The New Jim Crow | Study Guide

Michelle Alexander

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The New Jim Crow | Chapter 1 : The Rebirth of Caste | Summary



In many ways, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln was an illusion. Not a single black slave was free to walk away from a slaveholder until the Civil War (1861-65) was fought and won. Even after, that freedom seemed an illusion as well. Constitutional amendments about African American rights to equal protection and voting held little power. Instead, the Jim Crow system of segregation took its place, and a racial caste system still exists today. Alexander claims that just because some African Americans have experienced great success in recent times doesn't mean that this racial caste does not exist. It has merely taken a different form, and history shows that "racism is highly adaptable." There is even a pattern to the cycle of oppression. As the systems of control have evolved, they become more able to withstand challenges to it, and, therefore, guarantee that they will continue in another form.

The Birth of Slavery

The concept of race is a recent invention—it's only in the last few centuries that people have classified themselves according to race. In America, it emerged as a way of rationalizing slavery. Native Americans also became racialized as a way for European settlers to rationalize invading their territories. By casting them as "savages," it excused the moral problem of terrorizing and killing other human beings and even became a justification. Plantation owners then began to view Africans as "the ideal slaves," given their powerlessness. They even chose to import slaves from Africa rather than the (English-speaking) West Indies. African slaves would be less likely to form alliances with poor whites, and they would be easier to control. The plantation owners also worked to provide a "racial bribe" intended to drive a wedge between poor whites and black slaves. This ensured that poor whites now had a stake in supporting a race-based system of slavery. They had an incentive to expand their own racial position. This began the notion of white supremacy. Even the Constitution was based on an effort to preserve the racial caste system of the time. This allowed plantation owners in southern colonies to continue to hold slaves in the name of "property rights." Slaves were even defined in the Constitution as being "three-fifths of a man" rather than a whole person.

The Death of Slavery

As slavery flourished over four centuries, notions and ideas about race did as well. White supremacy became something akin to a religion in its beliefs. It created a narrative for whites to believe they were "helping" the inferior blacks by "allowing" them to be taken care of as slaves. Even after slavery ended, ideas about race lived. The end of slavery also left the economy and society of the South in chaos. Many Southern whites "strongly believed that a new system of racial control was clearly required." But it was unclear just what institutions or laws would be necessary to continue white supremacy and control. Laws began to spring up in Southern states governing where blacks could sit, travel, and go to school. Nine Southern states adopted laws that made it criminal not to work and applied those laws selectively to blacks. Legislators also passed laws requiring that prisoners had to work on plantations for little or no pay. State laws re-created a system that mimicked the slavery that had been legally abolished. These laws were eventually overturned during the Reconstruction Era. This was a time after the Civil War in which the states of the Confederacy were brought back into the United States. At this time, several constitutional amendments were adopted guaranteeing the rights of African Americans. Within three years, 15 percent of all Southern elected officials were black. But many of these new civil rights were largely symbolic and allowed blocks to black voters in the form of poll taxes and literacy tests.

The Birth of Jim Crow

Many whites reacted with "panic and outrage" at the newfound political power of African Americans. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan surged. This was a secret organization that fought against Reconstruction and committed acts of terrorism that included bombings, lynchings, and mobs. As federal troops left the South, they also effectively abandoned the African Americans they were fighting for. Tens of thousands of African Americans were arrested under the new "black code" vagrancy laws. They were forced to work as prisoners for the very same plantation systems from which they had been freed. According to the Constitution, prisoners were legally no different from former slaves. The convict population grew 10 times faster than the general population—effectively the nation's first prison boom, with a disproportionately black population. This new criminal justice system strategically placed African Americans back into a system that oppressed their rights and humanity. One political group, however, attempted to bind low-class whites and black together by showing them that white elites were their common enemy. Southern African Americans eagerly embraced these Populists, "eager to be true partners in a struggle for social justice." Conservatives were alarmed by the success of Populists. They also feared the possible strength of an alliance between poor whites and African Americans. The conservatives doubled down on tactics of white supremacy by introducing segregation laws. These laws were a "deliberate effort" to create and maintain a wedge between poor whites and African Americans. For conservative elites, it effectively redirected hostility away from them to African Americans. Eventually, the Populists re-aligned themselves with conservatives in defeat. By the turn of the 20th century, every Southern state had laws that allowed for discrimination against blacks in every arena of life. Discrimination involved schools, churches, housing, jobs, bathrooms, restaurants, and cemeteries. This new order was deemed "Jim Crow," and considered a permanent way of life.

The Death of Jim Crow

It's widely accepted that the end of Jim Crow coincided with the 1954 US Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Alexander points out that things began to shift, however, during World War II. The country was forced to face the contradiction between Nazi discrimination against European Jews and the racial caste system still alive and well in America. After the Brown decision, the Supreme Court began dismantling segregation laws. The backlash in the South was strong, with the Ku Klux Klan reasserting itself through killings and the bombing of black churches. But a civil rights movement was gaining speed, emboldened by the Supreme Court's rulings. Civil rights leaders staged boycotts, marches, and sit-ins to protest the remaining Jim Crow laws. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy announced a civil rights bill to Congress. After Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon Johnson fulfilled the commitments of the bill by passing comprehensive civil rights legislation. In 1964 the Civil Rights act formally did away with discriminatory Jim Crow laws. The Voting Rights Act that followed allowed equal political participation by African Americans. Despite these gains, many civil rights activists worried that unless there was similar economic reform, the majority of blacks would remain in poverty. In response, President Johnson proposed an Economic Opportunities Bill. This goal also served to align the civil rights movement with the political goals of poor and working-class whites, who also wanted similar reform. Yet conservative whites were already searching for ways to keep things the same using new rhetoric. "Segregation forever" was thereby replaced with "law and order."

The Birth of Mass Incarceration

The rise of "law and order" coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement. Southern law enforcement characterized the campaign for civil rights as a breakdown of law and order. They began to characterize civil rights protests as criminal rather than political. At the same time, crime was trending upward due to a rising young adult male baby boom population of perpetrators, whom sensationalists linked to the civil rights movement. Some black activists, concerned over the reputation of inner cities, joined some of the campaigns for law and order. They unwittingly became complicit in the boom in the mass incarceration of black men. Yet many of the legislators who began the law and order movements were known segregationists. This "law and order" rhetoric eventually contributed to a significant realignment of the political parties in the United States. At one time, the South was solidly Democratic and the North was largely Republican. Things shifted when Southern white Democrats became angered by their party's support for civil rights reforms. This led Republicans to realize they could boost their party by recruiting anti-black Democrats. They began by arguing that poverty was caused not by "structural factors" but by culture—black culture. Many working-class white voters felt threatened by the sudden forward progress of African Americans, and conservatives used that fear to mobilize them. During the presidential election of 1968, both conservative candidates campaigned on "law and order" and together won 57 percent of the vote. By 1972 many more voters determined their political self-identification according to race rather than class. And by the time Ronald Reagan was elected in 1981, 22 percent of Democrats moved to the Republican Party to vote for him. After his election, his administration began the War on Drugs, despite less than two percent of Americans listing it as a concern. The media campaign sensationalized the use of crack cocaine in inner city neighborhoods. At the same time, these inner city communities were suffering from economic collapse due to a lack of blue-collar jobs. This created an incentive for residents to turn to selling drugs to make an income. The United States did not follow the lead of other countries that had dealt with similar epidemics and emphasized treatment and prevention. Instead, the United States introduced the death penalty for some drug-related crimes, mandatory minimum sentences, and allowed the military to perform narcotics control. Crack cocaine, associated with blacks, held more severe punishment for distribution than powder cocaine, associated with whites.

Democrats, for their part, began attempting to wrestle back the claim of "tough on crime" from Republicans. In 1994 President Clinton passed a $30 billion crime bill that created dozens of new federal capital crimes. One change was the "three strikes" law that mandated life sentences for some three-time offenders. These policies resulted in "the largest increases in ... prison inmates of any president in American history." By the turn of the century, many laws were in place to discriminate against blacks with criminal records in regards to employment, housing, education, and voting. These laws eerily resembled Jim Crow laws.


It's impossible to talk about the effects of mass incarceration without looking at the history of racial oppression through Jim Crow laws. Alexander traces their similarities in order to show that "any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge that racism is highly adaptable." Systems such as slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration evolved and adapted as tools of racial control. In order to understand what racial control means and looks like, Alexander takes the reader through a history of race. She notes in The Birth of Slavery that "the concept of race is a relatively recent development." It emerged as a form of power, and as a way of justifying inhumane treatment of other human beings based on the color of their skin. By the same token, this offers the possibility that perhaps society's views on race are malleable and open to influence. These views may also be flexible enough to change for the better. From the beginnings of slavery, wealthy white slave owners made sure poor whites saw blacks as enemies and competition for the same resources. If they were able to make an alliance based on similar class struggles, blacks would have been less easy to control. By splitting things along racial rather than class lines, white supremacy even among poor whites was able to thrive. Yet the civil rights movement anticipated that class similarities would be able to cut across racial lines. Segregation was only one powerful tool designed to "drive a wedge between poor whites and African Americans." It can be seen as a sort of "racial bribe." Alexander highlights this to show what kind of shifts in thinking truly need to occur in order to end a racial caste system. In The Death of Slavery she notes that after the end of the Civil War, wealthy whites were at a loss as to how to maintain their power. This reinforces her argument that those kinds of racist systems will always find a way to adapt and evolve. They will change to the point of declaring themselves colorblind in order to distract from the fact that the majority of prisoners are black. Slavery was a caste system, dictating how one's life would turn out based on the circumstances of birth. A contemporary caste system dictates the likelihood of ending up in prison for those born male and black in the era of mass incarceration.

After the demise of slavery, it was no coincidence that the nation saw its first prison boom—made up primarily of former slaves. It was a new system designed to exert similar control and repression of blacks. It was able to adapt over time alongside politics and law enforcement tactics. It evolved in such a way that it has been able to deny any racial targeting through the careful use of language. This is despite being overtly obvious the moment anyone steps into a prison and sees that the overwhelming majority of prisoners are not white. The term law and order became a justification for discriminating against blacks and shifted the connotation of criminal to become aligned with the word black. One other way the system adapted was through the gateway of the War on Drugs. Mandatory minimum sentences were enacted for a drug like crack cocaine—predominantly found in black neighborhoods—and not powder cocaine. Law enforcement, therefore, sent a message to black and white communities about who deserved to be—and would be—punished more. It became a socially acceptable excuse to label blacks as drug-dealing criminals, despite the fact that the rate of drug use and selling among whites and blacks is the same. It became another tool of racial control and a legally sanctioned one at that. As the system became entangled in politics, law enforcement, and courts, politicians tried to outdo themselves declaring themselves tougher on crime than anyone else. This tactic only increased mass incarceration rates and did little to prevent crime or drug use. The government became invested in rewarding law enforcement for targeting drug criminals, paving the way for courts to legally sanction discrimination against poor, urban blacks. They also instilled policies and laws barring former felons from gaining access to public housing. They ensured that those leaving prison would be far less likely to survive and thrive when they re-entered society. The tactics of the entire system of mass incarceration, particularly the restrictions in place when one leaves prison, resembles the discrimination of Jim Crow laws.

The insidious shift to the rhetoric of terms such as law and order, criminal, and colorblind. This means that the American public is far less likely to examine the racial caste system. They choose instead to believe that race no longer drives political, legal, and social decisions in the country. Alexander posits that this is perhaps more dangerous than overt racial hostility. It allows people to continue existing without challenging the structures that keep the cycle of racial oppression going. The majority of people in the United States simply accept the fact that the country has the highest incarceration rates of any developed nation. It is also accepted that the majority of the prison population is black. Although the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s was real, jailing mass quantities of black sellers and users was not the only option available. This fact shows that racial control, rather than drug control, seems to have been the driving force behind the War on Drugs, an assertion borne out by other independent sources.

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