The New Jim Crow | Study Guide

Michelle Alexander

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The New Jim Crow | Context


Jim Crow

The term Jim Crow refers to a series of laws in United States history that enforced racial segregation in the South. The laws existed from the time the Civil War (1861–65) ended to the Civil Rights movement nearly 100 years later. The term was named after a character in minstrel shows performed in the mid-19th century. The humorous character was generally portrayed as slow, stupid, and awkward. The term became a point of derision used against African Americans as a way to define their segregation.

Before the Civil War began, there was no need for laws of segregation, since slaves were not considered free and equal under the law. After the Civil War brought about the demise of slavery, it seemed that integration might be a possibility. Blacks began to serve on some juries and be elected to some southern legislatures. However, many Southerners still wanted to maintain the separation of blacks and whites. Several Southern state legislatures then passed laws dictating that blacks could not attend the same schools or occupy the same public spaces as whites. The US Supreme Court validated these laws in 1896 with Plessy v. Ferguson. The Court ruling allowed for "separate but equal" standards. However, the schools, railcars, and public facilities meant for African Americans were often inferior, and this decision began the institutionalization of black disadvantage.

Over 50 years later, the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. This ruling declared it unconstitutional for public schools and other public facilities to be segregated. Yet, in some states, it took years for the law to take effect, with schools continuing to be segregated. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the mid-1960s helped further usher in the end of Jim Crow laws. In The New Jim Crow, Alexander highlights how the structures of racial segregation and disadvantage from Jim Crow remain. They exist under the guise of mass incarceration, in which blacks are disproportionately punished by imprisonment through drug law enforcement.

Mass Incarceration

Mass incarceration in the United States exploded in the late 1900s to early 2000s. More citizens have been incarcerated in the United States than in any other nation in the world. While the prison population hovered at less than 200,000 in the early 1970s, it stood at nearly 2.2 million by 2014. The boom in mass incarceration is due in large part to the War on Drugs campaign expanded by the administration of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The campaign put pressure on law enforcement to arrest drug dealers and enforced harsh mandatory minimum sentences for even marijuana. Despite minorities and whites using and selling drugs at nearly identical rates, the vast majority of those incarcerated for drug violations have been black or brown. Prisons also became increasingly privatized; this increased the demand for prisoners in order for these prisons to make profits. While the prison population has boomed, violent crime has fallen by half since the early 1990s.

The effects of mass incarceration don't end when a person leaves prison or jail, however. The more than 4,800,000 people on probation or parole are still very much a part of the criminal justice system. The United States has spent over $80 billion yearly on mass incarceration. In The New Jim Crow, Alexander makes the argument that mass incarceration is merely the newest tool in the evolution of racial control. It helps maintain a second-class racial caste through oppression and disenfranchisement.

The War on Drugs

The War on Drugs was a government initiative that came into full effect during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Its purported aim was to drastically enforce drug laws by dictating mandatory minimum sentences for different drug offenses. It provided federal assistance incentives to drug law enforcement. This backlash against drug use began in the 1970s and was addressed by President Richard Nixon, who increased federal funding for drug-control agencies that largely targeted minorities. Nixon also created the Drug Enforcement Administration, which has had a $2 billion budget. These programs laid the groundwork for the War on Drugs. Speculation has occurred regarding Nixon's incentives for beginning the War on Drugs and whether racism played a part in spearheading it.

During Ronald Reagan's tenure as president, a significant increase began in the mass incarceration of people—largely minorities—for nonviolent drug crimes. Congress allowed different sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine—a drug mostly used by blacks—and powder cocaine, mostly used by whites. Crack cocaine possession carried a much stiffer penalty, despite it being essentially the same drug as powder cocaine. Drug arrests became incentivized and minority communities became easy targets due to open-air drug markets. Drug law enforcement became increasingly emboldened by practices such as stop-and-frisk—which largely targeted people of color. In The New Jim Crow, Alexander makes a connection between the War on Drugs and the astoundingly high number of blacks incarcerated on nonviolent drug charges. In this view, the War on Drugs became a tool of racial control with drug law enforcement having no incentive to truly prevent it or bring it to an end.
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