Alexander begins her work by explaining that she came to write it due to her experiences working for the ACLU out of Oakland; there she saw not only the racial bias in the criminal justice system but how the system itself was constructed in a way to render people of color second-class citizens much in the way Jim Crow laws of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did. Those in prison and the ex-offenders released are marginalized politically, economically, and socially, forming a new racial undercaste.
Alexander details the history of race in America, moving from slavery to the Civil War to Reconstruction to the Jim Crow laws to the Civil Rights Movement. The Movement garnered an intense backlash that conservative politicians yoked in order to gain votes and implement a new, albeit subtler, racial separation. In the 1980s, Reagan began the War on Drugs not based on correct statistics about drug use (people of all races use, buy, and sell drugs at about the same rate) but in order to appease whites. “Law and order” rhetoric became de rigeur even amongst liberal politicians; no one wanted to be soft on crime, especially when the media blasted sensational stories about “crack whores” all over the papers and televisions. Even Clinton was responsible for some of the harshest anti-drug laws that harmed black communities already suffering from economic collapse.
Mass incarceration is the gateway to the New Jim Crow, Alexander’s concept for understanding how black people in particular lack any real rights of citizenship. Law enforcement has almost carte blanche to stop people in cars and in the streets all the while claiming it is not for racist reasons. While statistics show that racial profiling does exist and does not reflect actual crime rates, it continues unabated. Law enforcement was given many incentives in order to carry out these stops, such as federal funding, training, and the ability to keep seized cash and assets.
Those arrested for drugs rarely get the nice, neat trial seen on television or in movies. Most poor arrestees cannot afford a decent lawyer. Mandatory minimums in sentencing lead to absurdly disproportionate sentences. Probation and parole are almost impossible to adhere to, leading most offenders back to jail.
The official colorblindness of the laws and of Supreme Court rulings facilitate this system. The punishments are often high because while jury selection is also supposed to be colorblind, it is pervaded by implicit racism in terms of whom the lawyers choose for their jury members.
When a person is released from jail, society certainly does not seem to consider their debt paid because they will immediately enter a harsh and inflexible society bent on keeping them subservient and marginalized. Most felons cannot get public housing and they cannot vote. Most are not eligible for public assistance like food stamps. Most have trouble finding work because “checking the box” is tantamount to not even bothering to apply. Furthermore, the shame and stigma attached to being a felon are psychologically oppressive.
With all of the very clear data on what is happening, it seems like more Americans should be at least bothered by what is going on. Unfortunately, denial and willful ignorance make most Americans blind to this reality. Changing things would be incredibly difficult, and the language of colorblindness makes people doubt there is anything truly serious going on anyway. Decades (if not centuries) of stereotypes, savvy political exploitation, and media embellishment or obfuscation have contributed to this sorry state of affairs.
Alexander makes sure to clarify that she does not think the similarities between Jim Crow and the New Crow are absolute; there are several differences, although they are not as stark as one might initially think. The similarities include the exploitation of white resentment; colorblind language and laws; disenfranchisement and exclusion from juries; racial segregation of neighborhoods; closing of the courts; legalized discrimination; and the definition of race itself. Differences include the lack of outrage and activism today and less overt racism and violence today.
Many African Americans embrace an “uplift” ideology or try to operate within the system, but even the best behaved find it impossible to meet the absurd standards of white America. Alexander exhorts us to be compassionate and rational in the way we treat our fellow human beings.
In the final chapter, Alexander discusses why civil rights organizations today do not focus on mass incarceration, explaining that they prefer to work on affirmative action and do not concern themselves with this moral, rather than legal, issue. Affirmative action is not even worthy of working on because it is not real change; it is only cosmetic.
The point of the book is not to provide detailed methods to “solve” this crisis, but Alexander does lay out several of the things that will need to be changed: the private prison system, law enforcement profiling and incentives, and our public consciousness. It will be overwhelmingly hard but the conversation must be had and the changes must be made. No one likes to talk about race but it is the only way we can ever move beyond the specious colorblind rhetoric we currently have to a real, equitable future.