Alexander begins this chapter by reminding readers of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s speech exhorting black men to be better fathers. It was not different from other black men’s speeches on the subject but the media became obsessed, with many black commentators chiding him for his words. Many have wondered where the missing black men have gone, but thus far no one has said the truth – they are in the prison system. Mass incarceration has been normalized and the system requires no justification; black men are missing because no one notices they are gone.
Why are we as a society ignorant to this? Are we feigning it? Denial is a powerful thing, Alexander notes, and references scholar Stanley Cohen’s writing on the subject. Many Americans don’t know, cannot recognize the obvious truth, and think the system is actually colorblind. The shocking images from the Jim Crow days are not prevalent anymore; prisoners and those in the system are out of sight and out of mind. This makes the system more durable and harder to eradicate.
Entrapment in the system belongs in three stages, Alexander explains. She recaps the stages: the roundup, characterized by incredible discretion amongst police to enact their racial biases; formal control; and invisible punishment in terms of the system former convicts enter when they leave prison, finding themselves legally discriminated against. They will be hidden from the public and little understood.
Mass incarceration is not new in American history. However, it affects entire communities of color and extends beyond controlling or preventing crime. In Chicago, for example, 55 percent of the adult black male population has a criminal record. Here and elsewhere, young black men are more likely to go to prison than college.
This is the new racial undercaste much like the one that Jim Crow formed. There are similarities and differences between the old Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow, of course, and they require a thorough accounting.
The parallels include historical similarities as both systems were created by white elites to exploit the resentments of poor and working-class whites; legalized discrimination; political disenfranchisement; exclusion from juries; closing of the courts to claims of racial bias and discrimination (McCleskey resembling Dred Scott and Plessy); racial segregation, much like apartheid, in prisons and ghetto neighborhoods; and finally, both “have served to define the meaning and significance of race in America” (197), whereby black men are identified with criminality, stigmatized, and seemingly fated to encounter the system. In addition, the old Jim Crow policies were actually colorblind, not explicitly race-based. Mass incarceration from the drug war is similarly “colorblind.”
The limitations of the comparison include the fact that racial stigma today does not contain the seeds of revolt like the Jim Crow era did; little overt racial hostility and vigilante violence exists, with the problem today being more racial indifference; white people are affected too and collateral damage in this racial caste system in the age of colorblindness (in this discussion, Alexander also contrasts the treatment of drunk drivers – in a way that keeps them functional and in society – with that of drug users, whereby the former is a “white” crime and the latter is a “black” crime, showing us our societal views on who is disposable); and many African Americans seem to support “get tough” policies and other tactics of mass incarceration because their communities are under assault whereas in the Jim Crow era almost all did not.
On this last point, Alexander notes its nuances and complexities. African Americans understand that drug involvement is often a means of survival and cannot fully excoriate it. It is possible to hate the crime and violence but remain complicit in it, if not supportive.
The debate now is the “politics of respectability,” but this is not a new debate. During Jim Crow, some blacks encouraged themselves and others to behave in the best way possible to show whites they should be equal to them. Since the only thing they could control was their own behavior in a context of complete disenfranchisement, this made sense. However, it was an idea largely embraced by black elites who condemned and distanced themselves from the black poor in order to improve their own status, while at the same time claiming to speak for all blacks. This was particularly onerous for poor blacks during the New Deal because black elites supported programs that would harm the urban poor but help themselves.
Today, many blacks also seem to embrace the uplift ideology and “get tough” measures, but forget it took a major movement to end the last caste system, not just good behavior. While complicity in the system and acting perfect might seem like the only option, it is ridiculously hard. Try as they might, any mistake black youth make garners them scorn and shame.
People claim that since crime is voluntary, people should be punished, but the fact remains that we are all human, and thus all make mistakes and break laws. A black kid dealing on the street is no different than a white kid selling drugs in his dorm. A black kid with a gun to protect himself is no different than a white kid getting drunk and driving. Only our choice about whom to care for is different.
Overall, it is absurd to think that what we as a country did to African Americans after Reconstruction should have resulted in anything other than a host of obstacles and frustrations. American society started the War on Drugs and witnessed the collapse of inner-city communities and did nothing. America marginalized black people to rebuild the Southern white coalition. America moved from exploitation (slavery) to subordination (Jim Crow) to marginalization (mass incarceration); everyone seems to want to just look the other way.
In this chapter, Alexander explores the similarities and differences between the old Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow. In the introduction, she anticipated some pushback against this comparison, writing, “Failure to acknowledge the relevant differences, as well as their implications, would be a disservice to racial justice discourse. Many of these differences are not as dramatic as they initially appear, however; others serve to illustrate the ways in which systems of racialized social control have managed to morph, evolve, and adapt to changes in the political, social, and legal context over time” (14-15). She adds that she assumes that “the book will be met with skepticism or something worse” (12) but knows that the most important thing is the conversation that the book starts.
Indeed, some critics have expressed concern with the comparison. James Forman wrote in the New York University Law Review: “My objection to the Jim Crow analogy is based on what it obscures. Proponents of the analogy focus on those aspects of mass incarceration that most resemble Jim Crow and minimize or ignore many important dissimilarities. As a result, the analogy generates an incomplete account of mass incarceration–one in which most prisoners are drug offenders, violent crime and its victims merit only passing mention, and white prisoners are largely invisible… the analogy directs our attention away from features of crime and punishment in America that require our attention if we are to understand mass incarceration in all of its dimensions.” A famous civil rights activist expressed her discontent with the book, claiming that it supports the status quo. Joseph Osel, a researcher and professor, claimed that Alexander’s analysis was ahistorical and elided the voices of black revolutionaries, activists, and more. It has a “liberal-humanist, bourgeois framework,” which he finds problematic.
While the critiques may have some validity, the similarities identified by Alexander are hard to deny, and the differences are minimal. The reader walks away from this damning comparison (hopefully) stunned by the ways in which people of color in the system are virtually second-class citizens.
Alexander does not spare her own criticism of civil rights activists and advocates who prefer not to focus on the New Jim Crow, which she will elaborate upon in Chapter 6. Here, she alludes to some of the divisions within the black community about how to deal with mass incarceration. Some would advocate being well-behaved, doing well in school, dressing properly, keeping the volume of music low, and other controls on individual behavior. This is the idea of the “poster child” – the black person who keeps his/her head down and works within the system to the best of his/her ability in order to “uplift” the race. This perspective is reminiscent of Booker T. Washington’s call for 19th-century African Americans to not focus on the attainment of political rights but rather to work hard and concentrate on working with whites.
This assimilationist, racial uplift philosophy was anathema to W.E.B. Du Bois, who said there was no justice in moving slowly, working with whites, or being polite and decorous. He stated that African Americans had to assert their political and economic rights and fight against white supremacy. He wrote, “Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism, and that black boys need education as well as white boys.” Alexander’s point in this section, then, is to indicate the utterly impossibility for young black men to behave perfectly all the time – they will mess up because they are human. Furthermore, why should they have to be perfect? Young white men rule the world and can make mistakes, but young black men have to be extra careful and when they falter, or even when they have broken no law but law enforcement feels like being overly punitive, they will be subject to the injustice of the current system of mass incarceration. Ta-Nehisi Coates also writes extensively of this unfairness to his son in Between the World and Me, telling him that he should be able to live in a world where he can wear a hoodie or play his music as loud as he wants without being targeted by hostile whites.
Alexander ends this chapter by admonishing Americans for thinking that the state of affairs she has been detailing happened naturally, circling back to her opening words on our propensity for willful ignorance and denial. The roots of the current system of racial stratification, bias, and oppression extend back to slavery and Jim Crow, of course, but even more directly to housing discrimination leading to the creation of urban ghettos, the backlash to busing and integrated schools, and, as we have seen, the spurious War on Drugs.