyes of the law. These individuals enter into a world where the odds are already stacked against them from the day they are born.

As a community, it is our responsibility to take ownership of our prejudices, educate ourselves through books, and align ourselves in defense of the black community on every societal level.

About the Author

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1967. The highly regarded civil rights lawyer, professor, and social justice advocate received her J.D. from Stanford University in 1992.

After completing her formal education, Alexander began her career as a civil rights attorney. In 1998, she became the founding director for the northern-California ACLU chapter’s Racial Justice Project. While working in this capacity, Alexander found inspiration for her book based on accounts she witnessed police abuse targeting black men.

In 2010, Alexander published The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which highlights the institutionalized racism and inequality within the American criminal justice system as well as its long-term impacts on the black community.

Currently, Alexander is teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she is a visiting professor with a focus on mass incarceration through both a moral and spiritual lens.


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