The New Jim Crow | Study Guide

Michelle Alexander

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The New Jim Crow | Chapter 6 : The Fire This Time | Summary



Rethinking Denial—Or, Where Are Civil Rights Advocates When You Need Them?

One problem in dealing with the issue of mass incarceration is the large-scale denial that a new racial caste system exists, cloaked by colorblindness. This denial is not merely inconvenient. It prevents any kind of public understanding of the role of race in society and therefore limits the potential for change. The civil rights community, too, has been slow to acknowledge the problems inherent in mass incarceration. As they've taken on more legal causes, civil rights organizations have largely become disconnected from the communities they represent. The problem is that mass incarceration is not a problem that can be legally solved. It also requires "advocacy on behalf of criminals," something that civil rights leaders are reluctant to endorse. "Politics of respectability" has influenced their advocacy to distance itself from that kind of stigma. An argument can be made that civil rights advocates shouldn't waste their resources on defending criminals. The argument goes that they should put resources toward battles that can be more easily won. Yet avoiding the issue of mass incarceration means that no dent can be made in the prevailing racial caste system.

Tinkering Is for Mechanics, Not Racial-Justice Advocates

Criminal justice reform cannot happen through legal battles alone, due to the sheer scale of it. Practically, a mass closing of prisons would also cost millions of people their jobs. Private prisons count it as their business to keep people in jail, not release them. Many other private providers of prison services also have a vested monetary interest in prison expansions, not reductions. Dismantling the system of mass incarceration also means ending the War on Drugs, since the two are so closely linked. Yet the War on Drugs is now deeply embedded on local, state, and federal levels of government and law enforcement. It is the public's failure to care across lines of color that remains at the core of ongoing mass incarceration. Unless a fundamental shift occurs, the racial caste system will continue to reemerge and be reborn under new guises.

Let's Talk About Race—Resisting the Temptation of Colorblind Advocacy

Any movement that aims to end mass incarceration must acknowledge that it is a racial caste system, not just a way to control crime. The War on Drugs is a major cause of poverty and unemployment, not the other way around. Imprisonment creates far more crimes than it prevents. Mass incarceration as a crime reduction strategy is an outright failure, and it is both ineffectual and expensive. Yet mass incarceration as a tool of racial control is highly successful. Many wish to believe that the problem of mass incarceration or the War on Drugs can be solved without bringing race into it. However, it is that kind of colorblind thinking itself that is the problem.

Against Colorblindness

Mass incarceration might not have been possible without the cloak of colorblindness. Colorblindness also applies itself to being blind when it comes to the very existence that a racial caste in America exists. The indifference of it—rather than outright racial hostility—is what supports institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow. The alternative to colorblindness is "color consciousness," which acknowledges race and different racial experiences. The problem is not acknowledging and seeing race, it is refusing to care about people of different races.

The Racial Bribe—Let's Give It Back

It might always be a given that society must pay close attention to how its laws and policies impact different racial groups. It's possible that affirmative action functions more as a racial bribe than "a tool of racial justice." Alexander raises the question of whether the advantages of affirmative action come at the cost of abandoning more radical efforts toward justice, which could have a deeper economic or social impact. In some ways, affirmative action may very well have contributed to the "divide-and-conquer tactics" of mass incarceration. Yet ending affirmative action threatens the "demotion" of some "in the nation's racial hierarchy." But recent data supports the claim that black progress is a myth, with poverty rates higher than they were in 1968. Yet there is no movement akin to that of affirmative action to end mass incarceration. Affirmative action also leads the public to believe that it is personal traits, and not systemic structures, that lead to racial progress or criminality. It also absolves "society" of being responsible for the condition of its members. It creates the illusion of racial equity at no great cost and without truly altering the systemic structure of racism.

Obama—the Promise and the Peril

Although President Obama signaled sympathy towards the black victims of the War on Drugs, he filled his administration with its defenders. He also revived two tough federal drug programs from the Clinton era. He did so primarily to bolster jobs during the economic crisis, rather than because of a spike in crime. A catch-22 is that African Americans were less likely to pressure him on the issue of the War on Drugs, let alone any issues of race. Yet another danger is the notion of black individualism, the belief in which one person's ability to get ahead "trickle[s] down" to the rest.

All of Us or None

Diversity-driven affirmative action sends the message that some can gain inclusion. However, other grassroots efforts are working to include solidarity for everyone. The racial caste system was created because lower-class whites were convinced to choose their racial status over any common economic interests with blacks. Looking back through recent history, it would have served both sides to create an interracial union around economic and social justice. This would have aimed to prevent similar Jim Crow patterns and to show both groups that their fates were inextricably linked. Affirmative action policies also stoked resentment towards blacks from lower-class whites. Civil rights advocates rebuffed the idea that class-based affirmative action might be a better bet in the long-term for all. It seems to be human nature that allows one to cling tightly to advantages in society even if it causes others to suffer. Alexander offers that we would do well to embrace Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for human rights, rather than just civil rights. Yet the current climate of civil rights advocacy has not evolved beyond where Dr. King left off. They must either learn to adapt or die out.


After highlighting and detailing the systemic connections between Jim Crow laws and current mass incarceration, Alexander sets out to offer some possible paths forward. As a movement, any effective civil rights movement must first and foremost challenge the current and prevailing systems of racial control. It cannot look to the past for what worked against different forms of control. The first step to creating an effective civil rights effort is to take a hard look at society's collective denial about the dangers of colorblindness. According to Alexander in Rethinking Denial—Or, Where Are Civil Rights Advocates When You Need Them, this denial is not just inconvenient, it is "a major stumbling block ... and it sharply limits the opportunities for truly transformative collective action." Denial is acquainted with ignorance. Wisdom and acknowledgment of the current structures that keep the racial caste system in place are the only way to go forward. This is the only way truly systemic change is going to occur. The danger otherwise is that new structures of racial control evolve and adapt to replace the old ones.

Another direction that Alexander offers is examining the "battles" that civil rights advocates choose over the battle of mass incarceration. The majority of resources are poured into issues such as affirmative action. These issues only benefit a few in the hopes that the gains can "trickle down" to the less fortunate members of black society. She says affirmative action is a battle that can be more easily won. However, its long-term rewards are not as truly effective in overhauling the system of racial oppression as it would be to dismantle mass incarceration. Tackling reforms one small brick at a time will never amount to the drastic, ground-up revolution that needs to occur. In Tinkering Is For Mechanics, Not Racial-Justice Advocates, Alexander emphasizes that it is racial indifference that is the most detrimental thing to civil rights. While outright racial hostility at least brings the issues out into the open, racial indifference turns a blind eye. It sweeps under the rug any acknowledgment that might lead to real change. It allows for things to stay exactly as they are and to deny the bare truth of them. The shift in public consciousness must be total, or the systems will remain in place under new guises.

Alexander points out in Let's Talk About Race—Resisting the Temptation of Colorblind Advocacy that mass incarceration must be seen as a racial caste system. This means that the public must recognize that the justifications for mass incarceration as a way to control crime are patently false. The public must see how incarceration has been used as a successful tool for racial control. Finally, the public must recognize that the current method of imprisonment actually creates far more crime than it prevents. However, as a tool of racial control, it is very effective. Colorblindness allows for systemic and institutional oppression to happen against minorities while the rest of society and its structures deny its existence. If society continues not to care about the racial caste system, nothing can be changed. In Against Colorblindness, she argues that when we recognize each other's humanity we understand the core need for equal human rights.
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