The New Jim Crow | Study Guide

Michelle Alexander

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The New Jim Crow | Summary



Chapter 1: The Rebirth of Caste

To understand how the current racial caste system works, one must understand the history of racism from slavery onwards. The United States has long used various systems such as slavery and Jim Crow laws to exert social and racial control. These systems never truly go away but are reimagined and reconstituted to evolve with the times in acceptable language and societal influence. The white elites in power are largely able to do this by driving a race-based wedge between poor whites and blacks. These two groups have much more in common class-wise than they have differences race-wise, and thus, in uniting, could prove a significant threat to the existing economic and social power structures. Anytime there is resistance to a new system of oppression, the appeal to differences is performed all over again. The newest form of this kind of racial and social control is mass incarceration.

Chapter 2: The Lockdown

In order to understand the far-reaching and systemic effects of mass incarceration, it's important to understand its origins in the War on Drugs. Federal funding has emboldened, incentivized, and empowered drug law enforcement and courts have reinforced the legal use of discrimination. Offenders are usually denied meaningful legal representation and encouraged to strike plea deals in order to avoid more charges—even if they are innocent. The system of mass incarceration itself doesn't end the moment one walks out of prison. Many former inmates find themselves returning due to the various regulations of parole and probation. They may also turn back to crime after facing legal discrimination in trying to find employment and housing.

Chapter 3: The Color of Justice

Race plays an undeniable role in the criminal justice system. However, the system is designed in such a way that it never overtly acknowledges race while still arresting a disproportionate number of minorities. Research and statistics show that whites and minorities use and sell drugs at nearly the same rates, yet prison populations do not reflect that. If anything, there is no correlation between crime rates and black arrests. Rather, there are glaring differences in how both races are treated by drug law enforcement at every stage in the process. The courts also back up these tactics by disallowing anyone to sue based on perceived racial discrimination during an arrest.

Chapter 4: The Cruel Hand

Even once people leave prison, they are not considered free. If anything, they are now constrained for life by the label of "criminal" or "felon," legally denied employment opportunities, housing, public assistance, and, in some states, the right to vote. Many are forced to pay legal fines and fees and can either have their paychecks garnished or be sent back to prison for failing to pay. This relegation to a second-class status ensures a racial caste system and prevents former offenders from being able to successfully reintegrate into society. What's more, the label of "criminal" divides black communities and families, who feel shamed by the association of the label. This shame, in turn, prevents communities from talking freely and openly about their struggles.

Chapter 5: The New Jim Crow

The system of mass incarceration can be considered the new Jim Crow because it allows legal discrimination to occur in much the same way as late-19th-century legal segregation. It relegates a section of the population (blacks) to the status of second-class citizens by maintaining the boundaries of a racial caste. Blacks still find themselves segregated to certain impoverished neighborhoods and are disproportionately represented in prisons. Former offenders face legal discrimination when it comes to voting rights, serving on juries, and access to employment, housing, and public assistance. The courts have made it impossible to challenge any of these legalities on the grounds of racial bias. What's more, mass incarceration works to define the meaning of race, as the word "criminal" is now equated with the word "black."

Chapter 6: The Fire This Time

In order for the system of mass incarceration to end, its effects on race must be acknowledged by society. Civil rights advocates tend to shy away from the issue, choosing to focus on more easily won battles such as affirmative action. Yet the system cannot be dismantled piecemeal. Instead, it requires a complete overhaul of the public consciousness when it comes to ideas and beliefs about race. Otherwise, the system will only continue to provide the illusion of fairness. It will be replaced by yet another system that has evolved to take its place and maintain the racial caste.

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