Creating Jim Crow In Depth Essay

The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

by Michelle Alexander and Cornel West

Under Jim Crow laws, black Americans were relegated to a subordinate status for decades. Things like literacy tests for voters and laws designed to prevent blacks from serving on juries were commonplace in nearly a dozen Southern states.

In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes that many of the gains of the civil rights movement have been undermined by the mass incarceration of black Americans in the war on drugs. She says that although Jim Crow laws are now off the books, millions of blacks arrested for minor crimes remain marginalized and disfranchised, trapped by a criminal justice system that has forever branded them as felons and denied them basic rights and opportunities that would allow them to become productive, law-abiding citizens.

"People are swept into the criminal justice system — particularly in poor communities of color — at very early ages ... typically for fairly minor, nonviolent crimes," she tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "[The young black males are] shuttled into prisons, branded as criminals and felons, and then when they're released, they're relegated to a permanent second-class status, stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement — like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of legal discrimination and employment, and access to education and public benefits. Many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again, once you've been branded a felon."

On Monday's Fresh Air, Alexander details how President Reagan's war on drugs led to a mass incarceration of black males and the difficulties these felons face after serving their prison sentences. She also details her own experiences working as the director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Michelle Alexander is an associate law professor at The Ohio State University. She clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court and is a graduate of Stanford Law School. courtesy of the author hide caption

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courtesy of the author

Michelle Alexander is an associate law professor at The Ohio State University. She clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court and is a graduate of Stanford Law School.

courtesy of the author

Interview Highlights

On the number of blacks in the criminal justice system

"Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. There are millions of African-Americans now cycling in and out of prisons and jails or under correctional control. In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives."

On the war on drugs — and federal incentives given out through the war on drugs — as the primary causes of the prison explosion in the United States

"Federal funding has flowed to state and local law enforcement agencies who boost the sheer numbers of drug arrests. State and local law enforcement agencies have been rewarded in cash for the sheer numbers of people swept into the system for drug offenses, thus giving law enforcement agencies an incentive to go out and look for the so-called 'low-hanging fruit': stopping, frisking, searching as many people as possible, pulling over as many cars as possible, in order to boost their numbers up and ensure the funding stream will continue or increase."

On President Reagan's war on drugs

"He declared the drug war primarily for reasons of politics — racial politics. Numerous historians and political scientists have documented that the war on drugs was part of a grand Republican Party strategy known as the "Southern strategy" of using racially coded 'get-tough' appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were resentful of, anxious about and threatened by many of the gains of African-Americans in the civil rights movement."

On racial profiling

"I think it's very easy to brush off the notion that the system operates much like a caste system, if in fact you are not trapped within it. I have spent years representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to help people who have been released from prison attempting to 're-enter' into a society that never seemed to have much use to them in the first place. And in the course of that work, I had my own awakening about our criminal justice system and this system of mass incarceration. ... My experience and research has led me to the regrettable conclusion that our system of mass incarceration functions more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control."



Jarvis Cotton’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and father could not vote due to Klan violence and poll taxes. Cotton cannot vote either because he has been disenfranchised as a felon. America saw disenfranchising black men as essential to the original union; today many are still not able to vote because of their status as a felon. They are subject to discrimination in many ways – housing, employment, voting, food stamps, jury service – which brings us to a situation very much like the old Jim Crow.

Alexander explains how she came to write this book. She was elated with Obama’s election and saw Jim Crow as something of the past. She did not see a new racial caste system, and when she started her job at the ACLU she recognized that there was racial bias in the criminal justice system but that was the extent of it. After she left though, she was convinced it was more than that. The formerly incarcerated are “relegated to a racially segregated and subordinated existence” (4).

Most people think the War on Drugs was launched as a response to the crack cocaine crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, but Reagan actually announced it before crack became a media issue. Afterward, the media was filled with images and stories of “crack babies” and “crack whores.” Some in the black community thought the War on Drugs was part of a government plan to facilitate the genocide of black people. This did not bear out exactly as stated, but the guerilla armies that the CIA supported in Nicaragua did bring in drugs to inner-city neighborhoods.

While the War on Drugs actually began with a declining rate of illegal drug use, it resulted in a rate of incarceration higher than anywhere else in the world. This rate is disproportionate in terms of race; while people of all colors use and sell at the same rate, blacks are imprisoned at rates twenty to fifty times higher than those for whites. There is also not much of a correlation between crime and punishment; sociologists point out that governments decide what they want to punish regardless of crime rates.

America’s penal system is one of “social control unparalleled in world history” (8). This is strange given the fact that in the 1970s many were convinced prisons were going to become obsolete soon. In 1972 less than 350,000 people were held in prisons and jails; today it is 2 million.

Currently, one in three young African American men will spend time in prison; in some cities, more than half of them are incarcerated, on parole, or on probation. Civil rights advocates are mostly devoted to other issues such as affirmative action. Black politicians also have other foci. The NAACP has made some progress: racial profiling has come under attack in recent years. However, there is no broader movement and the tendency is to treat the criminal justice system like any other institution with lingering racial issues.

Alexander’s main point is that this is the New Jim Crow and that our rhetoric of “colorblindness” disguises the reality of a new racial caste system.

She knows her book will meet with skepticism, especially about the term “caste.” She explains that it “[denotes] a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom” (12). The criminal justice system is the gateway into the larger system of stigmatization and marginalization. Americans have a hard time talking about race and class, and assume that failure to move up means that one’s character is flawed. Many black Americans cannot move up though, and form an undercaste barred from participating in mainstream society.

Many people believe that the election of Barack Obama and the overturning of some state laws regarding mandatory minimums mean that the caste is fading away. Not true, Alexander states; the basic architecture of the New Jim Crow is still in place because those who are arrested and labeled criminals are still relegated to a second-class existence.

It is important to note the differences between mass incarceration, Jim Crow, and slavery, but the comparisons are useful and profound in themselves. Things must be changed; the conversation must be had.

Chapter 1: The Rebirth of Caste

Although the Emancipation Proclamation, Civil Rights Amendments, and Reconstruction eradicated slavery and brought about positive changes for African Americans, it was a “brief moment in the sun” as W.E.B. Du Bois put it. The racial system has evolved with new rules but the same endgame. After the collapse of each system of social control there was a period of transition followed by backlash and the development of a new form of social control. As the systems evolved, they became “perfected, arguably more resilient to challenge, and thus capable of enduring for generations” (22).

Alexander takes us through the history of race and racism in America. “Race” was devised to helps whites reconcile themselves with chattel slavery and the extermination of Native Americans. Indentured servants and Native Americans were not ideal laborers (especially after Bacon’s Rebellion in which indentured servants rebelled against the planter aristocracy) and slaves were brought in increasingly high numbers. Poor whites welcomed someone else at the bottom of the social ladder; the aristocracy gave them just enough to keep them loyal.

White supremacy helped further the enslavement of blacks. It permeated all aspects of American life and even the writing of the Constitution. Compromises kept Southerners happy and the language was deliberately colorblind.

White supremacy was so much like a religion that it lived on even after slavery was eradicated. Southern whites had a dilemma after the Civil War in terms of maintaining white supremacy in the absence of a system. Anarchy, hysteria, and rage prevailed. Whites were afraid of the newly-freed slaves and perpetuated stereotypes of the angry black man. Southern state legislatures created the Black Codes to limit blacks’ economic autonomy and participation in civic life.

For a few years under the Radical Republicans things were more positive. In the 1870s, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were passed; the Freedmen’s Bureau - which helped provide education, food, and clothes - was expanded; voting among black men increased dramatically; black politicians were elected. However, many of the new laws lacked teeth. Poor blacks could not sue to defend themselves and threats of violence kept many out of public life.

When Reconstruction ended in 1877 thanks to the Compromise of 1877 and the Southern “Redemption” governments taking over, black gains faded. Convict leasing became ubiquitous. Convicts had no legal rights and were essentially slaves of the state. The prison population began to rise now that blacks were targeted with abandon.

In the aftermath of Reconstruction, three philosophies of race relations emerged. The liberal philosophy, born in the North, “emphasized the stigma of segregation and the hypocrisy of a government that celebrates freedom and equality yet denies both on account of race” (32). The conservative philosophy, popular in the South, said liberals were pushing blacks too fast out of their proper station and that blacks would lose their gains. The radical philosophy, which most blacks embraced, was that of the Populist Party, which critiqued corporations, the railroad elite, etc. The Populists initially targeted conservatives, who rallied to pass segregation laws and get poor whites on their side. This was eventually successful and the Populists’ biracial partnership was over. The racial caste system emerged and Jim Crow laws were everywhere in the South.

As for the end of Jim Crow, it is usually traced to Brown v. Board of Education but was already weakening before then thanks to WWII and the migration of blacks to the North. The white primary was abolished in 1944 and interstate buses were desegregated in 1946. Brown desegregated public schools but built on these earlier successes.

The backlash was intense. Southern Congressmen devised “The Southern Manifesto” protesting Brown and the KKK reemerged. These factors could have destroyed any nascent progress but at the same time the Civil Rights Movement was brewing. Sit-ins, protests, speeches, boycotts, and the actions of Kennedy and Johnson moved things forward. Segregation in public spaces ended and miscegenation laws were overturned. As the 1960s progressed, the Movement turned to economic concerns; King tried to ally the concerns of all poor Americans and build a human rights movement. Due to all of these successes, opponents of racial equality had to look for a subtler way to achieve their goals. They turned from segregation to law and order.

This “law and order” rhetoric was first utilized in the 1950s to mobilize opposition to civil rights progress in the South. Conservative politicians like Nixon began to use it in speeches. Sadly, at the same time, crime rates began to rise. While this was due to a number of complex reasons, it was linked to the Civil Rights Movement and sensationalized as “further evidence of the breakdown in lawlessness, morality, and social stability in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement” (41). The riots in the mid-1960s did not help either.

Some black activists began to join conservatives in calling for a crackdown on crime; this allowed conservatives to claim their actions had nothing to do with race. The rhetoric was initially undisguised but eventually became sanitized and more about “crime” than race.

Alexander walks the reader through party alignments and how they shifted during the Great Depression when blacks flocked to FDR’s Democratic Party. The New Deal wasn’t perfect but at least included them. Democratic dominance ended with the Southern Strategy of Nixon, which used thinly-veiled appeals to racists to attract whites.

By the 1960s and 1970s, thinking on poverty was split: conservatives said poverty was a reflection of character and culture and blacks had pathologies that made them “welfare queens” and cheats; in contrast liberals looked at social conditions that generate crime. The debate was now the “deserving” versus the “undeserving” poor. Conservatives capitalized on the fact that most of the costs of racial equality had been borne by poor whites (neighborhoods near black ghettos, integrated schools, job competition).

Law and order became an intrinsic part of political campaigns starting in 1968. Blacks and poor whites were pitted against each other; the prevailing idea was those who are afflicted should care for themselves rather than depend on society.

When Reagan ran for office, he also used implicit racial appeals with race-neutral language that made it hard for liberals to prove that he was being racist. He told anecdotes about “welfare queens” and promised a tough stance on crime.

In 1982, Reagan officially announced his War on Drugs and almost overnight the budgets of federal law enforcement agencies skyrocketed. At the same time, drug treatment, prevention, and education programs were cut. A media offensive was launched at the same time in order to garner support for the initiative.

As the drug war kicked off, inner-city communities were dealing with economic collapse due to the loss of jobs. This gave rise to greater incentives to sell drugs, especially crack cocaine. The harm this drug and its concomitant violence cause should not be minimized, but our response should have been different. Other countries faced with similar issues did not have racial policies and fear-mongering.

The Reagan administration leaped at the chance to publicize the crack epidemic. It became the story of the year, but a story filled with misinformation and hyperbole. Tougher anti-drug legislation was passed and more money was allocated. The revised legislation in 1988 was even harsher, including new mandatory minimums and an expansion of the drug policy. When law enforcement budgets went up, so did the amount of people incarcerated under this “get tough” philosophy.

When Clinton came into office things did not improve; in fact, he - more than any other president - created the racial undercaste. He ended welfare as we knew it and began a “three strikes” federal law. He pushed for federal housing to kick out anyone with a criminal history; this led to a surge of homelessness.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, 2 million people were in jail or prison. Up to 90 percent in some states were black or Latino but the language was race-neutral. The New Jim Crow had arrived.


The New Jim Crow was an undeniable phenomenon when it came out. It landed on bestseller lists, was discussed in the media endlessly, made Alexander an activist-scholar hero, and led to many subsequent handbooks and publications on how to bring its prescriptions for a better criminal justice system to fruition. Alexander’s meticulous research, searing message, and compassion and empathy for her subjects made it nearly impossible to walk away from this book unconvinced as to the validity of most, if not all, of her claims.

Her main thesis is this: the system of mass incarceration based on drug charges was created as a form of racial control and exists as a way to keep people of color in permanent states of economic, political, and social marginalization much as the Jim Crow laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While ostensibly citizens, people in the system both in jail and once released, do not get to engage with many of the hallmarks of citizenship such as voting or receiving public housing and assistance. They form what Alexander calls an “undercaste,” which she defines as “a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom" (12).

Alexander spends much of the book utterly decimating claims, assumptions, and stereotypes even the most well-meaning of us adhere to. First, she notes that the United States’ incarceration rate is the highest in the world – a surprising fact for an enlightened democracy of the First World. Second, the War on Drugs is a complete farce (more on this momentarily). Third, she says our penal system is one of control unprecedented in human history.

The introduction and Chapter 1 give readers several themes that weave themselves throughout the book. The insufficiency – or rather, the failure – of colorblindness is made clear, despite the lovely chord it strikes and seeming reality in the era of a black president. The reluctance of African American civil rights leaders themselves to embrace criminal justice reform by fully acknowledging the New Jim Crow is a frequent problem. In addition, the exploitation of the fears and resentments of poor whites is seen to characterize many historical eras.

In Chapter 1, Alexander provides a brief history of race and racism in America. For those readers less familiar with the narrative of American history, this tour through slavery, Bacon’s Rebellion, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Populism, the end of Jim Crow through Board, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is very instructive. Even if this narrative sounds familiar though, what comes next is probably less so. The backlash to the Civil Rights Movement manifested itself in the Southern Strategy and the first construction of stereotypes such as lazy “welfare cheats” and black criminals. “Law and order” rhetoric became a popular way to stoke hostility towards blacks; it was carried out by conservatives to win votes among poor whites. This was very successful especially during Reagan’s campaigns as he “echoed white frustration in race-neutral terms through implicit racial appeals” (48) that also contained plausible deniability. He focused on targeting crime and expanded the budgets of law enforcement agencies. Along with this, the administration conducted a media juggernaut to sensationalize the crack epidemic that was putatively sweeping black neighborhoods. Due to technological changes and economic collapse, it is true that many poor blacks turned to selling drugs to make ends meet, but instead of reacting to this with nuance and compassion, Reagan used this to gain political capital and pass harsh and punitive anti-drug legislation. Although actual drug usage was not up, the illegal campaign successfully convinced Americans of this. Clinton’s welfare policies and three-strikes policy further contributed to the decimation of black communities. Thus, the New Jim Crow was born – African Americans were unfairly targeted by law enforcement on the behalf of a federal government interested in stoking racial flames in order to win elections.

Why the comparison of mass incarceration to Jim Crow? As Alexander explains it, this is a new racial system along the same lines as slavery and Jim Crow. It is invisible but entrenched. It is ostensibly colorblind but obviously based on denigrating black Americans. It is a form of legal discrimination, buffeted by the public’s indifference and willful ignorance. It’s not a perfect comparison, she writes, but the two are very, very similar. She will delve into the particulars, both similarities and differences, in later chapters, but for now it is important to keep the comparison in mind as an effective means of understanding the depth and breadth to which African Americans are affected by mass incarceration.


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