What are the similarities and differences between slavery, Jim Crow, and the New Jim Crow?
In the system of slavery, blacks had utterly no rights whatsoever and were locked into a closed system of exploitation. It was race-based and not eradicated until the Civil War. It was characterized by extreme and arbitrary violence. Jim Crow laws were passed in Southern states after slavery was eradicated in order to reduce former slaves - who were theoretically equal citizens now - to a place of subordination. These laws regarding segregation limited almost all civil liberties and political and economic equality. Jim Crow was overturned due to the efforts of the mid-20th-century Civil Rights Movement. Now that it was illegal to discriminate overtly against blacks, the New Jim Crow system of mass incarceration was born. It was even more sneaky and almost impervious to claims of racism. It disenfranchises and marginalizes people of color just like Jim Crow did, but it's much easier to look the other way or not see the system as racially motivated.
What does Alexander suggest in order to fix the current system?
Alexander states outright that she does not have a specific list of recommendations, and hopes the book will instead spur a conversation. However, she does delve into issues that have to change. The prison system, for one, must not be profit-driven. Law enforcement should not be given so many incentives to racially profile and arrest people. The real facts on drugs and the statistics regarding usage should be acknowledged. Anti-drug legislation like mandatory minimums need to be overturned. Treatment of ex-offenders needs to be softened; more rehabilitation and help must be given. Bias in juries and sentencing must change. And perhaps most importantly, the American people must be honest with themselves about what they've done. In other words, the public consciousness must change; the indifference must go away. American society has a responsibility to confront what we have done and are doing to people of color even if it is uncomfortable to do so.
What powers do the police and prosecutors have, and what is their impact?
Police have almost unfettered power to do whatever they want in the War on Drugs. They choose the neighborhoods to police, harassing the drivers and pedestrians there with abandon. They seize whatever they want and almost none of it ever returns to the people who owned it. They are seen by the courts to know best, even if the statistics (and the people who experience these encounters) do not bear this out. Prosecutors are even more powerful, bringing absurd sentences down on individuals. Together the system is almost impossible to navigate and/or escape. Black people, especially those in urban areas, will no doubt have some encounter with the police and/or prosecutors in their lifetime, even if they've done nothing wrong or something very minor.
Why did black leaders and black communities support the drug war for so long?
This is certainly an uncomfortable fact about the early drug war - black leaders and communities tended to support it. They looked at their crumbling neighborhoods and despaired at the crack epidemic sweeping through them, combining with joblessness to create a hopeless situation. Some hoped that eradicating drugs would improve their communities. As the drug war dragged on, some people thought the best course of action was to cooperate with the police - to be on one's best behavior and help promote the "uplift" of the race. Black leaders also focused their efforts elsewhere, such as on affirmative action. They found it easier to ignore their poorer brethren and fight fights that might be "easier" and perhaps more successful.
What does Alexander think about Obama in terms of his election as well as his actions as president?
Alexander is, of course, pleased with the election of a black president, especially one like the intelligent, honest, and compassionate Obama. She points out that he is an exceptional person, though, and his election is not representative of any true, fundamental progress. Having admitted to doing drugs while young, it is possible that if he had ended up in the system he would not have had the life he did. It seems to be a combination of privilege and luck that he escaped it. Black exceptionalism, which Obama is the poster child for, does not mean that regular black people are doing well. People like Obama and Condoleeza Rice allow whites to point out that things have changed, seemingly shutting down the question of racial progress. In terms of Obama's contributions to fighting the drug war and ending mass incarceration, he has not done so well. Alexander criticizes his support for programs that funnel money to law enforcement and his lack of real action, despite some of the statements he made on the campaign trail. It is also problematic that many blacks do not seem to want to criticize him too much because he is a black man in power and they feel that should be paramount.