Alexander begins with the story of the Jena 6, six young African American boys who, pushed to the breaking point by racial slurs and taunts, beat up a white boy and were to be sentenced as adults. The media outcry supporting the boys centered on the noose hung on trees and its old Jim Crow connotations. Today the New Jim Crow does not benefit from explicit racial symbols, making it harder to rout.
Alexander moves to the question of why the civil rights community is not very vocal about or active in addressing mass incarceration. It is not that they don’t care, she concedes, but that the organizations are made of fallible human beings who tend to have a hard time believing they are part of the problem.
Many of the organizations are top-heavy with lawyers, which happened during the Civil Rights Movement. The focus shifted to a legal, not a moral, crusade, and lawyers focused on individual cases, not major systemic change. Lawyers are also reluctant to take on cases dealing with the much-hated group of criminals. It is hard to make a criminal – someone whom society views as dangerous, immoral, or stupid – defensible. The story of Rosa Parks is instructive here, for she became the face of the Movement due to her impeccable character; two other women were rejected by civil rights advocates as plaintiffs because of their backgrounds. Most young black men are also not seen as “’poster boys’ for media advocacy” (228).
Should we then, Alexander asks, focus on issues that are easier to win, such as affirmative action? In actuality, those battles have not made much of a difference. According to the data, African Americans are no better off now than in 1968. People have a false sense of the situation because poverty and unemployment rates do not include people behind bars.
The criminal justice system must be changed to prevent crime rather than create it, and to no longer act as a system of racial if not social control. Alexander explains that she has ideas on what to do, but this is not the undertaking of this particular book. Rather, she wants this book to start a conversation that will hopefully provoke collective action.
Reform will not be achieved by individual victories in courts or legislatures. Racism is too vast, too entrenched. There are a lot of factors to consider: 700,000 people have jobs in the criminal justice system, the private prison-building system is remarkably lucrative, and there are many other profiteers who will not want to relinquish their gains. And, of course, America will have to end the War on Drugs. Doing so will not be simple nor achieved by a single law, court decision, or executive order. Indeed, to end the War on Drugs, racial profiling must end and the culture of law enforcement must change; federal grant money for drug enforcement must end; marijuana must be legalized; mandatory drug sentencing laws need to be changed; prison workers need to be retrained; and barriers to reentering society must be changed.
These are a few of the major factors to address, but perhaps most importantly, the indifference of people to poor people of color must be overcome. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, the case must be taken to the court of public opinion. Public consciousness must shift or a new caste system will simply emerge. Reform work can continue, but movement-building – the larger war, not individual battles – has to be the focus. We have to stop debating crime policy as if it is actually just about crime instead of race. We must see how our prejudices and insecurities have been exploited, and how our lack of caring about “those people” has led us to this moment. Race is an uncomfortable topic but we must have a real, public conversation because the caste system will never go away if we pretend to be race-neutral. People would still be disingenuous when they talk about reforms and race would be there anyway, silent and looming.
Colorblindness is a major part of problem and we must seek to move beyond such a word. Why is colorblindness a problem, Alexander asks? It has been catastrophic for blacks in America because it allows those in charge to carry out things like mass incarceration while pretending there is no connection to race. It will not be easy, of course, to abandon this word. It sounds good; conservatives like the focus on individualism, liberals like the idea of racial equality. However, racial differences will always exist and we should embrace that. We should not, though, use the word to cover up our apathy towards people of color.
Alexander turns to affirmative action, linking it with mass incarceration because it allows us to achieve “cosmetic” racial diversity while keeping structural, systemic racism in place. Affirmative action has not helped poor or working-class African Americans at all, and has actually resulted in a lot of problems: it makes the caste system invisible; it perpetuates the myth that anyone can make it if they try; it allows for a divide-and-conquer tactic; it promotes a “trickle-down” racial justice theory; it polarizes people who don’t understand its place. Civil rights advocates are justifiably afraid of the annihilation of affirmative action and perhaps their own jobs. However, the story of black progress is a myth. Things are not actually better as a whole. Black exceptionalism comes into play here because the stories of successes like Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama make people think other black people aren’t trying hard enough. Overall, affirmative action programs “create the appearance of racial equity without the reality and do so at no great cost, without fundamentally altering any of the structures that create racial inequality in the first place” (249).
Alexander ends by referencing the Oakland-based civil rights group “All of Us or None” and discusses who the “us” is. She says that it must include white people as well, and reminds readers of her earlier discussion of how poor and working-class whites were turned against people of color by white elites even though they have much more in common with them economically and socially. American society must expand to “all” by turning this into a human rights issue, much like Martin Luther King advocated in the late 1960s in his Poor People’s Campaign. If we do not honestly address racial divisions and resentments then a new caste will simply emerge after mass incarceration ends.
This is all easier said than done, she acknowledges. Perhaps a new generation of leaders will understand the realities of the system of mass incarceration, and if older leaders do not, then their time has passed. She ends with a quote from James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” a letter to his nephew in which he discusses the “innocence” of the people who destroy the lives of black people without knowing or caring. He encourages his nephew to be strong and not give up, and help make America what it needs to become.
In the final chapter of the book, Alexander lambasts civil rights advocates who do not focus on the issue of mass incarceration and instead direct their efforts towards promoting and preserving affirmative action programs. One of the reasons why this is so frustrating to Alexander is that affirmative action programs are actually relatively useless for most African Americans in that they are a “cosmetic” solution, not one that actually addresses systemic black poverty and unemployment. A few exceptional black people helped out by affirmative action does not indicate real change. The focus ought to be on mass incarceration because that is where all the proverbial/literal missing black fathers are; that is the real civil rights crisis of our age.
While Alexander acknowledges that this book is not intended to provide specific proposals for change and instead provoke conversation, she does put forth a few suggestions in terms of what must be addressed. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates in his writing on the near hopelessness of whites ever owning up to the reality of racism in society, Alexander is blunt and unapologetic about the difficulty of the task facing American society. She does not soft-pedal or soothe. There will be tremendous pushback and hostility toward the proposed changes, she states, and it will take more than just one law, court case, executive order, or prominent act of activism to occur. The prison system will have to be fundamentally changed, law enforcement will have to alter their behavior and lose funding, and crime laws will have to change. Open and honest conversation about the incredibly awkward and painful topic of race must occur, since real change cannot happen if the foundation of the problem is ignored. Alexander summed up her hopes and concerns for Democracy Now in an interview. “I think a number of things have to change. You know, there’s a whole laundry list of reforms that need to be adopted. But I think we really need to come from the perspective not how do we tinker with this thing or tweak it, but what would a truly just system look like? Would we criminalize the simple possession of drugs for personal use? Would we do that? Or would we treat drug use and drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a crime? Would we follow the lead of a country like Portugal, which has decriminalized all drugs across the board and stopped caging people who may be in the need of help, and investing in drug treatment and education and support for the communities from which they come? So, we need to end the war on drugs and the war mentality that we have, which means ending zero-tolerance policies. It means transforming our criminal justice system from one that is purely punitive to one that is based on principles of restorative and transformative justice, you know, systems that take seriously the interests of the victim, the offender and the community as a whole. We need to abolish all of the laws that authorize legal discrimination against people who have criminal records, legal discrimination that denies them basic human rights—to work, to shelter, to education, to food.”
The denial of the real intentions behind and impact of the criminal justice system, as well as the magnitude of the task of dismantling it, are made very clear in this chapter. Similarly, in a Salon conversation with Meg Worden, Worden stated, “it’s hard to know where one could even find an inroad into change that wouldn’t collapse in on itself. In addition to the problems for the people in the system, the people outside of it are taught that it is working and they don’t need to pay attention. There’s a lot of ‘don’t look at the man behind the curtain’ going on. Unless it touches a person personally, or someone a person personally knows — and many times stigma keeps those people silent about their experiences — it is easy not to think about. They imagine it’s working fine, that it’s a problem politicians will effectively solve. I think at our core we still believe someone up there has our well-being at heart.”
Alexander also asserts that in order to achieve real change, society must abandon the word and idea of colorblindness. This may be surprising to some, but she ably explains why it means nothing. Colorblind laws have rarely been that, as Jim Crow and mass incarceration show. Colorblind rhetoric has been used to justify the most deleterious laws and programs; it has allowed us to ignore subtler forms of racism and claim we live in a country freed from the legacy of its racist past. Furthermore, there will never be full colorblindness since we live in a very diverse country.
Alexander ends by exhorting her readers to work for change – real, lasting, fundamental change. In the Democracy Now interview, she succinctly articulates her hope. "... it’s about mustering in the courage to have a major reassessment of where we are as America, reckon with our racial history as well as our present, and build a broad-based movement rooted in the awareness of the dignity and humanity of us all, no matter who we are, where we came from or what we may have done.” There must be a human rights movement. And like Ta-Nehisi Coates, she is inspired by the words of James Baldwin in his letter to his nephew, “The Fire Next Time,” offering them to her readers as an indictment of America’s racism but also a call for black men to persevere, to be authentic, to help each other, and to make America better.