The New Jim Crow
In a time when a black man lives in the White House, most Americans believe their nation has moved past racial oppression. Police Shootings may still grab headlines, but adherents to colorblindness view them largely as an isolated problem. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander vigorously challenges this public consensus. By understanding the intensely surprising nature of her argument, then buttressing it with copious evidence and effective counterarguments, Alexander establishes that mass incarceration amounts to a racial caste system nearly as unfair as Jim Crow or slavery.
Since Alexander understands her claim runs against the conventional wisdom of a post-racial society, she constructs her argument to appeal to an immediately skeptical audience. Among her strongest devices for relating to her reader’s potential incredulity towards her argument is a personal anecdote. Alexander remembers considering a sign that claimed the War on Drugs is a reincarnation of Jim Crow as “an absurd comparison” just a few years before writing a book that made essentially the same claim (Alexander 3). This example underscores that even racially conscious people who happen to be uninvolved in the criminal justice system tend not to see the parallels between it and past forms of oppression as well as incarcerated people do (4). Recognizing that even well intentioned readers may not be initially receptive to an argument is critical to making an effective case; in doing so, Alexander meets the readers at their (possibly mistaken) views, allowing her to continue without putting off her audience. In order to help readers understand how a deeply discriminatory system can thrive in an ostensibly colorblind society, Alexander proceeds to explain the historical context that permitted such a blemish. She notes that the “rules and reasons” used to uphold racism “evolve and change as they are challenged” (21). Much like slavery gave way to Jim Crow, racism’s versatile nature allowed it to persist even after the Civil Rights movement, as Republican politicians of the 1970s and 1980s used “law and order” rhetoric to enact tough anti-crime policies whose true objectives were to appeal to southern whites through racially charged language (41). Background information contextualizes Alexander’s case in readers’ minds. Historical context and a personal anecdote allow Alexander to ease her reader into the bulk of her argument, making an apparently ridiculous claim seem at least plausible.
Of course, merely understanding that the notion of a racial caste system exists may shock readers is not sufficient to persuade them, so Alexander supports her claim with mountains of diverse evidence before refuting potential concerns. She mixes anecdotal evidence that allows her to appeal to pathos with statistical data that allows her to appeal to logos. For instance, when discussing the toxic effects of the criminal justice system’s flaws, Alexander opens chapter 3 with the story of Erma Faye Stewart, an innocent woman whose life was uprooted by a guilty plea for a nonviolent drug crime, forcing her to face discrimination in housing, employment, and government benefits (97). She proceeds to cite a slew of statistics from several sources that show the scope of the problem, such as those proving that up to 80 to 90 percent of people imprisoned on drug offenses in many states are African-American (98). All told, Alexander cites no fewer than 500 sources throughout The New Jim Crow, whose citations consume more than 30 pages (263-296). This vast, diversified portfolio of evidence allows Alexander to appeal both emotionally and logically to her audience, creating a more unified argument. Later in the text, she again employs research and logic, this time not to construct her case but rather counter anticipated rebuttals to it. A “predictable response” from conservative pundits to the plight of black communities due to mass incarceration is to blame communities of color for embracing “gangsta rap and the culture of violence” (170). While Alexander concedes that this may be a tempting position to take, she turns the argument on its head by contending that these cultural trends are not the cause of oppression, but rather the reaction to it, comparing statements such as “black is beautiful” to similar slogans in the gay community (171). This comparison in particular is important because it underscores the similarities between race-based mass incarceration and forms of discrimination that white people may be more familiar with, helping build on the bedrock of Alexander’s argument presented earlier.
Michelle Alexander produces an altogether effective argument with clear implications for society in The New Jim Crow. Her argument’s thorough evidence and her strong awareness of her audience create a clear, persuasive case that constitutes a highly effective argument, especially considering the challenge to conventional wisdom it presents. Alexander’s careful construction of her argument allows the final chapter to be largely devoted to considering the societal implications of knowledge of mass incarceration. She makes explicit her advice to civil rights organizations seeking to improve the lot of poor people of color: Do not be afraid to advocate on behalf of convicted criminals and the downtrodden, as those who stick to traditional civil rights advocacy techniques should “labor under no illusions” that they are meaningfully addressing mass incarceration (229). More generally, the book’s striking argument makes it clear that white Americans can no longer maintain colorblindness or ignore racial issues; rather, they must bravely confront racism and criminal justice inequality head-on, or black men will continue to be more familiar with the jailhouse than the White House.
Structure and Rhetorical Strategy in “The New Jim Crow”
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, author Michelle Alexander delves into the troublesome topic of social control mechanisms through the lens of race. Alexander, a professor of law at Ohio State University and joint-appointee at the Kirwan Institute of Race and Ethnicity, covers extensively the ways in which society has evolved from slavery, to Jim Crow, to a present-day social control mechanism: mass incarceration. Her background in law and as the director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in California gave her ample experience in the field, only furthering her argument. Readers are taken through the history and different faces of racial profiling in the United States, all building up to the most recent. In six chapters, Alexander develops and extensively supports her central thesis: A quasi-racial caste system has arisen in the United States, akin to the outdated mechanisms of slavery and Jim Crow.
In the first chapter, “The Rebirth of Caste,” Alexander traces the path of social mechanisms back to the very beginning: slavery. She provides great detail on the American ideal of what was essentially “Manifest Destiny”, desiring to take and own whatever was in sight for the betterment of one’s country. Her view of race as a social control is established with her association of the Emancipation Proclamation with an “illusory nature” (Alexander 2012, p. 20). She then transitions into the next form of control, that being Jim Crow. She provides thorough evidence, citing multiple court cases such as Ruffin v. Commonwealth and Brown v. Board of Education (31-35). She cites the evolution of social controls such as Jim Crow as being “natural”, noting that it was “difficult to remember that alternative paths were not only available at one time, but nearly embraced” (35). As she works through the death of Jim Crow and the beginning of mass incarceration, she cites the Reagan rhetoric of “law and order”, a recurring theme throughout her work. Her in-depth analysis of Reagan’s inflammatory presidency sets the stage for what was to come in American society.
For her second chapter, “The Lockdown,” Alexander wastes no time in exposing the prison as a fraudulent institution designed to pick up where Jim Crow had failed. Her exposé of the prison system and the way in which it is rigged against African American men in particular finds support in court cases such as California v. Avecedo (62), Terry v Ohio (63), Florida v Bostick (64), and Atwater v. City of Lago Vista (69), to name a few. This chapter aims, in the beginning, primarily to show exactly how the system came to be what it is, illustrating the arguments derived from the Constitution and the Supreme Court decisions. Toward the end of the chapter, Alexander expands on her evidence to show the devastating effects of what being labeled a felon can have on the life of a human being, regardless of innocence. Alexander’s heavy use of evidence makes her claims nearly indisputable. The third chapter, “The Color of Justice,” shows the racial disparities in sentencing, terms of imprisonment, and the ways in which drug-law enforcement differs from other types in the criminal justice system. Alexander’s analysis of McCleskey v. Kemp (109) truly shows the struggle for equality in the courtroom and the ways in which that was prevented. Her harrowing account of young boys and men who made simply one mistake and suffer for a lifetime truly brings the issue to the heart of the reader, pushing the emotional response as well as the logical. On page 114, Alexander writes, “Thousands of people have had years of their lives wasted in prison—years they would have been free if they had been white.” This is one of many of her common sense claims that truly reinforces the idea that everything from the initial interaction, or lack thereof, to the sentencing in the courtroom is heavily race-dependent, something the Constitution is supposed to protect.
In her fourth chapter, “The Cruel Hand,” the author restates some pivotal points about the devastating effects of being labeled a felon. However, this is one of her weaker chapters, seeing as not much new information is introduced. This gives the appearance of being repetitive, and though her words are worth repeating, the reader finished three chapters over the very same material beforehand. However, this chapter serves as a neat tie between the beginning chapters, which primarily explain the issue, and the last few chapters, which provide the fire to get to the bottom of the problems. The fifth chapter, “The New Jim Crow,” is very similar in nature to the fourth. It has the same tone of repetition, and provides little new information. It does, however, serve as a working conclusion to help the reader put all of the pieces together before moving on to the sixth chapter, where the discussion and the meaning of discussion meet. The sixth chapter, entitled “The Fire This Time,” is designed to motivate the reader to take action. The beginning chapters lead up to the finale, which presents emotional pulls along with logical ties, making generalizations that can be followed by any reader. Alexander points out that “criminal justice reform efforts—standing alone—are futile” (230). Her fears and hopes for the Obama presidency are also outlined in this chapter, claiming that a colorblind society might not be the best option (240) and that Obama does not necessarily understand the perils of the criminal justice systems for African American males, though he found himself in a few tough situations (251). Her efforts in this last chapter can be summarized as urging the reader to not only hold her argument to be truth, but to act out her ambitions and spread the flame she worked to create.
Alexander’s work is incredibly hard-hitting from the very beginning, launching into difficult discussions such as slavery, discrimination, and blatant racism. However, her work lacks luster throughout its entirety. She brings out very strong points in the first few chapters, but fails to provide momentum. Thusly, her work appears to be repetitive. Due to the overwhelming support for her claims, stemming anywhere from Supreme Court decisions to personal accounts, her argument is nearly finished by the end of the second chapter. The latter chapters serve as a guide for those interested in civil rights and the ways in which they can be of service. Alexander’s thesis development is essentially wrapped up by the fifth chapter, although the last few chapters in that set are heavily repetitive. Her final chapters bring the fire and passion that is needed to create waves of change in society, providing what is lacking and inspiring the reader to become more socially aware. If Alexander had created this tone of urgency earlier on in the work, the book would have had a stronger sense of momentum and impact from the beginning.
Alexander’s book ultimately serves as a wonderful tool for predominantly white cultures to take a step back and realize the wrongdoings that are so prevalent in their societies. It is possible that many of the readers who approach her work truly have not contemplated the tremendous effects that being labeled a felon could have on one’s entire life, including after release from prison. Pairing that with the racial disparities in the sentencing process and the lack of ability to firmly prove race as a motive in the courtroom, Alexander’s work serves to force the outsider to make the connection she provides consistently in every chapter: a new racial caste system is at work, and it cannot be stopped until every sector, group, and person realizes the devastating effects that will prevail.
In a society where the purity of fact is venerated largely by the vilification of bias, and subsequently defended by the equation of bias with fiction and fiction with falsehood, the attention of an audience is held only through a taxing balance of entertainment with impartial fact. In considering this precarious situation for authors and speakers, Michelle Alexander’s comprehensive treatise on the current system of mass incarceration in the United States becomes only more impressive. In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander conducts an ominous fanfare for the abominable state of the United States criminal justice system, seamlessly weaving together ethnographic and criminal research literature, anecdote, and social commentary from experts in a variety of fields to reveal a wretched landscape of discrimination spurred by “racial indifference” (203). The text is an overwhelming success, and undoubtedly convinces readers of the dire state of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Yet tragically, the triumphs of Alexander’s argumentation are in contrast with the way in which the text relates its implications to its title, and the realities of mass incarceration to the alias of “The New Jim Crow”; the techniques employed by Alexander to effect a cutting analysis of the United States criminal justice system are not applied as effectively to the text’s advertised claim.
Undoubtedly, the criminal justice system’s true accomplishment is revealed to be the “round up, arrest and imprison[ment of] an extraordinary number of black and brown men” (17). In order to convey this understanding in a way that is both enlightening and engaging, Alexander infuses narrative prose into analyses of statistical research and of historical events. Throughout the text, Alexander employs statistics to provide irrefutable evidence of rampant racial inequalities in the criminal justice system, citing concise and damning findings such as “Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino” (98). Yet beyond the data itself, the specific format in which these statistics are presented is crucial: Alexander reserves space in the text for only the most necessary information; an annotated bibliography is linked to the text by footnotes. This formatting tack frees Alexander of complex statistical analysis, thereby allowing for a prose and pace more similar to that of a narrative than that of a research paper. Alexander further embraces narrative-based analysis in the context of historical review. In Chapter One, which “reviews the history of racialized social control in the United States” (16), the circumstances of slavery and later of Jim Crow are discussed in detail, and the chapter traces their place in American history as a progression of social and political phenomena, rather than as a collection of trends in statistics. With eloquent narration rather than dry lecture, Alexander describes how “indentured servitude [as] the dominant means of securing cheap labor” (23) gave way to a “notion of white supremacy [that] rationalized the enslavement of Africans, even as whites endeavored to form a new nation based on the ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all” (25), and thus provides readers with a more compelling image of social shift. In Chapter Three, which examines “how the legal rules that structure the [criminal justice] system guarantee discriminatory results” (17), Supreme Court verdicts that erode Constitutional “protections once deemed inviolate” are recounted one after another as serialized episodes (232). To introduce McCleskey v. Kemp, Alexander recalls “1987, when media hysteria regarding black drug crime was at fever pitch and the evening news was saturated with images of black criminals shackled in courtrooms” (109); Armstrong v. United States: how “[Christopher Armstrong] “was staying at a Los Angeles motel in April 1992 when federal and state agents on a joint drug crime task force raided their room and arrested them on federal drug charges” (115), and thus subjected to “[federal crack cocaine laws that were] selectively enforced in a racially discriminatory manner” (116). The narrative context provided for these landmark Supreme Court cases serves to humanize the parties involved: plaintiff, defendant, judge, and jury. In reminding readers that legal precedents, like all historical events, have a basis in the lives of the individuals involved, Alexander captivates readers with legal analysis disguised as the ethical dilemmas of narrative. By integrating historical references and statistical evidence seamlessly into the text, Alexander allows The New Jim Crow to maintain an engaging, yet intensely informative prose, thus retaining the attention of the reader without sacrificing argumentative substance.
In maintaining a predominantly narrative prose, Alexander succeeds in gripping readers for the length of each of the text’s smaller sections; to pull readers between sections and through the entire book, Alexander expertly employs an overarching structure by piquing readers’ curiosity. In the Introduction, Alexander quickly disowns the pleasantries of empathetic skepticism, and forces readers to leave their preconceptions behind, moving briskly from “Never did I seriously consider the possibility that a new racial caste system was operating in this country” (3) to “all those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system” (11). The tone of the Introduction predominantly resembles this second statement, bearing unexpected finality, rather than hospitality, and taking many of its claims as already established: the text’s early statements immerse the reader in a new reality without providing much explanation, in which mass incarceration is immutably The New Jim Crow. The author thus propels readers forward by exploiting their curiosity: readers are driven through the remainder of the text on a mission to clarify and explore the landscape into which they have been forcibly placed. Alexander begins her description of this landscape by outlining the independent structures that together compose mass incarceration; these components, being legislative action, legal precedent, and sociopolitical phenomena, are examined as separate parts in Chapter One through Chapter Four. Having been immersed into the reality Alexander puts on display and subsequently presented with that reality’s component parts, readers are prompted to formulate their own sinister image of mass incarceration, an image that is as daunting as it is amorphous. It is to disperse the ambiguities she has manufactured that Alexander then provides Chapter Five, which concerns the “similarities between Jim Crow and mass incarceration” (191), confirming readers’ fears by providing at last a formal thread that binds the components of mass incarceration together. By disorienting readers with a new reality at the outset of the text, and acquainting readers with their new surroundings only gradually, Alexander infiltrates the mind of the audience, prompting readers to compose the author’s alarming portrait of the criminal justice system on their own. This mechanism is particularly useful for the race-centric discussions of The New Jim Crow, as analyses of race issues could alienate audience members if links between evidence and conclusions were presented to the audience rather than proposed by the audience itself. Immediately immersing readers, and only later acquainting them with their surroundings, the progression of focus in The New Jim Crow ensures that the conclusions to be drawn are convincing, as such conclusions are first conceived by readers themselves.
The New Jim Crow indeed succeeds in its implicit pursuit: the text successfully illuminates the disastrous results of a criminal justice system that has been corrupted by racial bias, and stirs readers to rail against the status quo of race relations in the United States. However, while the text’s implicit purpose is fulfilled by its prudent overarching structure, its nominal claim is rendered weak by a lack of consistency in the minutia of semantics and terminology. Throughout the text, the criminal justice system is purported not only to be a corrupted arm of United States public policy, but a system of social control whose injustices are equivalent to those of Jim Crow’s formalized segregation. To underscore this further contention, Alexander treats “The New Jim Crow” as interchangeable with “mass incarceration” long before she compares the similarities of the two institutions. The author describes that beginning with the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, “mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born” (58); the label of “The New Jim Crow” is applied not because mass incarceration bears analogous mechanics, but merely because mass incarceration is the heir to the throne of oppression of its predecessor of twenty years prior. It is not until Chapter Five when this parity is clarified, and even then, a linchpin for the direct equation of Jim Crow with mass incarceration remains absent. Instead of bolstering her pervasive claim, Alexander seems to recant, stating that “Those who claim that mass incarceration is ‘just like’ Jim Crow make a serious mistake” (203). When Alexander at last finds “racial indifference” guilty of creating the proclaimed “system of racialized social control”, she has already shed the mantle of argumentation (231-232): Chapter Six has already transitioned from analyzing the problem of mass incarceration towards attempting to solve it. The long-awaited coronation of mass incarceration as “The New Jim Crow” is eventually observed, but goes largely unheralded in the grander scale of the text’s commentary. Thus, The New Jim Crow’s title is to be understood not as a representation of the text’s intent, but rather as a device to draw readers from one cover to the other: an entrance to a labyrinth with stirring scenery but without the advertised reward at its exit.
By the title of The New Jim Crow, Alexander seems to have placed herself in a position not unlike that which she describes in Chapter Three: forced (although by self-imposed restriction) to pursue a severe claim, Alexander is faced with a burden of proof impossibly large. Yet in contrast with so many of the Supreme Court cases she identifies, Alexander, in her own pursuit of the impossible, has achieved something great: a work that convinces readers that severe injustices in the criminal justice system are experienced by black and brown Americans at grossly disproportionate rates, and challenges readers to resist comfortable explanations for why such disparities exist. That the text strays from justification for its very title is wholly permissible, as the revelations of The New Jim Crow demand outcry regardless of their epithet: a thorn by any other name would cut as deep.
Mass Incarceration Parallels with Jim Crow
Mass incarceration has not only emerged as a racialized form of social control fueled by politician’s strategies to gain political status, but has perpetuated a national epidemic characterized by unequal civil liberties and an endless cycle of crime. This cannot be stopped until American’s accept the severe reality of the situation and drug laws and law enforcement policies are radically changed. Michelle Alexander further explains this phenomenon in her book The New Jim Crow.
Alexander argues that mass incarceration in the United States was developed primarily as a form of social control and identifies the War on Drugs as the main cause. The general public assumption is that the War on Drugs was launched in response to the crisis caused by crack cocaine in inner city neighborhoods. This view furthers the idea that the racial disparities seen in drug convictions and sentences, which are disproportional to blacks and Hispanics (Tonry 2016, 4), as well as the rapid growth in prison population, are simply a reflection of the government’s efforts to combat drug crime in poor, minority neighborhoods (Alexander 2016, 7). Alexander however, declares that this is wrong.
In the 1960s, the social, political, and economic pressures felt by both Northern and Southern whites after the Second Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North and from the civil rights movement were not only still present, but were intensified with the increase in crime rates (Travis, Western and Redburn 2014, 109). Political leaders of northern cities called for more law enforcement power in response to the rising crime rates and for poor blacks to have greater rights in the cities to which they migrated. In response, President Johnson launched the “War on Crime” that not only expanded the role of federal government in state and local crime policy, but sought out to address poverty, which he believed was the “root cause” of crime. His approach was known as the Great Society (1964-1965) and was a set of policies that aimed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice through investing more in education, health, welfare, and other social and economic problems, outside of law enforcement. However, when this approach failed, liberals and conservatives alike, agreed that there was a need to “[modernize, professionalize, and federalize]” the criminal justice system in order to combat the crime problem (Travis, Western and Redburn 2014, 110).
In the 1970s, President Nixon similarly added to this ideal with the “southern strategy” which rested on politicizing the crime issue in a racially coded manner. In order to gain support among southern voters, Nixon claimed that “the whole problem [was] really the blacks” and that personal and cultural short comings, such as lack of work ethic, poor parenting practices, and reliance public assistance and social programs, were major sources of the rise in disorder and violence (Travis, Western, and Redburn 2014, 116-117). Thus, the War on Drugs was launched to target the poor individuals in inner cities that in the governments minds lacked certain personal and cultural qualities and were a social burden on society. This further supports Alexanders claim that while the 1980s and 1990s publicity surrounding the crack cocaine epidemic led to dramatic increase in funding for the drug war and increase in sentencing policies of those convicted of crack cocaine use, there is no notion that the War on Drugs was launched in response to crack cocaine. In fact, President Raegan officially declared the War on Drugs in 1982, years before there was much media coverage on the crisis of crack cocaine in poor black neighborhoods. Consequently, the War on Drugs arose not to combat drugs, but as a political strategy that won over both northerners and southerners, liberals and conservatives, and blacks and whites alike to seem “tough on crime” (Kirby and Szuberla 2006).
An important factor when addressing the War on Drugs in relation to mass incarceration is the role of the police and the courts. There are few legal rules that constrain the police when it comes to drugs. Alexander argues that there exists a “virtual drug exception to the Bill of Rights” (Alexander 2016, 63-64) The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, and papers against unreasonable searches or seizes without warrants or probable cause, however in Terry v. Ohio (1968), the Supreme Court ruled that as long as a police officer has reasonable suspicion that someone is engaged in criminal activity and dangerous then it is constitutionally permissible to stop, question, and search him/her (Alexander 2016, 63-64). The Fourth Amendment is just one example of the civil liberties that have been undermined by the drug war.
Another consequence of mass incarceration is that it has little effect on actually decreasing the crime rate. Not only do prisons allow criminals to create a crime network with one another, but after being released that Alexander mentions, individuals are often confined to very poverty stricken areas with high criminal activity (Currie 2016, 84). These areas commonly exhibit activities, like a thriving drug trade, lots of guns, and the presence of many other people in the exact same situation, that can greatly increase the risk of the individual being pulled back into crime (Currie 2016, 84). Those who have strong economic and social opportunities are unlikely to commit crimes regardless of the penalty, while those who go to prison are far more likely to commit crimes again in the future (Tonry 2016).
Although, Alexander acknowledges that the development the War on Drugs, and in effect mass incarceration, has long throughout history just been a political strategy for politicians to say they “tough on crime,” (Kirby and Szuberla 2006) she also argues that it was created as a form of social control directed towards African Americans. Alexander’s most compelling, and perhaps strongest statement, in her book is that “mass incarceration in the US [has], in fact emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow” (Alexander 2016, 4). While this idea is extremely unsettling, Alexander successfully draws parallels between the old and “new” Jim Crow and supports her claim to emphasize the severity of the problem in the American criminal justice and prison system.
Historically, the segregation laws of Jim Crow emerged as strategic way for white elites to gain political and economic power and deflect the anger and hostility they were faced with onto African Americans. The modern American system not only similarly developed as a way for politicians to gain status, but also as a form of racial segregation. In 2008, 45% of the racial disparities in imprisonment for all offense could not be explained by arrests, or in other words, the idea that the disparities existed only because African Americans were committing more crimes was not justifiable (Travis, Western, and Redburn 2014, 95). This means that there is an extraordinary percentage of black people in prisons all over the United States when compared to whites, segregating them from main stream society. An extraordinary percentage of black people in the United States also have a “prisons label” and face restrictions in education, employment, housing, public benefits, and the right to vote, because they are an incarcerated individual (Alexander 2016, 2 & 191-192). Due to these legal discriminations, are constrained to ghetto communities characterized by extreme disadvantages, such as limited health care, poor social services, inadequate schools, and few stores (Currie 2016, 84). The lack of these liberties not only affects the individual incarcerated, but can have massive consequences on their families and their communities as a whole by taking away potential sources of economic and social support and parental guidance, making it difficult for children to find a path out of poverty (Currie 2016, 83-84).
Another incredible similarity between the old and new Jim Crow that Alexander identifies is that both have served to define the meaning and significance of race is American society. Slavery defined being black as being a slave, Jim Crow defined it as being a second-class citizen, and today’s mass incarceration defines it as being a criminal (Alexander 2016, 197-200). Therefore, racism in the United States has not been “abolished” it has merely been redesigned it. Malcom X, a human rights activist, also acknowledged this phenomenon when he said “Racism is like a Cadillac. They bring out a new model every year.” Every racial caste system in the United States, although vastly different from one another, has developed a stigma that negatively defines what it means to be black. Today, Americans live in the “age of colorblindness,” as Alexander describes it, where there is an absence of outward racial hostility and “nearly [everyone] has a genuine commitment to basic racial equality in the public sphere” (Travis, Western, and Redburn 2014, 99). Therefore, Alexander argues that the modern criminal justice system is just the new “model” of racism that has been designed to fit in with the changing times.
Just as Alexander draws a detailed analysis of the causes, consequences, and problems of mass incarceration, she also describes proposed methods on how to fix them. She argues that impressive changes in drugs laws need to be made in order to combat the “poverty, chronic unemployment, broken families, and crime” that the War on Drugs, and also subsequently mass incarceration, creates rather than destroys (Alexander 2016, 237). Locking up many drug users and dealers has almost no preventative effects, as they are often minor participants in a much larger, more complex market, and actually provides a “school [of] crime” for these incoming offenders to connect with more advanced and hardened criminals (Tonry 2016, 14-16).
While this War on Drugs could easily be changed by creating new policies, such as the decriminalization of marijuana, without any regard to race, the prevailing caste system cannot successfully be fully destroyed with a race-neutral approach (Alexander 2016, 239). Since the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid (Alexander 2016, 6), Alexander argues that Americans have to “resist the temptation of colorblind advocacy” and discuss race openly and honestly (Alexander 2016, 238). Americans must openly admit that “it was because of race that [they] didn’t care much about what happened to ‘those people’” and only then can meaningful changes be made to law enforcement policies, such as Terry v. Ohio (1968) and United States v. Matinez-Fuerte (1976), that obstruct basic civil rights and make mass incarceration immunized from claims of racial bias (Alexander 2016, 39).
What Alexander fails to mention in her analysis of mass incarceration is the vast number of whites, who are also being incarcerated at rates unprecedented in any other country in the modern world. The United States has imprisonment rates four to twelve times those of the other developed countries (Tonry 2011, 9) so not all can be achieved in addressing this as solely a politically and socially driven race issue. While it is true that black males in the United States are incarcerated at rates higher than white males, 4,749 people per 100,000 people versus 708 people per 100,000 people, these are both still rates much higher than the next country on the incarceration leader board, Russia at 568 people per 100,000 people (black and white combined) (Gottschalk 2015, 5). Alexander acknowledges that many whites are incarcerated, but writes it off as collateral damage. In doing so, she misses many of the other factors outside of “colorblind” drug laws and law enforcement policies that drive mass incarceration, including, but not limited to, economic factors.
The most predominant economic factor is the idea of a prison-industrial complex which explains how the government and industries use imprisonment as solutions to economic problems. The film “Up the Ridge,” a documentary that aimed to address the injustices of the America prison system, exploited this idea perfectly as it showed the development of a prison town in Big Stone Gap, Virginia (Kirby and Szuberla 2006). Wallen’s Ridge State Prison was built when the town faced a major economic depression after a mining company that employed majority of the community close down. Soon nearly the entire town became dependent on it for jobs and companies in the area became dependent on it for revenue (Kirby and Szuberla 2006).
While it is clear African Americans have been, and remain, the central targets of the criminal justice system, many members of other groups are finding themselves “economically and politically disenfranchised and socially marginalized” (Gottschalk 2015, 11) by the expansion of the system. It is important to recognize that this system, although first and most importantly created as a political project, and not an economic project, has become a powerful industrial business with close political allies (Gottschalk 2015, 77). Without taking these two key factors into account, Alexander’s proposed solutions will not fully solve the problem of mass incarceration.
Michelle Alexander successfully draws extremely unsettling parallels between the causes and consequences of the modern-day American criminal justice and prison system and Jim Crow while emphasizing the importance of making both political and social change in order to combat the War on Drugs and the new age of “colorblind racism” that America faces today. Her analysis, however, lacks acknowledgment of the high imprisonment rates of white people, as well as blacks people, and the economic factors that play into mass incarceration. In omitting these parts of the problem, Alexander’s proposed solutions will not full address the problem.
Alexander, Michelle. 2016. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, rev. ed. NY: The New Press.
Currie, Elliot. 2016. The Roots of Danger: Violent Crime in a Global Perspective. NY: Oxford University Press.
Gottschalk, Marie. 2015. Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Kirby, Amelia and Szuberla, Nick, dirs. 2006. Up the Ridge. Whitesburg, Kentucky: Appalshop.
Tonry, Michael. 2011. “Punishment, Policies and Patterns in Western Countries,” in Michael Tonry and Richard S. Frase, eds. Sentencing and Sanctions in Western Countries. NY: Oxford University Press.
Tonry, Micheal. 2016. Sentencing Fragments: Penal reform in America, 1975-2025. NY: Oxford University Press.
Travis, Jeremy; Wester, Bruce; and Redburn, Steve, eds. 2014. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.