The New Jim Crow | Study Guide

Michelle Alexander

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The New Jim Crow | Chapter 5 : The New Jim Crow | Summary



Presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a speech (2008) imploring black men to be better fathers. Sociologists have pointed out that the stereotype of black men being bad fathers is a false one. Yet no one pointed out where many of these black fathers could be found, and why they were absent in the first place. Little is said about the fact that many of these men are in prison. They are not good fathers for lack of commitment, but because they are physically unavailable to be fathers. There are now more African Americans under some form of correctional control than were enslaved before the Civil War. The system that started under the War on Drugs has now become institutionalized. It runs itself without needing any larger justification. The racial stereotypes that accompany ideas about mass incarceration have been largely internalized.

States of Denial

Humans have a long history of being able to deny the existence of racial oppression and human suffering. Yet denial is complicated—people hold the ability to know and not know something at the same time. It's a state of mind that can hold both simultaneously. Acceptance comes through knowing that it is precisely the brown and black people who become imprisoned, with the rationale that it is a deserved fate. People hold this view though they also know that whites commit the same crimes. Another tool that reinforces denial is "persistent racial segregation" in housing, schools, and the media. There is also a deep misunderstanding en masse of how racial oppression operates. It's difficult to reconcile that racism is a function of attitude and also responsible for creating political racial caste systems. These systems are sanctioned by the government in the form of mass incarceration. The reality is that racism comes from both. Mass incarceration created a racial caste system through a complicated series of laws, institutions, and practices. The inherent danger of its continuance is its ability to defend itself on race-neutral grounds.

How It Works

The War on Drugs became the vehicle allowing large numbers of black men to become imprisoned. After that point, they become formally controlled, often denied any meaningful legal representation, and with their lives regulated and monitored by the system. Even after they are released, they are relegated to the larger, invisible cage of being branded second-class citizens as former criminals. This is an "invisible punishment" laden with sanctions and operating outside of public view. It prevents integration into mainstream society by legal discrimination through housing, employment, and public benefits. When former prisoners re-enter society, they are forced to live in a different world than the one they left behind.

Nothing New?

Race has always played a role in how justice in the United States is administered. The War on Drugs became a rationale for redefining the relationship of poor people of color to mainstream society. It sealed their status as less than, and, therefore, deserving of punishment. Criminal justice has become less about prevention and increasingly about social control.

Mapping the Parallels

While the reasons and justifications change with the times, the United States has nearly always had a racial undercaste of some kind throughout its history. Mass incarceration as a tool of racial control bears many eerie similarities to the Jim Crow era of laws. They both have similar political origins, designed to drive a wedge between blacks and poor and working-class whites. They also both offered a path to legalized discrimination. Those labeled as felons before turning 21 face legal discrimination for the rest of their lives in employment, housing, voting, and public assistance. One in seven black men has lost the right to vote in the last three decades. While incarcerated blacks are counted in prison populations for the district they are in, they legally cannot vote in that district. They are also excluded from serving on juries, similar to the Jim Crow era all-white juries trying black defendants in the South. Racial segregation continues to make the black experience invisible to the majority of whites, who are more easily able to ignore their experience of discrimination. Currently, the stigma of being labeled a criminal is "fundamentally a racial stigma." By contrast, criminality is not a racial stigma for whites. The word criminal has become interchangeable with the word black. This connection did not happen organically but was constructed by politics and the media.

The Limits of the Analogy

There is a limit to the comparison between the effects of Jim Crow and mass incarceration. One difference between them is the absence of overt racial hostility in the War on Drugs, which is more covert than Jim Crow. The system of mass incarceration instead ostensibly operates under the principle of racial indifference. Another difference is that, during the War on Drugs, whites can sometimes find themselves punished by the same laws that affect blacks. Yet the inclusion of some whites in this system also serves as a cover for the supposed colorblind criminal justice system, which is anything but. A separate but distinct difference is that most blacks did not support Jim Crow laws. However, there is support for "get tough" policies on crime that arose through the War on Drugs. This is because many within the black community are aware that selling drugs is often a means of economic survival and are painfully aware of the risks involved. During Jim Crow and in response to mass incarceration, the privileged black elite can be found turning against the urban black poor. They do this for not proving to whites that they can fit into their "politics of respectability." The current racial caste system tries to emphasize that poor, young, urban blacks have the same choices available to them as their white counterparts. This, in turn, perpetuates the notion that black men arrested for crimes are morally inferior in some way.

Fork in the Road

There's a question of whether a better set of options is available to poor, urban blacks, and if so, who is responsible for providing those options. The United States could be a nation that provides "care, compassion, and concern" to black men before they grow up and find themselves imprisoned. The country encountered the collapse of blue-collar factory jobs in inner cities during the 1970s. Then it could have poured its resources into education, job training, and public transportation.


The silence within the black community about the effects of mass incarceration sometimes finds a voice in black elite celebrities and politicians. They may implore black men to do better. This trickles down to public discourse in the form of questioning where all the black men have gone. The question largely ignores the fact that the majority of missing black men are in prison, on parole, or on probation. Alexander acknowledges that people have the free will to make choices in life. However, she also demands in turn that society acknowledge the circumstances people are born into that may prevent them from going far. She offers the astounding statistic that today "more African American adults are under correctional control today ... than were enslaved in 1850." This point demonstrates yet again the ways in which mass incarceration acts as a form of racial control. Even more horrifically, it has become completely normalized and accepted within society. Cementing its normalization are the racial stereotypes that have become internalized.

Alexander's careful arguments are rooted in the bewilderment of just how many in society are in denial of the racial caste system and the effects of mass incarceration. The fact that people can simultaneously know and not know something is powerful. It is the means by which denial can be alarmingly effective at maintaining the status quo. One of the driving factors in this willful denial is the assumption that racism is "a function of attitudes." The assumption is that something that claims to be as colorblind as mass incarceration simply cannot stem from racism. When most people in the United States think of racism, they conjure up images and ideas of outright racial hostility. What they fail to realize is that racial indifference and so-called colorblindness operate in a similar and sometimes far more insidious fashion. They don't advertise themselves as outright racism, yet the latter is the way in which it becomes "embedded in the structure of a social system." And when it becomes an accepted part of a social structure, it cannot be dismantled or reformed one piece at a time. Other structures are wedded to it that will take its place.

The War on Drugs is merely the entrance point to the cage that black men are forced into if caught committing a drug crime. The physical cage is prison. And outside the prison upon release exists a larger, invisible cage. It operates in such a way to ensure an ex-criminal's ability to rejoin mainstream society is difficult at best, impossible at worst. They, therefore, are highly likely to become forever relegated to the cycle of imprisonment and the illusion of freedom upon release. This cage is invisible to everyone who has never found him or herself in the situation. It is a world and system largely hidden from public view, and its particular set of laws and regulations don't apply to anyone else. The division between blacks and whites can be traced all the way back to the wedge driven by wealthy whites between poor blacks and whites. It also guarantees that whites are able to distance themselves from the suffering of blacks at the hands of systems such as mass incarceration. Politicians and the media have worked in tandem to correlate blackness and criminality during the War on Drugs. In The Limits of the Analogy, Alexander highlights the insidiousness of racial indifference. It guarantees that the status quo can continue to exist as long as the veil is not pulled back. It allows society to maintain the illusion that it is fair and unbiased as long as it can point to a small number of white people affected by mass incarceration as well.
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