I was rushing to catch the bus, and I noticed a sign stapled to a telephone pole that screamed in large bold print: THE DRUG WAR IS THE NEW JIM CROW.
Alexander take readers through her discovery of the New Jim Crow with this sign being one of the main ways that she starts to think about the realities of mass incarceration. While it is a strong statement and might seem at first read to be histrionic, all of the data eventually bears the truth of the statement out. She even acknowledges that the conspiracy theory that the government introduced crack into black neighborhoods to facilitate a genocide was not utterly unbelievable.
...racial caste system do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago.
One of the main themes of the book is how even though the overt racial hostility of the Jim Crow era no longer really exists, the indifference, apathy, and denial of the American people regarding the treatment of the black members of their country are absolutely sufficient to prop up the system of marginalization. People find it easy to believe in stereotypes rather than take the time to investigate their validity, and they content themselves by thinking that people are in jail because they did something legitimately wrong. They ignore that statistics that trouble them and continue on in a blase, and of course very dangerous, fashion.
Clinton eventually moved beyond crime and capitulated to the conservative racial agenda on welfare... in so doing, Clinton - more than any other president - created the current racial undercaste.
It is certainly easy to condemn conservative politicians for getting the whole "law and order" and "tough on crime" policies started, especially since they were very obviously rooted in race. However, liberal politicians have been guilty of the same rhetoric and concomitant political measures. The reasons for this tend to revolve around the fact that it is hard not to support being tough on crime. Liberal politicians have moved to the right on this issue in order to win votes, and the maze of misinformation may even have mislead them as well. Alexander is unequivocally critical of Clinton, and even has harsh words for Obama at the end of the book.
Virtually all constitutional civil liberties have been undermined by the drug war.
The drug war is carried out in an unfettered and almost unbelievable way. Law enforcement has practically no restrictions on whom they can stop. Lawyers fashioning a jury can offer the flimsiest reasons as to why they exclude a person of color. Prosecutors ask for high sentences. The media circulates misinformation. Most of this is sanctioned by the Supreme Court, and civil liberties end up totally eroded. Unreasonable searches and seizures happen with abandon, while Fourteenth Amendment claims of due process or equal protection violations are nearly impossible to bring to court. Americans don't seem to care too much about these violations because they assume the police need carte blanche, lawyers are working for good, and the law is colorblind.
It is not uncommon for people to receive prison sentences of more than fifty years for minor crimes.
Some of the statistics and anecdotes Alexander presents are utterly astonishing. Due to mandatory minimums and three-strike laws, people caught with a small amount of crack cocaine or guilty of some other minor crime end up having the most absurdly high sentences. What makes this even more tragic is that oftentimes the second and third crimes committed are done in order to survive. Getting out of prison often means a life of barely surviving, and the return to crime is very common. The system almost guarantees reincarceration.
In the drug war, the enemy is racially defined.
Though the drug war is carried out in an officially colorblind way, race is a huge component. The communities where people of color live are the ones most heavily policed; their young people are the ones stopped and frisked. The sentences given to black people are much more punitive than those given to whites, and they probably did not have a jury of their peers either. The statistics are utterly damning but people prefer to believe that black and brown people are just more prone to crime. Race and crime are now so linked in our heads that when asked to picture a criminal, most of those surveyed thought of a black person.
Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or black person living "free" in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow.
This quote sums up Alexander's core argument: the way ex-offenders are treated today is just as bad if not worse than the way a black person was treated in the South under Jim Crow. This is an astonishing reality to contemplate as we think we've made progress on racial matters in the last several decades. Unfortunately, the economic, social, and political marginalization ex-offenders face does indeed place them in a similar position. We must consider the racial aspects of the war on drugs and mass incarceration and see how we really have not progressed in the way we think we have.
The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary.
Most politicians and ordinary Americans find it easy to support "law and order" and "cracking down on crime" rhetoric. After all, committing a crime is a voluntary action. No one has to commit a crime, so what happens to them afterward in the legal system and once they're released is what they chose and deserved. Of course, while this sounds good, it is not the case. People of color are relentlessly pursued more than whites are for the same crimes. People of color face worse sentences and unfair juries. They face an extra level of discrimination once they are out. They are also likely to go back to jail because they were doing something criminal in order to survive and take care of their families. Much of this stems back to past eras in American history in which society marginalized black people, but we forget to consider this. There is now only a vacuum in which people of color choose to commit crimes and it's only fair that they pay the price.
When black youth find it difficult or impossible to live up to these standards - or when they fail, stumble, and make mistakes, as all humans do - shame and blame is heaped upon them.
This quote is reminiscent of Ta-Nehisi Coates' letter to his son in Between the World and Me in which he warns his son that he will be held up to intense scrutiny, his mistakes will be magnified, his everyday choices like wearing a hoodie or listening to loud music will condemn him. Young black men are told to be well-behaved, told to be perfect and respectful, but this is both nearly impossible and patently unfair, as white parents do not have to counsel their children in similar ways. Young black men are almost doomed to fail and most people refuse to see the injustice in that fact.
It is fair to say we have witnessed an evolution in the United States from a racial caste system based entirely on exploitation (slavery), to one based largely on subordination (Jim Crow), to one defined by marginalization (mass incarceration).
Most people would probably be surprised to hear mass incarceration lumped in with slavery and Jim Crow, but the genius of Alexander's book is in how she shows readers the facts on the way black people are treated to lead us to the same realization. There have been many positive strides made. Slavery is gone, legal and political freedoms ostensibly abound. There are black men and women in positions of power, and income and education levels have risen. However, for most poor blacks their lives will be touched by the system somehow; they will be profiled and persecuted, arrested or know a family member arrested, stigmatized and shamed. They will be stereotyped and lambasted as their rights are stripped from them. Mass incarceration is a crisis along the lines of slavery and Jim Crow, and demands the same reckoning as the past caste systems did.
The New Jim Crow Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The New Jim Crow is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
A felony conviction would eliminate the convicts right to vote, the right to sit on a jury, the ability to apply for food stamps, federal aid, or unemployment, and the ability to apply for public housing for at least five years.
Alexander explains how she came to write this book. She was elated with Obama’s election and saw Jim Crow as something of the past. She did not see a new racial caste system, and when she started her job at the ACLU she recognized that there was...