The New Jim Crow | Study Guide

Michelle Alexander

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The New Jim Crow | Chapter 4 : The Cruel Hand | Summary



Alexander argues that a recently freed criminal today has few more rights than a freed black person in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow laws. They can be stopped and searched by police for no reason and returned to prison for minor offenses, such as failing to attend a meeting. The threat of police violence has replaced that of the lynch mob. New rules are in place that allow for discrimination in housing, job and loan applications, licenses, voting, and welfare benefits. The word criminal has become linked with deserving less than human rights—a justification of slavery in the not-so-distant past.

Brave New World

When a defendant pleads guilty to a minor drug offense, few realize that they are possibly permanently forfeiting their right to vote or serve on a jury. These are recognized as fundamental rights in a democracy. When they are released from prison, they will encounter endless laws, rules, and regulations that serve to discriminate against former offenders. This prevents them from reintegrating into mainstream society. This second-class status will haunt a former felon permanently. Since the courts don't consider these to be punishments, judges aren't required to tell criminal defendants of the rights they are forfeiting by pleading guilty.

No Place Like Home

Once released from prison, many former prisoners find it difficult to secure a permanent place to live. They are barred from applying for public housing assistance. The consequences can be devastating since if a person cannot provide a home for their children, they can be taken by social services. Public housing officials are even legally allowed to reject housing applicants if they have been arrested and found innocent of a crime. Consequently, since police in the War on Drugs targets minorities, those are the people who are frequently arrested for minor and nonviolent crimes. Public housing tenants can be legally evicted even if someone in their family is arrested without their knowledge or involvement in the crime. This denial of the right to public housing assistance means that thousands of people become homeless. Access to housing increases the likelihood that a person with a criminal record will stay out of prison. In New York, the use of prisons dropped by 74 percent when former felons were provided with supportive housing.

Boxed In

Finding gainful employment is another stressor for those leaving prison or jail. This is because nearly all states require proof of maintaining employment when a criminal is on parole—or risk being sent back to prison. Employment also allows a person to feel autonomy, a part of their community, and keep them away from negative criminal influences. Yet nearly every state also allows private employers to discriminate against hiring people with criminal convictions—or even people who have simply been arrested.

The Black Box

Former black offenders are the most strongly affected by their criminal records when applying for jobs. Their status also becomes a way to legally discriminate against them, and therefore a large percentage of African American men are unemployed. Advocates have begun a campaign to convince job organizations and cities to "ban the box" by removing the box indicating criminal history on job applications. Yet a box mindset still persists in employment hiring of black men, and Alexander argues it's the mindset that must go, rather than the box itself.

Debtor's Prison

Even those who do find employment still struggle to survive in a "legal economy." Most leave prison already in debt due to having to pay money for probation, drug testing, jail fees, court, and child support. Many states tack on "poverty penalties": late fees, payment plan fees, and interest. The majority of those who wind up in jail already had low incomes before their arrests. When they are unable to pay the fees and fine, the state allows their paychecks to be garnished. Most people caught in this catch-22 are less likely to find regular employment. Therefore, they are more likely to return to the criminal activity that doesn't take earned money away. They can also be sent back to prison for failing to pay fees and fines while on probation. These punishments echo the time after the Civil War when former slaves could be arrested for minor offenses, fined, and imprisoned. They could pay off their debt only by working on plantations as a leased convict. Since they were paid nearly nothing, many were enslaved this way for years.

Let Them Eat Cake

The government offers little assistance to former criminals, particularly when it comes to food, housing, and childcare. There is already a five-year limit on welfare benefits. States permanently bar anyone with drug-related felony convictions from receiving any kind of federally funded public assistance. This means that thousands of people are unable to receive food stamps for the rest of their lives. This includes pregnant women, people in drug rehabilitation programs, or the sick.

The Silent Minority

Former prisoners are barred from any kind of federal assistance. The government also strips them of the right to vote, sending the message that they are not full citizens of the country they live in. No other country in the world withholds voting rights at the level and magnitude of the United States. In fact, half of European countries allow prisoners to vote from jail. Even though there is a restoration process available to former inmates, it requires fines, court costs, and a maze of bureaucratic red tape. Alexander terms these barriers the "modern-day equivalent of poll taxes and literacy tests." Studies demonstrate that a large number of close elections would likely have turned out differently if felons had been allowed to vote.

The Pariahs

Alexander points out that Americans who have not faced this kind of legal discrimination can hardly fathom what life is like for those who do. Yet it's not only the legal consequences but also the shame and stigma that surround the former criminal label. Just having the label of a black male, in general, tends to stereotype one as a current or future criminal. It also amounts to a type of "social exile" that feels permanent to many former felons. In this sense, it seems to many that the "debt to society" done by serving time to prison, is, in fact, never paid off.

Eerie Silence

Another consequence of the stigma former felons face is a silence in their communities that stems from a deep sense of shame. Yet many within these communities have no idea that others around them are struggling with the same feelings and sense of alienation. Many see it as a private, personal failure within their own family that they cannot share with others.

Passing (Redux)

Because of the stigma of criminality, many family members of felons attempt to hide their association or status in order to reduce the sense of shame that accompanies it. This is partly because ex-offenders and their family members are desperate to be perceived as part of "the modern upwardly mobile class." They understand that the criminal stereotype will bar them from ever reaching that status. This massive silence within communities also guarantees that there can be no understanding within and outside of them. Alexander posits that, consequently, this entails "a collective denial of lived experience."

Gangsta Love

The notion that families who live in inner city ghettos don't want peaceful communities, good jobs, and opportunities to be part of society is a racist one. Some argue that black youth have embraced a culture of violence, which white Americans see glorified in rap music. Alexander posits that the moral failings belong to society at large. This is a society that is willing to demonize an entire segment of its population and imprison it while excusing other segments for similar crimes. The demonized group is offered only contempt for failing to redeem itself. It is also psychologically normal for a stigmatized group to embrace that stigma as their only way to reclaim their identity. It is also very much a political act since it resists society's attempts to demean it. Yet embracing a stigma "is inherently self-defeating."

The Minstrel Show

The portrayal of black "gangsta culture" amounts to little more than a modern-day minstrel show. It depicts the worst of racial stereotypes—and is largely designed for white audiences. African Americans also play a part in driving the popularity of this kind of entertainment. They have done this since the era of minstrel shows that perpetuated the very stereotypes against them. Alexander posits that perhaps it is the mere fact of seeing themselves on stage as celebrities that gave a sense of power and control. The fact that modern-day black culture perpetuates similar stereotypes leads to the same conclusion.

The Antidote

When historians look back on this time period, they will marvel over how such a "racialized social control" ruled the United States through mass incarceration. They will puzzle over how it was advertised as a way to control crime when, in fact, it seemed designed to create more crime. Although every individual may have the will to overcome obstacles in their path, the conditions they are born into are not irrelevant. Most people fail to overcome even simple challenges. What's more remarkable is the notion that of the hundreds of thousands who leave prison, many are able to stay out against the odds. The fact that society chooses to shame and condemn this already stigmatized group says more about society than about the former prisoners. Another option would be to collectively embrace them by recognizing their inherent humanity.


The stigma of being labeled a criminal lasts much longer than one's stint behind bars. Is it any wonder, Alexander hints, that the vast majority of criminals are black? Slavery allowed blacks to be legally considered less than human as a justification for their oppression. Being labeled as a criminal is also an accepted sanction to take away their rights and treat them as less than human. Most people do not realize that when they plead guilty to a crime—even a minor drug offense—they may give up the right to vote. This right is considered to be the cornerstone of being a free and equal citizen. In Brave New World, Alexander highlights the lingering and damaging long-term effects of the felon label. Many incarceration laws ensure ex-offenders are prohibited from re-entering mainstream society as productive citizens with their rights intact.

There is a deeper and more internalized message that the criminal label reinforces, and it's the idea that they are not wanted in mainstream society. The internalization of this message can lead to despair, depression, and a return to prison. If, instead, ex-offenders were given chances to rehabilitate themselves and find ready employment, this internalized—and by extension externalized—message could take precedent. When black offenders encounter roadblocks at every angle, it's easy to see the connection between lack of opportunities and a return to prison. They are also far more likely than any other demographic group to have their potential employment affected by their criminal record. Laws demand they disclose that information on employment applications.

Another roadblock that ex-offenders face upon their release is the uphill battle of getting out of debt. Two-thirds of people in jails have income below the poverty line. Upon release, they can find themselves under a mountain of fines, fees, and costs related to their imprisonment. In the event they are able to find employment, they can have their wages garnished by the state to pay off these debts. Knowing this, it's not surprising that many return to illegal activities to make money since it is money the state cannot touch. This struggle is also a link back to when many former slaves found themselves in debtor's prison after arrests for minor violations. They were forced to stay imprisoned until they worked off their debts—through labor on the very same plantations they had previously worked for free. Keeping ex-offenders under the threat of looming, perennial debt is merely another form of this kind of slavery.

The ways in which the United States disenfranchises ex-offenders is egregious. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has deemed that its policies violate international laws. These tactics are yet another echo of laws that dictated blacks needed to pay poll taxes and pass literacy tests in order to vote. Under mass incarceration laws, all ex-offenders are immediately disqualified from voting. They are non-participatory citizens by law in their own country. In The Pariahs, Alexander points out that "it can be difficult to imagine what life would be like if discrimination against you were perfectly legal." Imagining is the first step toward empathy. Empathy is what it will take for the system to change. Many people want to believe that the criminal justice system works, that once time is served, an individual can be absorbed back into society. They can hardly understand "the permanence of one's social exile" that can follow them throughout life. There is now no such thing as a "debt to society" being repaid solely by serving jail time. These issues are rarely discussed in the public sphere—or even privately within black communities. This means that there is "a collective denial of shared experience." Unless a society is willing to investigate its own silence and complicity, the institutions and structures can never change. Alexander posits that it is no wonder that black men participate in "gangsta culture." This is a way of reclaiming the stigma as a proud identity rather than allowing it to be dictated to them. In this light, it can be seen as "a political act—an act of resistance and defiance." The tragedy is that it is inherently a destructive and self-defeating act. If anything, it is highly remarkable how many people released from prison manage to survive in such a hostile, second-class citizen environment. Alexander presents a path in which, rather than shame and condemnation, former criminals could be embraced for their humanness. They could be supported in their endeavors to rejoin society as contributing citizens with access to housing, education, employment, and civil rights restored.
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