The New Jim Crow, Chapter 1

Richard Johnson and I are blogging our way through The New Jim Crow during the next few weeks.  We’ll rotate between chapters, posting reflections and the questions this important book is raising for us.  We hope these series of blog posts will encourage you to pick up the book and begin grappling with unsettling and  consequential issues which have been largely ignored by too many of us.
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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessIn the preface to The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander writes that her book has a specific audience in mind- “people who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration.”  Here the author points to the book’s central claims, that there exists something called “mass incarceration” wreaking havoc among American communities of color and that this epidemic has mostly gone unnoticed, even by those involved with racial justice issues.  Alexander will explore these claims, diving into mountains of data without obscuring the big picture, in the book’s six chapters which, when taken together, make the devestating case for a system of discrimination that can be called, without a whiff of hyperbole, Jim Crow.

For those skeptical of Alexander’s claim of the ongoing influence of Jim Crow policies, the book’s introduction comes as a slap in the face.  Here, in brief, we encounter themes that will be developed more fully throughout the book.  For instance, the reader learns that in the past thirty years, “the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million,” a trend that ensures our country “has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.”  Those imprisoned are also far more likely to be minorities than are the prisoners in other countries.  And while the dramatic increase in the prison population has been largely driven by the war on drugs, the evidence shows that “people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.”

“I came to see that mass incarceration in the Unites States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

In the first chapter Alexander sketches the history of “racialized social control” in America through what amounts to a caste system based mostly on race.  This caste-based system has existed in three different forms: slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.  Alexander’s important contribution is to show how each of these forms was brought about deliberately and how, in its latest form of mass incarceration, the caste system continues to achieve it’s aims of segregation.

For those unfamiliar with Jim Crow’s first iteration, I recommend Slavery by Another Name, an excellent documentary that covers the years after reconstruction in the American South.  PBS has made it available online.  While the Jim Crow laws were eventually (mostly) repealed, the seeds for our current experience of mass incarceration had been planted.  For example, a decision by the Virgina Supreme Court identified prisoners as slaves of the State.

Alexander spends the rest of the chapter showing how a variety of factors – ongoing racial prejudices, the economic collapse of many inner cities, a massive budget increase for drug-law enforcement, and a media blitz to convince the American public of the reality of a newly-conceived drug war – led to the disproportionate incarceration of African American men.

America’s prison system does not function the way it does accidentally.  Whether it’s the total amount of prisoners or the percentage of those prisoners who are African American, the systems exists as it does for good reasons.  One recent study shows that almost one in ten African American men in their 30′s are currently incarcerated!  How can this be?

Thinking about American society as a caste system is not an idea many of us will be familiar or comfortable with.  Is this a reality you are able to consider?  Have you noticed or been impacted by mass incarceration?  Does Michelle Alexander’s explanation of a race-based caste system resonate with your experience?  Does it help explain the disproportionate number of African American men who are in prison in this country?

9 comments

  1. richardwestley

    I graduated from a Historically Black College, Morehouse in Atlanta, GA. It’s the only all-male college in the country and uniquely dedicated to preparing African-American men to leaders in various industries of our society. We were thought of as the “cream of the crop”. It was there I developed a deep sense of community care, social justice, and seeing the realities of fatherlessness. Before opening this book, I would have attributed most incarcerated African-American males to the “absent father”; whether physically or emotionally absent.

    “If they just had a father…” I would say to myself and others “…then maybe we [African-Americans] would not be disproportionately in prisons. I did have one sociology professor who raised question to this disparity for (at the time) African Americans made up 13% of the general population and more than 67% of prison inmates. Still…I contended that it was the absent father.

    I honestly had not considered that our prison system was “legalized discrimination” and worse a “race-based caste system”. That would put us on par with the incomprehensible acts of the caste in India. Maybe it’s my Morehouse elitism? But I don’t think so. It’s more likely my American elitism and my blindness to the complexity of our prison system. Keeping with the usage of a caste…our caste system is hidden away behind barbed wire and concrete blocks.

    Alexander makes a strong case for how we got here by pointing to the War or Drugs as the turning point for the New Jim Crow. I’m waiting for her defense to become more clear…If slavery and Jim Crow South were obvious attacks on African-Americans, then the prison system [The New Jim Crow] is just the third wave of injustice towards people of color, namely African-Americans and Latino-Americans.

    I’m not sure I’m there with her, yet.

  2. Linda

    I was confused, dumbfounded, shocked, and disbelieving while reading the introduction and the first chapter.

    I kept wanting to know if this book is pushing an agenda–you can make most stats say whatever you want them to say. I know our perspectives inform how we perceive reality and that every story has more than one side. So, I try to hope–maybe her perspective is throwing the truth a bit to one side or the other.

    If what she is saying is true, then our country is really, really, really messed up. I know we’re messed up–I just didn’t think we were this messed up. I keep wanting to hear a voice of reason say, no…it’s not really like that. I want someone with authority, history, experience, with nothing to gain to say, Yes, I can see how you could come to those conclusions–but….consider this.

    My heart tells me, though, that person isn’t going to show up and paint a different reality.

    I’ve had to turn my book into the library–I couldn’t renew it. There is a long line of people wanting to read this book. I think we’ll all be shaken and changed by it. I just wonder what we’ll be able to change….

  3. richardwestley

    wow! that’s crazy that this book is on such a long waiting list at the library! I think that’s an indication that our prison system is a long overlooked and neglected area in need of attention. I agree that numbers can certainly be skeewed (sp?) but it’s hard to ignore a disparity in percentage African-American males incarcerated compared to the percentage of AA that make up the general population. It’s enough of a disparity to raise eyebrows and furthermore questions regarding the possiblity of foul play or institutional injustice.

  4. Michael

    Linda, I’m happy to send you my copy.

    I read through it last year. It was painful and, even as Prof Alexander says as she wraps up her text, that voice that you hope for–the more hopeful one–doesn’t quite come. And she explains why that relieving, healing tone is too soon expected given the climate in the country.

    But I think there’s much to read. So, let me know if you’d like to read my copy. It’s a heart-wrenching, debilitating book. And, at the same time, there is something convincing in her unflinching critique of mass incarceration.

    And I’d say she is very motivated, that she puts forward her agenda. She’s clear about it. She places herself in the stream of interested people like M.L. King who would have been relegated in his day as a crazy (not yet prophetic then) figure and, therefore, one easily pushed to the fringe of the reading or listening public.

    • Linda

      yes.. Michael–I’d love the book. Thank you…53 w palisade #401 Englewood Nj 07631…

      I think this is a very important book. One i need to understand. I’m glad for the opportunity to read it with this on-line community. I look forward to reading your responses to the book and the insights you have to offer.

      Thank you, Michael!

  5. Pingback: The New Jim Crow, Chapter 2 | signs of life
  6. arlen

    For those on the outside looking in I happened to be one of those who was incarcerated in the late 80′s over drug charges, I have been free from physical bondage since 2007, but I am still in a state of mental duress, 5 years have passed and still I am judged, housing, substandard, employment,non existed, For the last 5 years I have been educating myself to improve my chances to get gainful employment, yet I still encounter tendercy from others to work with me, give me chance to show others that I have turned my life around. The next recourse is to start my own businees, do my own thing. but the bottom line is everone doesn’t think like me, some will fall back into the cracks because they don’t have the support that they need, they don’t know no better the new jim crow is a beast that is destroying the black community. The damge is being done to our young ones

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