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

This book is not for everyone.  I have a specific audience in mind—people who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration. 
Michelle Alexander (Preface, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness)

new-jim-crowOn August 3, 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the U.S. government officially declared war against Black people residing in its borders. Long live the southern strategy! Sniper shots and dynamite blasts had efficiently terrorized these people into abject numbness. A pogrom could do the trick! Troops, weaponry, ammunition! Call it the War on Drugs. And the beauty of the pogrom—the American public wouldn’t notice the war underway right on its homeland!

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (published by The New Press, 2010) looks at the invisible people and the invisible birdcage that keeps the masses of African American people locked in and alienated from society—the targets of the War on Drugs.  She asks questions: How could a government wage a war to practice genocide against Black people after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights bill—after everyone recognized the hatred of a Bull Connors and a KKK pogrom? How could a government conciliatory to Civil Rights leaders be accused of engaging war against the same people for which the government agreed to protect against discrimination? How are we to understand and confront a racial caste system in the age of colorblindness?

History isn’t irrelevant in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. History here is tangible. Sacrifices and omissions once revealed reflect the truths we can’t deny.  As Alexander writes,
[s]ince the nation’s founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time.

Slavery ended, but “the idea of race lived on.”

A new form of enslavement arrived on stage.  A system of peonage included the Black codes was developed to re-establish control over Blacks while also providing free or cheap labor, sought to reign in the freedom of predominantly Black men, family men—fathers and husbands. “Nine southern states adopted vagrancy laws—which essentially made it a criminal offense not to work and were applied selectively to blacks,” writes Alexander.  When the Black codes were outlawed, “a slew of federal civil rights legislation protecting the newly freed slaves was passed during the relatively brief but extraordinary period of black advancement known as the Reconstruction Era.”  Masses of Black began to vote. The Freedmen’s Bureau provided basic necessities. Schools opened up allowing Blacks to learn to read and write. “Literacy climbed.” Before the dismantling of Reconstruction, writes Alexander, fifteen percent of all Southern elected officials were Black. The Black community looked toward a just future.

But this vision of a just future didn’t sit well with most Southerners. Loopholes in the Fifteenth Amendment didn’t prohibit Southerners from imposing educational, residential, or other qualifications for voting.” Consequently, ‘the backlash against gains of African Americans in the reconstruction Era was swift and severe,” Alexander writes. What legal resource did Blacks posses? Northern states already established racial segregation to “prevent race-mixing” and to preserve “racial hierarchy following the abolition of Northern slavery.” Now in the South, conservative whites began “a terrorist campaign against Reconstruction governments and local leaders” to “‘redeem’” the South.

The U.S. government withdrew federal troops from the South, the budget for the Freedmen’s Bureau was cut so severely as to make the agency “virtually defunct,” and the U.S. government made no effort to “enforce federal civil rights legislation.” So here are the freed Blacks left unprotected in a hostile environment.  For Southerners, the drawback of the federal government meant freedom! Now, the South was free to turn to the criminal justice system.
The criminal justice system was strategically employed to force African Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come,” Alexander explains. Vagrancy laws subjected African Americans to criminal charges, debt, and death. A gesture could be interpreted as an “insulting gesture”, a crime! It’s no coincidence that “slavery remained appropriate as punishment for a crime” after “Emancipation.”

Southern whites, Alexander shows, “concluded that it was in their political and economic interests to scapegoat blacks.” Jim Crow would be a return to “‘sanity,’” a return to a racial caste system that came to represent the “‘natural’” order of the New South. Northern liberals and Populist had already turned a blind eye to Black people, and the South interpreted this silence as “‘permission to hate.’”

The racial caste system flourished for many years in the U.S. while many whites turned a blind eye to it and to the suffering of Blacks. Just as Jefferson worked on his narrative about freedom while drafting the U.S. Constitution, Americans worked on the narrative of the American Dream, complete with a Black maid in the kitchen and a gardener in the garden.

Blacks fought back in increments until small movements became the massive Civil Rights Movement of Black, Brown and white Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drew national and international attention to the criminal caste laws and the hypocrisy inherent in Americans’ understanding of democracy.  The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed. Many believed that Jim Crow died. The New Jim Crow rightly claims that the caste system didn’t end there.  Our educational system and the corporate media usually concludes the Civil Rights narrative with Dr. King standing in front of the Lincoln Monument before a huge crowd speaking to the world about a vision, a dream of whites and Blacks sitting together in colorblind America where a person is not judged by the color of his or her skin but by his or her character. But Alexander recalls a crucial omission in the post-Civil Rights era’s narrative.  It’s the voice of Dr. King who spoke in the last three years of his life about economic inequality that led to poverty not only for Blacks but for poor whites as well. King called for a Poor People’s Movement to eradicate poverty in the U.S.

“Jim Crow” was undergoing reconstruction following the backlash to the Civil Rights gains. To many Americans the Civil Rights gains represented another sacrificial crisis that needed to be resolved complete with narrative and images of the Black as criminal, allowing the nation, once again, the permission to hate Black people. Conforming to the needs and constraints of the time, writes Alexander, the new racial caste order “would have to be formally race-neutral—it could not invoke explicit or clearly intentional race discrimination.” It would appeal to “racist sentiments” and accompany a political movement that would succeed “in putting vast majority of blacks back in their place.” The new racial caste system, finally, wouldn’t violate the law or limit “acceptable political discourse.” But the effects of the new caste order would be the same as “‘segregation forever.’”

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 imposed “minimum sentences for the distribution of cocaine, including far more severe punishment for the distribution of crack—associated with blacks—than powder cocaine, associated with whites.” In 1988, Alexander continues, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act “authorized public housing authorities to evict any tenant who allows any form of drug-related criminal activity to occur on or near public housing premises and eliminated many federal benefits, including student loans, for anyone convicted of a drug offense.”
Reagan’s War on Drugs, as Alexander writes, “cloaked in race-neutral language,” offered “whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.” Senior Bush followed with crafty Willie Horton ads. Bill Clinton’s Ricky Ray Rector, Welfare Reform, and “One-Strike and You’re Out” kept the American public’s attention focused on the terror within while the federal government began funding police departments to engage in the War of Drugs. Barrack Obama, himself, as Alexander reminds us, a past user of illegal drugs, now lecturers Black communities about responsibility and points to the image of absentee Black fathers but he and the media, writes Alexander, never ask “where the missing fathers might be found.”

More Blacks are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850.  More are disenfranchised today than in 1870. Blacks are warehoused in out-of-the-way, rural areas where whites make up the majority of employed law enforcement personnel and where white towns benefit in terms of tax dollars and services. Convicted felons “enter a separate society, a world hidden from public view,” governed by “oppressive and discriminatory rules and laws.” In most states, they are denied to right to vote, and excluded from public housing, education.

In the meantime, “today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals.  That is what it means to be black.” White crime doesn’t exist; “white crime lacks social meaning.” The newJim Crow re-establishes a caste system that makes race—Black people—invisible.  We must admit out loud, Alexander writes, that “it was because of race that we didn’t care much what happened to ‘those people’ and imagined the worst possible things about them.” The prison industrial complex hasn’t failed in its goal, she tells us. On the contrary, it has succeeded in marginalizing African Americans and disrupting thousands of families and their communities. It has also allowed the American public to continually sacrifice the idea of democracy.

The battle for democracy can’t be won exclusively in the courtrooms, Alexander argues. Litigation work, often focusing on affirmative action cases, omits the voice and the engagement of those without legal expertise. Alexander asks that we consider this: is it possible to see affirmative action, racial “cosmetic” diversity initiatives as—diversions from the frontline battle, that is, the creation of a caste of people through the criminal justice system? The “abandonment of a more radical movement” opened the space for fear and hatred to mask itself in the rhetoric of diversity, adopted by moderate and liberal whites and elite Blacks. But however comforting to some, a sprinkling of Blacks here and there doesn’t make for a democracy.

The new caste system, Alexander argues, depends on this rhetoric of diversity and the “black exceptionalism.” Look at Oprah! Look at Michael Jordan! But Alexander asks, “Who is the us that civil rights advocates are fighting for?” Who is the “us” since the masses of Black Americans are caught in the correctional system and disenfranchised by and from society?  What economic system benefits from this dysfunctional scheme of law and order?

The War on Drugs must end, declares Alexander! The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness ends by urging its readers to pick up the mantle where Dr. King left off.  Take up the radical movement that King believed “held revolutionary potential.” Alexander proposes that we “accept all of us or none” philosophy as we look to amend this egregious wrong by re-igniting a human rights movement in this country.

Dr. Lenore Daniels

Dr. Daniels holds a PhD in Modern American Literature, with a specialty in Cultural Theory (race, gender, class narratives) from Loyola University, Chicago. Her publications include scholarly articles for The Canadian Women’s Studies Journal, The Griot, and Americana. She has served as a writer for several community newsletters and co-editor for Chicago Alliance for Neighbourhood Safety Newsletter. Currently, she writes a commentary for The Journal, Platteville, Wisconsin and the Black Commentator.

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