Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).
This book is not for everyone. I have 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.
Michelle Alexander looks at the invisible people and the invisible birdcage that keeps the masses of Black people locked in and alienated from society—the targets of the War on Drugs. She asks: How could a government wage a genocidal war against Black people after the passage of the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts? How could a government conciliatory to Civil Rights leaders be accused of engaging war against the same people that it agreed to protect against discrimination? How are we to understand and confront a racial caste system in the age of colorblindness?
History here is tangible. Slavery ended, but “the idea of race lived on.” A new form of enslavement was introduced. “Nine southern states adopted vagrancy laws—which essentially made it a criminal offense not to work and were applied selectively to blacks,” writes Alexander. As the US government withdrew federal troops from the South (1876), conservative whites began “a terrorist campaign against Reconstruction governments and local leaders.” The budget for the Freedmen’s Bureau was cut so severely as to make the agency “virtually defunct,” and the US government made no effort to enforce federal civil rights legislation. So here are the freed Blacks left unprotected, with the Southern ruling class now empowered to re-impose its agenda.
It turned to the criminal justice system, using it strategically to force African Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, “a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come.” Vagrancy laws subjected Blacks to criminal charges, debt, and death. A gesture could be interpreted as an “insulting gesture” – a crime! It’s no coincidence that “slavery remained appropriate as punishment for a crime” after “Emancipation.” Southern whites “concluded that it was in their political and economic interests to scapegoat blacks.” Jim Crow would be, for them, a return to “sanity,” as a restored racial caste system came to represent the “natural” order of the New South. Northern liberals and Populists had already turned a blind eye to Black people, and the South interpreted this silence as “permission to hate.”
Blacks fought back in increments until small movements became the massive Civil Rights Movement of Black, Brown and white Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drew national and international attention to the criminal caste laws and the hypocrisy inherent in Americans’ understanding of democracy. When the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed, many believed that Jim Crow died. The New Jim Crow rightly claims that the caste system didn’t end there. Our educational system and the corporate media usually conclude the Civil Rights narrative with Dr. King standing in front of the Lincoln Monument before a huge crowd speaking to the world about his dream of whites and Blacks sitting together in a colorblind America. But Alexander recalls a crucial omission in this narrative. It’s the voice of Dr. King who spoke, in the last three years of his life, about economic inequality that impoverished not only Blacks but poor whites as well. King called for a Poor People’s Movement to eradicate poverty.
In the backlash to the Civil Rights gains, a new foundation for Jim Crow was constructed, with narrative and images of the Black as criminal, allowing the nation, once again, permission to hate Black people. Conforming to the needs and constraints of the time, writes Alexander, the new racial caste order “would have to be formally race-neutral—it could not invoke explicit or clearly intentional race discrimination.” It would appeal to “racist sentiments” and accompany a political movement that would succeed “in putting the vast majority of blacks back in their place.” The new racial caste system, finally, wouldn’t violate the law or limit “acceptable political discourse.” But the effects of the new caste order would be the same as “segregation forever.”
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 imposed “minimum sentences for the distribution of cocaine, including far more severe punishment for the distribution of crack—associated with blacks—than powder cocaine, associated with whites.” Another anti-drug measure in 1988 “authorized public housing authorities to evict any tenant who allow[ed] any form of drug-related criminal activity to occur on or near public housing premises and eliminated many federal benefits, including student loans, for anyone convicted of a drug offense.”
Reagan’s War on Drugs, as Alexander writes, “cloaked in race-neutral language,” offered “whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.” Bush Sr. followed with crafty Willie Horton ads. Bill Clinton’s Ricky Ray Rector, Welfare Reform, and “Three Strikes and You’re Out” kept the American public’s attention focused on the terror within while the federal government began funding police departments to engage in the War on Drugs. Barack Obama, himself a past user of illegal drugs, now lectures Black communities about responsibility and points to the image of absentee Black fathers, but he and the media, writes Alexander, never ask “where the missing fathers might be found.”
Huge numbers of them are in prison. More Blacks are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850. Blacks are warehoused in out-of-the-way, rural areas where whites make up the majority of employed law enforcement personnel and where white towns benefit in terms of tax dollars and services. More Blacks are disenfranchised today than in 1870. Convicted felons “enter a separate society, a world hidden from public view,” governed by “oppressive and discriminatory rules and laws.” In most states, they are denied the right to vote, and excluded from public housing, education.
In the meantime, “today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.” The prison industrial complex hasn’t failed in its goal, she tells us. On the contrary, it has succeeded in marginalizing Blacks and disrupting thousands of families and their communities. It has also allowed the American public to continually sacrifice the idea of democracy.
The battle for democracy can’t be won exclusively in the courtrooms, Alexander argues. Litigation work, often focusing on affirmative action cases, omits the voice and the engagement of those without legal expertise. Affirmative action – involving racial-cosmetic “diversity” initiatives – draws attention away from the ongoing creation of a caste of people through the criminal justice system. The “abandonment of a more radical movement” opened the space for fear and hatred to mask itself in the rhetoric of diversity, adopted by moderate and liberal whites and elite Blacks. But however comforting to some, a sprinkling of Blacks here and there doesn’t make for a democracy.
The new caste system, Alexander argues, depends on this rhetoric of diversity and “black exceptionalism.” Look at Oprah! Look at Michael Jordan! But Alexander asks, “Who is the us that civil rights advocates are fighting for?” Who is the “us” since the masses of Black Americans are caught in the correctional system and disenfranchised by and from society? What economic system benefits from this dysfunctional scheme of law and order?
The War on Drugs must stop, declares Alexander. The New Jim Crow ends by urging its readers to pick up where Dr. King left off. Take up the radical movement that King believed “held revolutionary potential.” Alexander proposes that we accept an “all of us or none” philosophy as we look to amend this egregious wrong by re-igniting a human rights movement in this country.
Reviewed by Lenore Daniels
Editorial Board Member and Columnist,