The New Jim Crow | Study Guide

Michelle Alexander

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The New Jim Crow | Main Ideas


The Dangers of Colorblindness

United States' society largely embraced the election of its first black president Barack Obama (served 2009–17). However, there is an inherent danger in the US now considering itself a post-racial or colorblind society. This is because there is still an enormous disparity between the way whites and minorities are treated, particularly by law enforcement. Calling oneself colorblind therefore doesn't allow for acceptance of the disparities. It also means no further work or progress can likely be made until the problem is acknowledged and confronted. What's more, US federal and state courts have made it all but illegal to challenge law enforcement on racial discrimination. This ensures that things will remain the same. Colorblindness doesn't allow for the reality that minorities are often racially profiled. It doesn't admit that minorities are confronted with a vastly different experience once they enter the system of mass incarceration. The dangers of colorblindness mean people feel comfortable saying there are no issues with race when 90 percent of those incarcerated are minorities. They can say this because the other 10 percent are white. This notion allows people to deny their own complicity in the racial caste system.

Racial Castes and Social Control

A racial caste can be defined as a way to group people according to their race. Castes also refer to a person's class and social status. Within a racial caste system, race defines how people are treated in society. Alexander argues that class and race in the United States are deeply linked. She points out that during the era of Reconstruction, elite whites tried to drive a wedge along racial lines between poor, working-class blacks and whites. Alexander argues that today African Americans are still relegated to a second-class status based on race through systems like mass incarceration. However, she says, the majority of Americans are blind to this abuse. They overlook the ways mass incarceration and other systems do this. In this light, the War on Drugs reflects the use of imprisonment of blacks as a tool designed for social and racial control. It is plainly not aimed at illegal drug prevention. The contradiction is that society seems able to both see that things are not equal, yet also deny it at the same time. The majority of systems and institutions aren't overtly hostile in their racism. It is racial indifference that allows for these kinds of castes and forms of social control to remain in place.

The Role of Denial

Colorblindness and the role of denial go hand in hand. Colorblindness allows society to continue operating as usual. As long as people can willfully deny that there is a racial caste system in this country, it is no one's responsibility to address it. Society is kept from realizing the extent to which a disproportionate number of minorities are sentenced for offenses while whites committing similar crimes are not. The system has evolved to present itself as race-neutral rather than racially hostile. Therefore, it becomes easier for people to point to the lack of overt hostility. Yet Alexander points out that it is this very racial indifference that leads to the role of denial. Many people refuse to think of themselves as complicit in a racist system. It also allows for the illusion that more progress is occurring than actually is happening. Instead, civil rights advocates focus on piecemeal reform such as affirmative action. By pointing to the gains that have occurred, society feels comfortable denying that a racial caste system exists and that systems and institutions support it.

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