The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow Themes

The New Jim Crow

The main theme of Alexander's work is that the current American system of mass incarceration, created in response to the rise in drug arrests, is a systematic attempt to marginalize people of color much in the same way that the Jim Crow laws targeted blacks in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Those in prison and those released are part of a system that disenfranchises them; makes it incredibly difficult to find work, housing, or other public assistance; and bestows upon them a shame and stigma that can be nearly insurmountable. As the drug war was racially motivated, the comparison to the historical Jim Crow is fitting and undeniable. It is the new racial caste system, entrenched yet invisible.

Denial and Ignorance

The only way that the New Jim Crow can be sustained is through the mass denial and ignorance of the American people. Most may have inklings of what is going on, but even the most well-meaning find it easier to turn away and not confront this egregious denial of civil rights and liberties. We do not want to think we are part of the problem and do not want to make any sacrifices for change. Furthermore, the relentless media barrage depicting black people as criminals combined with the touting of the colorblindness of the legal system makes us believe that black people are just naturally prone to doing/selling drugs and that there is no racial bias going on.

The Failure of Colorblindness

Colorblindness is a nice idea but does not actually work. The idea presumes that all people are treated equally by the government and legal system regardless of their race, and indeed, the law is written in a way that makes it seem like this is the case. However, there are many avenues for race to creep back in. Studies show that law enforcement conducts racial profiling, that sentencing is much harsher for people of color than whites, that anti-drug legislation and laws like mandatory minimums are intended to target people of color, and that the media and government have essentially conspired to plant a fallacious image in Americans' heads that blacks are prone to criminal behavior, in turn leading to the racial profiling that starts the whole process.

Problems of Law Enforcement and Government

Conservative politicians spearheaded "tough on crime" and "law and order" policies in the late-twentieth century to galvanize poor whites' support and marginalize people of color. They funneled money into law enforcement and provided incentives to crack down on crime. The media contributed by spreading salacious stories of black crime and violence. Law enforcement may not think they are explicitly racist, and indeed, many of the things they do are not explicit, but they are acting out of racial motivations nonetheless. Our government and law enforcement have failed many of our citizens. They have relegated them to second-class status through their persecutions and punitive laws. The criminal justice system is not colorblind or fair.

Inadequacy of Current Civil Rights Movement

Alexander has hard truths for current civil rights activists: they are ignoring the real problem and instead focusing on worthless battles like affirmative action. They are actually part of the problem because of their focus on legal, not moral, battles. They are working on cosmetic diversity in affirmative action, not real change. They have to shift their attention to the larger moral crisis in order to dismantle the current racial caste system, even if it is difficult and throws their own advantages into question.

Lying, Manipulation, Subterfuge, and Obfuscation

The text is rife with examples of these four strategies for misleading the American people. From the very beginning of the war on drugs, actual crime rates and drug usage statistics were ignored in favor of inflaming fears and tensions. Law enforcement was manipulated and incentivized to go after people of color. Prosecutors feigned colorblindness. The media promoted false stereotypes. Supreme Court rulings discounted racism as a real issue anymore. Politicians lied to the American people. The New Jim Crow was able to come to fruition because of all this, and was aided by the denial and willful ignorance of the American people.


History in Alexander's perception is almost cyclical, at least when it comes to race. What is happening today is nearly exactly what happened in the Jim Crow era, and what happened then mirrored the conditions of slavery. These racial caste systems fill the void when one vanishes due to extreme effort and activism, simply implementing new and even subtler methods of marginalizing people of color. Thus, Alexander counsels us to go after real, fundamental change; this requires more effort and more discomfort than normal because the goal is to break the pattern of history and avoid replacing mass incarceration with something even more insidious.