The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Reading this book was a really powerful experience for me, it both filled me with rage and made me feel connected to the growing political movement that is challenging the racism and brutality of mass incarceration. It gave me the tools to critique the criminal justice system and put it into a context with the history of slavery in this country. By writing The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander has laid the foundations for a dialog that is going to force desperately needed changes in a system designed to not only keep an entire demographic of our population locked up, but to keep the rest of us divided from one another. Everyone should read this book and if you don’t have time to do that at least read these quotes! This is for my journal writing assignment for social work school.

Key ideas: colorblindness, racial caste, mass incarceration.

What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. 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. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. (P.2)

I use the term racial caste in this book the way it is used in common parlance to denote a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom. Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration. (P.11)
The term mass incarceration refers not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger webs of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison. Once released, a former prisoner enters a hidden underworld of legalized discrimination and permanent social exclusion. (P.12)

The term mass incarceration refers not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison. Once released, a former prisoner enters a hidden underworld of legalized discrimination and permanent social exclusion. . . .
What is completely missed in the rare public debates today about the plight of African Americans is
that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity,
attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so. … It does not
matter whether you have actually spent time in prison; your second-class citizenship begins the
moment you are branded a felon. Most people branded felons, in fact, are not sentenced to prison. As
of 2008, there were approximately 2.3 million people in prisons and jails, and a staggering 5.1
million people under ‘community correctional supervision’—i.e., on probation or parole. . . . It is the
badge of inferiority—the felony record—that relegates people for their entire lives, to second-class
status. For drug felons, there is little hope of escape. Barred from public housing by law,
discriminated against by private landlords, ineligible for food stamps, forced to ‘check the box’
indicating a felony conviction on employment applications for nearly every job, and denied licenses
for a wide range of professions, people whose only crime is drug addiction or possession of a small
amount of drugs for recreational use find themselves locked out of the mainstream society and
economy—permanently. . . .

A new civil rights movement cannot be organized around the relics of an earlier system of control if it is to address meaningfully the racial realities of our time. Any racial justice movement, to be successful, must vigorously challenge the public consensus that underlies the prevailing system of control. The new caste system, unlike its predecessors, is officially colorblind. We must deal with it on its own terms. P.223

Not surprisingly, as civil rights advocates converted a grassroots movement into a legal campaign, and as civil rights leaders became political insiders, many civil rights organizations became top-heavy with lawyers. This development enhanced their ability to wage legal battles but impeded their ability to acknowledge or respond to the emergence of a new caste system. Lawyers have a tendency to indentify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve – ie problems that can be solved through litigation. The mass incarceration of people of color is not that kind of problem. P.226
Any movement to end mass incarceration must deal with mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not as a system of crime control. P.236
Imprisonment, they say, now creates far more crime then it prevents, by ripping apart fragile social networks, destroying families, and creating a permanent class of unemployables….by locking millions of people out of the mainstream legal economy, by making it difficult or impossible for people to find housing or feed themselves, and by destroying familial bonds by warehousing millions for minor crimes, we make crime more—not less—likely in the most vulnerable communities. P.237

Our colorblindness also prevents us from seeing the racial and structural divisions that persist in society: the segregated, unequal schools, the segregated, jobless ghettos, and the segregated public discourse – a public conversation that excludes the current pariah caste. Our commitment to colorblindness extends beyond individuals to institutions and social arrangements. We have become blind, not so much to race, but to the existence of racial caste in America.

In retrospect, it seems clear that nothing could have been more important in the 1970s and 1980s than finding a way to create a durable, interracial, bottom-up coalition for social and economic justice to ensure that another caste system did not emerge from the ashes of Jim Crow.

The “whites” only sign may be gone, but new signs have gone up – notices placed in job applications, rental agreements, loan applications, forms for welfare benefits, school applications, and petitions for licenses – informing the general public that “felons” are not wanted here.  A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind – discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service.  Those labeled criminals can even be denied the right to vote. [p. 141]

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our so-called colorblind society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure – the structure of racial caste. When those behind bars are taken into account, America’s institutions continue to create nearly as much racial inequality as Jim Crow. Our elite universities, which now look a lot like America, would whiten overnight if affirmative action suddenly disappeared….Sociologist Stephen Steinberg describes the bleak reality this way: “Insofar as this black middle class is an artifact of affirmative action policy, it cannot be said to be the result of autonomous workings of market forces. In other words, the black middle class does not reflect a lowering of racist barriers in occupations so much as the opposite: racism is so entrenched that without government intervention there would be little ‘progress’ to boast about…the carefully engineered appearance of racial progress strengthens the “colorblind” public consensus that personal and cultural traits, not structural arrangements, are largely responsible for the fact that the majority of young black men in urban areas across the United States are currently under the control of the climinal justice system or branded as felons for life. (pp. 246-7)

If the caste dimensions of mass incarceration were better understood and the limits of cosmetic diversity were better appreciated, the existence of black police chiefs and black officers would be no more encouraging today than the presence of black slave drivers and black plantation owners hundreds of years ago (P.250)
It is an historical fact that “get tough on crime” politics found its ascendancy at the precise moment in our nation’s history when the old Jim Crow system met its defeat at the hands of the civil rights movement.  Politicians could no longer explicitly call for racial segregation, but they did develop a coded way of speaking about crime and poverty.  The crime rate was actually in decline when Ronald Reagan officially announced the war on drugs in the early 1980s.  Since that time, Republicans and Democrats alike have both made it a political point to show that they are tough on crime, even though the policies they support often have a detrimental effect on the communities they claim to be making safe.

If whites make up about two-thirds of the adult population in the United States, and if study after study shows that whites are more likely to use and sell drugs than people of color, then a just enforcement of our nation’s laws would mean that roughly three out of four people in prison for drug crimes should be white.  Nationwide, an African American man is thirteen times more likely to go to prison for a drug offense than a white man.
The war on drugs, the new Jim Crow, is a system that harms whites as well as people of color.  It is a system that harms whites in more ways than just serving as an impediment to visions of diversity, pluralism, and multiculturalism.  Scholars have pointed out the way in which the old Jim Crow system, like slavery before it, made use of what is called the “racial bribe.”  The “racial bribe” gave poor whites a sense of superiority over blacks and the price of the bribe was to side with the white wealthy elite.  Michelle Alexander argues that the wa

“In retrospect, it seems clear that nothing could have been more important in the 1970s and 1980s than finding a way to create a durable, interracial, bottom-up coalition for social and economic justice to ensure that another caste system did not emerge from the ashes of Jim Crow. Priority should have been given to figuring out some way for poor and working class whites to feel as though they had a stake –some tangible interest—in the nascent integrated racial order…segregation had afforded elites a crucial means of exercising social control over poor and working class whites as well as blacks. The Southern white elite, whether planters or industrialists, had successfully endeavored to make all whites think in racial rather than class terms, predictably leading whites to experience desegregation…as a net “loss.” P.257

But if the movement that emerges to end mass incarceration does not meaningfully address the racial divisions and resentments that gave rise to mass incarceration, and if it fails to cultivate an ethic of of genuine care, compassion, and concern for every human being—of every class, race, and nationality—within our nation’s borders, including poor whites, who are often pitted against poor people of color, the collapse of mass incarceration will not mean the death of racial caste in America. [p. 256]

How Racism Hurts – Literally

More than 100 studies most published since 2000 document the effects of racial discrimination on physical health

African Americans today, despite a half century of economic and social progress since the civil rights movements, face a higher risk than any other racial group of dying from heart disease, diabetes, strokes, and hypertension.
Racism acts as a classic chronic stressor, setting off the same physiological train wreck as joint strain or marital conflict: higher blood pressure , elevated heart rate, increases in the stress hormone cortisol, suppressed immunity.

Studies of depression, anger, and PTSD also rely on the patient’s perceptions of events in their lives, they say – not objectively verified facts. Why should research on discrimination be held to a different standard?



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