The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander tackles the complex issues of mass incarceration. Other sources discuss how the raw figures have grown over time. But as a civil rights attorney and legal scholar, Alexander provides an intriguing exploration of the history of the policies, reforms, and social attitudes that have contributed to the creation of the prison industrial complex.
Sometimes these research-heavy type books can come across as being very academic because serious subjects in the wrong hands can be boring. I don’t want to sit and struggle to read a book so while I had The New Jim Crow on my reading list, I was a bit concerned that it might be boring and kept putting it off. The book was originally published in 2010 but I read the 10th-anniversary edition. It doesn’t sound like there were many major updates between the two but if you can get your hands on the updated version read that one though you won’t be missing much with the previous edition.
Right off the bat, Alexander answered a few questions that are most frequently asked when discussing The New Jim Crow. One of those questions regards much of the book’s focus being placed on Black men versus society in general or Black people as a whole. The second question is why focus on nonviolent crime versus violent crime.
She reasons that she placed focus on where the majority of numbers are or where there were the biggest jumps in numbers. Unfortunately, the majority or at least an outsized percentage of these issues affect Black men. And the majority of arrests and convictions typically involve nonviolent crimes.
When the image of the drug user and seller is promoted as being a Black versus a White person, the response is completely different. In the past, people were being arrested not just for crack use but for things like marijuana as well. Looking back people were going to prison for using or selling weed and nowadays it’s a big mostly legal business. Politicians and business people who once spoke out against marijuana use and selling as criminal behavior are now trying to get in on the fun to share in the substantial amounts of money being generated.
There’s also the discrepancy that existed between sentencing guidelines for individuals who had crack in their possession versus powder cocaine. They’re the same substance but in different forms yet there was this inaccurate over-embellishment of the effects of one form versus the other. And thus crack came to be viewed as a super drug while cocaine was a regular drug and not as bad. The reality is that they’re both terrible substances to ingest into the body. But again because of crack being seen as a drug used by poor Black people versus cocaine being viewed as a middle-class/wealthy drug used by White people they were treated differently.
And all of these points and knowledge are being dropped in just the introduction. With that, I couldn’t wait to dig into the meat of The New Jim Crow. And gone were all of my concerns about the book possibly being boring.
Early on in The New Jim Crow, a point is made to explain the title which positions mass incarceration as being a new Jim Crow system. Jim Crow was a systematic way of subjugating Black people. It detailed what we could and couldn’t do, essentially taking away civil and civic rights to make Black people second-class citizens. It barred Black people from living in certain neighborhoods, attending certain schools, getting certain jobs, etc. Alexander makes the point that when people have been incarcerated and completed their sentence, often those sentences continue after their release. Upon leaving prison many temporarily or permanently lose several of the civil and civic rights that Black people were denied during Jim Crow.
Throughout American history, there has been a constant push to keep a certain sector of the population at the very bottom of this hierarchy within society. This is done to provide cheap labor as well as other means of profiting from this group. The first version required enslaving people and was then followed by convict leasing, sharecropping/tenant farming, and then the Jim Crow system.
Remnants of these systems are obvious within the prison industrial complex. But I hadn’t made the connection that even after people leave prison their imprisonment continues as they’re denied so many civil and civic rights. The result is that they’re being forced into this situation of being second-class citizens. I found myself nodding along because it made a lot of sense.
The bulk of The New Jim Crow is about the rise of mass incarceration and how it functions within what is a type of caste system. But the book reaches back into history and begins with the establishment of America and how slavery came about. There was a desire to establish an exploitative system that would allow the wealthy landowning class to maintain a division between the poor at the bottom. Enslaved Black people were on the bottom rungs of society but there were also indentured servants, poor White people, and free Black people on the levels below the wealthy classes.
After Bacon’s Rebellion, the wealthy class couldn’t risk having poor people join together across racial and ethnic lines. Thus a system was set up where it’s like okay you’ll be poor but I’ll at least elevate you to be above Black people. In that system, being even the poorest White person within the community you could still lord over a Black person regardless of their station in life.
Not just that but poor White people were now put into positions of authority over enslaved Black people in the form of overseers, patrollers, etc. This gave a false sense of superiority which became a fundamental part of their identity. It shows that going far back in America’s history, a dependable source of employment for poor White people were positions that enforced and upheld the rules of society.
Slavery was eventually abolished but things went back and forth well into the late 1800s when Reconstruction was abandoned which made it possible for southern states to shift into the Jim Crow system. Slavery ended early in the northern states but a similar Jim Crow system had been established there as well though it hadn’t been as formalized. And so now from about the 1890s to the 1960s, you have this formal southern system of Jim Crow. It continues the cycle of Black people being made second-class citizens in America.
Progressive movements in America have rarely achieved their aim because people suddenly decided to be more humane in their treatment of others. Change is usually achieved because reform offered some economic or political incentive. America emerged from World War II with a new identity of being the lone or at least the top-ranked standing superpower. It couldn’t position itself as being the land of democracy or the land of the free if, throughout the country, a system existed that allowed for the blatant subjugation of a particular race of people. It made America look bad on the international stage.
And thus came the reformation of the Jim Crow system and history repeated itself. But there was still a sector of society that wanted things to remain the same, that is to perpetuate the exploitation of Black people and maintain a division between those who were not wealthy. So at the very moment that a reformation was taking place and people were celebrating, a new system of oppression was being planned to take its place.
Following the Civil Rights Movement, the goal was to create a new system that would take into consideration that it was no longer politically correct to utilize certain terms or blatant racism. These things were deemed politically incorrect and illegal so the strategy had to be equally effective but more subtle.
Activists were called anti-American and threats to traditional values. They were portrayed as being the problem, rather than the system. Troublemakers, rather than calling attention to a flawed system built on racism. The language and rhetoric that was previously used had to be abandoned as it was politically incorrect to call Black people “niggers” in public. And you couldn’t be physically violent with these people that the hierarchy deemed unsavory. Thus coded language and passive-aggressive tactics became the norm.
The increase in crime was used as a reason to call for law and order but with little thought given to how it should be applied to effectively and efficiently decrease crime. Things like population increases, lack of opportunity, increasing unemployment, stagnating wages, poverty, and a host of other issues were ignored. What developed in response was a dragnet intended to clamp down on Black people, ensuring our continued subjugation and curtailment of rights. New laws were developed that would substantially increase arrests and the prison population. It was a political and economic strategy that didn’t really care about addressing crime but rather providing the means for law enforcement and the justice system to expand.
The author did a great job with this part of The New Jim Crow, taking the time to break down the strategies of how these systems developed over time, would be reformed, and then re-emerge mostly intact but with a new facade. These early chapters contain a lot of information but it’s conveyed in a way that’s very easy to understand. A lot of this isn’t new as I’ve read this information elsewhere but the way that it’s put together helped everything to connect.
Much of the push for civil rights took place in the South but in places like the North and the Midwest, Black people had the right to vote for quite some time. Liberals from the coasts and North helped to push and enact these laws but they didn’t have to personally live near or compete with Black people for resources. While they opened up resources and institutions to Black people in the South, there was less of a push for change in the North.
Northern liberals were calling for a change in America as in the South but not necessarily in their part of America. Yet, there were various forms of discrimination and systems of inequality in the North. It doesn’t get as much attention but there were and still are hostile reactions to Black people moving into certain neighborhoods or attempting to enroll at particular schools in the North. This hypocrisy helped to breed some resentment on the part of lower and middle-income Southerners and conservatives towards the “liberal elites”.
By the 1980s and the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party had perfected its use of coded language and stereotypical imagery. Raegan built on Richard Nixon’s earlier promises for a return to law and order. There was a heavy focus on deregulation and privatization during Raegan’s administration which led to a shift in attention from white-collar crime to street crime. Budgets for offensive tactics against drugs such as law enforcement agencies were substantially increased. While defensive initiatives to address drug addiction and the circumstances that led to people selling drugs such as rehab, job, and other assistance programs had their budgets decreased.
The war on drugs was another facet of the push to criminalize poverty. By this point in the ’80s, there were serious issues with underemployment and unemployment which was creating both drug users and sellers. Previously, people who might have had a basic education could at least find a job in a factory or manufacturing that would allow them to comfortably support themselves and their families. But when companies began moving out of cities en masse, many people were left unemployed and when their desperation gave way to hopelessness some turned to drugs and others to illegal activity. Instead of addressing the problems that were making it difficult for people to support themselves and their families, the focus was placed on locking them up.
Now in the 70s and 80s, the idea of law and order was being promoted and through coded language, Black people were once again being portrayed as criminals. The issues being discussed were intended to reaffirm and exert control over the Black community. It was a way of pushing Black people back into an inferior position in society. And so with that, you have people who aren’t realistically at risk of being affected by crime such as those who live in rural areas being incredibly supportive of these tough-on-crime measures.
The face of crime had become synonymous with Black people. So when talking about getting tough on crime, these pockets of society recognized that what was being discussed was being tough and harsh with Black people. Within the Black community, some of which had been hardest hit by job losses, crime was a problem. And so even Black individuals, politicians, and communities as a whole were calling for something to be done about crime.
But the people within these groups and thus their intentions were not necessarily the same. Black politicians and communities were calling for substantial decreases in crime that were plaguing their neighborhoods. Their words might have been focused on crime but these other factions were more keyed into the racial undertones and coded language. Due to this political doublespeak, politicians were then able to appeal to both groups as they were hearing different things. And this is how these incredibly harsh and unfair crime bills and laws began to be signed into existence with broad support.
By the 90s and Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party was now fighting for what’s regarded as swing voters. These are poor and working-class White people who aren’t staunchly Republican or Democrat and believed to be capable of voting either way. The Democrats, as has happened in the past, sacrificed the Black voting bloc in pursuit of swing voters. Thus they also began to introduce tough-on-crime initiatives and continued the practice of taking money away from drug addiction and education resources that help eradicate crime on a long-term basis. Those funds continued to shift towards disciplinary action against drug abusers and drug dealers.
Alexander made a brilliant point about this creative accounting of funds. In keeping with the shift in other policies, the government essentially shifted its focus from building housing for low and middle-income people to building prisons. By this point, affordable housing and drug treatment programs were going away but somehow there was more money for prisons.
Protection against unlawful search and seizure is supposed to be a right guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. Examples are provided where lower courts have sided with individuals whose Fourth Amendment rights had been infringed upon. Yet, the Supreme Court has overturned several of these rulings by lower courts. It’s a means of reinforcing that due to the war on drugs, police officers have been endowed with greater power and authority to search and seize under the guise of drug enforcement.
I was already familiar with some aspects and details but still managed to learn a lot. Stop & Frisk was a major problem in New York City and the issue was two-fold. First, a lot of people didn’t understand their rights concerning the programs. For example, many didn’t know that they could refuse to be searched or to answer questions. The second issue was that this program and others like it are usually not evenly implemented across society. They tend to target specific people in particular neighborhoods.
In New York City, the police weren’t spread out across the city, stopping and searching people in all neighborhoods. Instead, they were targeting primarily Black and Hispanic young men. And thus they weren’t stationed in wealthy or predominantly White neighborhoods but rather neighborhoods where residents were primarily people of color with lower incomes. Given the leeway to stop, search, and arrest people in these neighborhoods that are typically underserved and have limited access to resources, residents have less of an ability to fight back.
So much attention from law enforcement and the justice system is paid to drug enforcement. In recent years, the rate of violent crime has decreased across much of the country. Yet, as someone with an interest in true crime, quite often you hear that there isn’t enough police manpower for investigating violent crimes such as murders, assaults, and rapes. There have been news stories about backlogs in processing rape kits and murders that go unsolved because there aren’t enough resources. Somehow money is not an issue for investigating and prosecuting drug-related crimes but resources are scarce when it comes to violent crime?
Part of the issue is that when police officers seize certain assets in drug busts, they’re allowed to then make use of those items. There’s then an incentive to make these really big drug busts because they’ll then have those resources at their disposal. Investigating violent crimes offers no similar incentive.
Not only has the police force expanded in numbers across the country but also with regards to their options and the leeway offered for investigating crimes and alleged suspects. During Stop & Frisk police officers were put out on the street to supposedly stop and search suspicious people. If they stop enough people eventually they should get someone who is carrying some kind of contraband. But it’s incredibly inefficient if an officer is spending hours stopping 100 people but only finds one person carrying something illegal. The inconvenience and ill-will of the 99 others are ignored for that one stop that yields something.
With enough police officers stopping random people, those arrests will start to add up but would be minuscule as a percentage of the overall stops. Of those arrests, only some might have enough merit to warrant prosecution, dropping the percentage of cases that go somewhere based on the overall stoppage number even lower. It’s incredibly inefficient when you consider the amount of manpower and resources spent on these programs and the reality that most people will be innocent and of those arrested, few will warrant prosecution.
Even with regards to arresting petty drug users by the time you turn around they’ll be back out on the street using again. The same applies to small-time drug dealers, they might spend more time in prison but there’s generally someone else waiting to take their place. It would be far more effective if the money spent on these stop and frisk programs were invested into drug treatment or the creation of economic and employment opportunities in neighborhoods that are affected by drug use and crime. It would cut down on this revolving door of people going in and out of prison. But it shows that the focus of the expansion of law enforcement and the prison industrial complex was not to protect people from crime or dangerous criminals. It was intended to control a certain faction of the population.
I knew that law enforcement agencies could confiscate assets like houses, cars, cash, etc., and make use of them. But I didn’t realize that the person didn’t necessarily have to be charged or convicted to have their possessions confiscated. Instead, they merely have to be under suspicion of having been involved in some kind of illegal activity, especially drug dealing. The onus would be placed on the person to prove that their belongings should be returned.
Individuals are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty but you see the multiple ways that this is turned on its head. And that’s before you even set foot in a courtroom. Facing the might of the justice system, many people take plea bargains, especially if they don’t have the money to pay for an attorney. Likewise, if their assets are seized some people decide to just let them go.
Unless you’re wealthy or well connected what are the odds that you’d have the resources to fight back against the justice system? This is how you end up with people who are innocent being behind bars as a result of getting railroaded by the justice system. But then you have wealthy or well-connected people who commit crimes and get off with a slap on the wrist and that’s if their case is even prosecuted.
It’s not just a matter of race, though that’s a factor, it’s also a matter of how access to resources can play a tremendous role in your ability to preserve your rights and mount a vigorous defense. And if you think of asset forfeiture at a higher level, it’s the same thing except that the burden of proof for keeping assets versus arresting and charging someone is lower. Not to mention that you’re not entitled to legal counsel unless you’re charged.
In theory, I don’t have a problem with police officers as I think many, if not most, are just trying to do their job. Like any other profession, these roles are filled by human beings who are individuals and vary in terms of character and competency. Police officers and other members of law enforcement are human beings like everyone and will make mistakes. But because they carry deadly weapons and can also set in motion people spending years in prison, the cost of their mistakes can be very high. Yet so many in the justice system somehow regard their hunches and handling of all situations as being beyond reproach as though anyone in the job is incapable of making mistakes.
The issue is not just with the militarization of law enforcement but also questionable training practices. You have police departments with histories of prejudice sending officers into neighborhoods armed to the teeth and prepared to treat residents like they’re all criminals. Not to mention that with military-grade weapons, SWAT teams have become like local branches of the military. Aside from the most glaring instances of police misconduct, there’s a commitment from the justice system to doing as little as possible to rein in the police.
People might be pressured to accept plea bargains to avoid lengthy prison sentences. You might be found innocent or the charges might be dropped but your life could still be in shambles. And depending on the circumstances, you might still have a searchable arrest record indicating contact with the police/justice system although you were never charged or prosecuted.
Then when you get out, you might have a hard time finding a job, housing, voting, or obtaining financial aid for college because felons can be legally denied all of those things in some jurisdictions. The easy answer is that they shouldn’t have committed crimes. But it increases the likelihood that they’ll go back to prison if we ostracize people with a record and make it difficult for them to support themselves and re-enter society. It creates a revolving door where people are constantly going in and out of prison.
Because of the unequal manner in which the American justice system policies and prosecutes based on race and income, we have these skewed statistics about who commits crimes. Black and Hispanic communities as well as low-income neighborhoods are the most heavily policed. Drug usage rates are fairly equal across the board. But if you place police officers in one neighborhood to search residents for drugs while residents are not searched in another neighborhood, where do you think the most drugs will be found? In the community where the searches are taking place. And it would give the false impression that drug use and possession are more prevalent in that community. This practice of unequal policing has led to the public face of drug users and dealers being Black and Hispanic people.
Alexander states that research shows groups rather than races are more likely to be buyers or sellers of drugs. Young people, teens and young adults in particular, are more likely than other groups to both use and sell drugs. Using and selling drugs, like most crimes would likely be intraracial because people typically commit crimes with and against people who are in proximity to them. Given how American neighborhoods are set up, most people live near other people of their race and/or ethnic group.
Young White people are slightly more likely to use and sell drugs. Yet young Black and Hispanic men are the ones being stopped, searched, and arrested. Young males in White urban or rural areas are not being stopped and searched so you get skewed statistics about the race and face of the drug economy.
For example, there’s the discussion of a case in Georgia where the defendant was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer. His defense team argued before the Supreme Court that it was unjust for him to be sentenced to death because Georgia and the justice system had a history of bias with regards to individuals being sentenced to the death penalty. And even before getting to convictions, there is bias with regards to when and how prosecutors seek the death penalty.
That case, in particular, stood out to me as I remembered reading a book by Barry Scheck several years ago that provided a breakdown of death penalty cases. It explained that there’s a far greater chance of the death penalty being sought in cases where a Black person commits a serious crime against a White person versus when a White person commits that same crime against a Black person.
What I found insightful but also terrifying, is not that the Supreme Court sided with the prosecution but rather the reasoning. My understanding is that the Court’s finding was that bias might exist in the system but unless an individual such as a prosecutor, police officer, judge, etc. expressly stated that they were biased, the defendant or the person seeking recourse would have no grounds for claiming discrimination. The court thought it reasonable and expected that there would be some bias within the system. And the presence of bias in and of itself was not an issue or unconstitutional. Think about that.
The Supreme Court and the justice system overall leans heavily in favor of the justice system. How does an individual even begin to fight against that? How do you fight within a system against that system when it’s willing to do every and anything possible to protect, sustain and expand itself?
This is also relevant to Stop & Frisk programs where police officers are given free rein to use their discretion as they see fit and can decide what criteria they use to intercept people. Thus they can rely on stereotypes and gut feelings both of which are built on an individual’s biases.
We then have prosecutors who decide who does or doesn’t get charged, how serious the charges should be, and the type of sentencing that should be sought out. This leeway also affects jury selection. I can understand a jury having few if any Black jurors in a town or city with a low percentage of Black residents. But how is it that in a place with a sizable Black population, you somehow end up with these juries that have little to no Black jurors?
In several cases, I’ve read, watched documentaries, or listened to podcasts about Black defendants and the striking of Black jurors often plays a role in their conviction. But it often flies as long as the prosecutor doesn’t outright say they don’t want any Black people on the jury. And why would they, when Black jurors can be removed from a jury without providing any reason at all.
This is quite disheartening when you take into consideration the struggle and sacrifice of the Civil Rights Movement. On the surface, it looks like we’ve made so much progress and things have moved forward. But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that laws and what’s deemed politically correct might have been changed but there hasn’t been a change of heart within people as individuals or the system overall.
Drug use might be relatively equal across communities but people in middle-income to wealthy communities are more likely to have access to resources to fight these charges. Houses, cars, cash, and other assets that might be seized in these environments would likely be more valuable and their owners better able to fight to have their stuff returned. They’re also more likely to have if not direct political power, then connections, and thereby access to political power where they can make a fuss. There are few if any police officers that will be haphazardly kicking down doors, pulling over cars, or searching random teenagers in suburban or wealthy neighborhoods.
The rate of drug use is fairly consistent across the board but the preferred type of drug used varies a bit. From a statistical standpoint, Black people use crack more than they use cocaine and White people use cocaine at a greater rate than they use crack. But this is not to say White people don’t use crack or Black people don’t use cocaine.
By placing greater focus on crack which Black people are more likely to prefer versus cocaine, heroin, or pills, police are more likely to arrest Black people than they are White people. So if you focus on the drug that Black people prefer and on open-air drug markets where Black people are more present you end up with an overrepresentation of Black people being arrested and prosecuted. Black and White people are committing crimes at relatively the same rate but are being moved into the justice system’s funnel at disproportionate rates.
Studies show that despite non-White people making up the minority of the population, they are more likely to be stopped and searched. But White people who are stopped and searched are several times more likely to be carrying weapons, drugs, or other types of contraband on their person or in their vehicle. With so much focus and attention being placed on Black people, it makes it easier for White people to fly under the radar when they’re involved in illegal activity.
It blew my mind to read that people have to pay fees and fines associated with probation, monitoring, and drug testing when they’re released from prison. Without a solid support system, a lot of people need time and might even struggle to get back on their feet. Assessing fees that eat up their paychecks and can then be turned over to collections agencies for non-payment seems unreasonably harsh. How is someone supposed to survive when trying to re-enter society with these financial burdens and while also being cut off from various resources because of their record? It’s like the deck is stacked against them.
At present few prisons have been built in urban areas; most are located in remote areas, typically rural or small-town communities, which tend to be predominantly White. Typically, once a person is convicted and processed into the system if they’re serving more than a certain amount of time, they’re then moved from the local jail to a prison. Most Black people live in cities but when incarcerated, a person is no longer counted as a resident of their hometown or home city. Instead, they count towards the population of wherever the prison is located.
These smaller towns have a lower number of residents but including the prison’s population in their population increases their overall number thereby giving them greater representation in government. When it comes down to receiving money and resources that are based on population, it allows them to inflate their numbers. Those extra resources can be allocated to the community but don’t have to be spent on the prison or the people who are incarcerated.
Jobs in some of these communities were provided by the manufacturing industry which has collapsed or moved elsewhere in a lot of places. Many of these so-called “rust belt” communities didn’t have diverse industries. Prisons and related support services now provide a lot of jobs and revenue in these communities. There’s now a vested interest on the part of residents in these communities to keep and expand the prisons due to the economic benefits.
As with the comparison between crack and cocaine and the disparity in perception and prosecution, a similar dichotomy exists between drug and alcohol abuse. Young Black men are more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for drug possession. White men, especially those who are young, are more likely to be caught driving under the influence and/or causing drunk driving accidents. Crack and alcohol are both potentially mind-altering substances but driving under the influence or being intoxicated in general doesn’t carry the same stigma as drug use.
There are multiple examples of how the perception of a drug or substance influences the severity of prosecution despite the substance’s true effects on an individual. Look at the history of the perception and change in attitude towards marijuana over the years. When it was primarily associated with Black, Hispanic, and Asian people there was propaganda about it being capable of driving people crazy. Users were portrayed as being sex-crazed maniacs devoid of self-control who indulged in criminal behavior. But things changed when the hippies, mostly college and middle-class White kids, began using marijuana.
To be clear, I don’t support drug use and that includes cocaine, heroin, etc. as well as tobacco and weed. Hard drugs are terrible and inhaling hot smoke is not good for your throat and lungs. But I take issue with the way these substances are policed. Addiction is a disease regardless of the substance and should be handled as a health rather than a law enforcement issue.
Look at the current opioid epidemic and compare that to what’s referred to as the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. Black people became the face of the crack epidemic which led to Black men being arrested en masse, Black women being referred to as “crack whores”, and children referred to as “crack babies” because their parents were addicted at the time of their birth. The response was to destroy families and communities under the guise of fighting a drug war and being tough on crime. And before we go any further, “crack babies” are not a thing rather growing up with limited resources in poor environments can harm the development of children.
Why is it that the focus is on treatment when the epidemic is seen as primarily affecting White people? But the solution was incarceration when the drug du jour was seen as primarily being used by Black people? How is the disparity in sympathy and humane treatment of people suffering not seen as at least being based in part on race? And aside from the changes to how addiction is being handled on the street, why haven’t there also been widespread changes to the justice system and plans to repair the damage that was caused?
Sure, over the years some White people have also been unfortunate to get caught up in the system. They comprise the majority of the American population so at least a few will get moved into the justice system’s funnel. They might be seen as unintended collateral damage or even ok to sacrifice as they are likely to be poor. But those relatively few White people unfairly trapped in the system give the branches of the justice system something to point to as an example that the system is unbiased. It allows people to be purposefully obtuse about this subject as they can more easily brush aside criticisms by pointing to the presence of White people in prison. This is used as a tactic to end meaningful conversations before people look too deeply at what’s going on.
What I’ve learned from the various books and documentaries that I’ve read and watched over the years is that reform is never enough. The prison system, justice system, and all other related systems can’t merely be reformed because as we see throughout The New Jim Crow, reform just leads to new variations of existing problems. For true change to occur and to implement a fair justice system, everything would have to be demolished and rebuilt.
Being logical and realistic, we have to first ask who benefits from the system as it currently exists? Asking and obtaining the answer to that question helps to explain why things were created and why they remain in place. In this case, you have politicians, law enforcement, correctional officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and other ancillary employees as well as entire communities that benefit from mass incarceration. Not to mention huge private prison companies like CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America).
Other companies utilize labor provided by incarcerated people to make and build products or provide services. Companies that make money providing services and products for inmates such as phone companies, vending machines, commissaries, and mail-order catalogs. Shrinking the prison population and then closing a meaningful number of prisons could result in a loss of revenue and jobs for a lot of people.
There is not only the difficulty and the tough questions of how do we fix this system? But then also, how do you fix a system, when so many individuals, governments, organizations, and corporations benefit from its current structure? People are often willing to sacrifice non-Whites (Black people in particular) and the poor when doing what is morally and ethically right is at odds with the interests of capitalism and financial gain. How do you ensure that a new but similar system isn’t created to take its place?
After discussing the development of the system and its current structure, Alexander goes into detail about several other related topics. But I’m not going to discuss them here as I’ve touched on them in other discussions and because there’s some opinion mixed in, I think you should read this section and form your own opinions. Where I do want to pick up is the discussion of affirmative action, the idea of exceptionalism, and possible solutions for the mass incarceration problem.
In explaining the structure of the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration Alexander provides a good idea or an understanding of what would need to change to make the system more fair and just. On a basic level, we have an understanding of what the problems are in society. But where things become difficult, is in trying to come up with ideas as to how to realistically fix these problems. The New Jim Crow shines to some degree in that regard.
In the early part of The New Jim Crow, maybe like the first half or so the focus is on explaining the issue and structure of mass incarceration. Not just criminals going to prison but this far wider-reaching problem that needs to be addressed because of the impact it has on society in general and Black people in particular. But when the book shifted into discussing solutions, I didn’t agree with all of Alexander’s ideas. For the most part, she had some pretty good arguments and I agreed with regards to what needs to get done. But where we differed was with regards to how these things need to be done.
She spent some time explaining the shortcomings of how civil and human rights issues are being addressed at present in America because of earlier wins in the judicial system seemingly leading to change. Nowadays a lot of civil rights organizations focus on trying to bring about change through legal means where what’s needed is activism.
Sure, you need activism but you most certainly also need legal action as well as other forms of organized resistance. In describing how the system was formed, it’s clear that it’s a multi-headed beast. You have all of these issues related to inadequate resources that joined together to create this problematic system. That includes lack of access to quality education, lack of jobs, lack of access to effective rehab and treatment programs, selective law enforcement, and prejudicial prosecution.
I agree that we can’t pick and choose who is worthy of having their civil rights protected and defended. Civil rights shouldn’t only be granted to those who are deemed worthy and deserving but should be a factor of human rights. You shouldn’t have to be an upstanding citizen or a shining example of perfection to have your civic, civil, and human rights be respected. You need to just be a human. If dogs, cats, and other animals have rights and we recognize them as living beings, we can and should extend the same courtesy to human beings. Rights are rights and they should be inalienable.
The question then is what’s the way forward. I’ve come to believe and recognize that these systems of prejudice work together to discriminate. The only response is to mount an attack on all fronts. We can’t address racism but leave classism and income disparities for another time. Nor can we address racism and income disparities but leave gender discrimination for another day. These systems function together to divide and oppress people so they have to be addressed at the same time.
The reality is inequality for anyone increases the risk of inequality for everyone. We have to address inequality as a whole. Not today for you and tomorrow for me. It needs to be all of us today. With that, I fully agree with the idea that we have to recognize this as a complex problem but we need a more comprehensive approach to solving it.
Alexander touched on affirmative action but I don’t think I fully grasped the direct connection between that topic and mass incarceration. And I couldn’t quite figure out if she was for or against the practice. But I’ll venture to explain what I think she meant and then my perspective. It seems that she’s not against affirmative action but takes issue with tokenism. One is about granting previously excluded groups access to correct past inequalities and the other is about merely symbolic representation.
And this is something that I’ve considered about the end of the Civil Rights Movement. The main goal of the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t agreed upon between all the various factions. Everyone had different ideas of what a successful movement would look like. For example, there’s a saying that much was made about Black people gaining the ability to sit at lunch counters. But a lot of Black people were so economically depressed that they couldn’t afford the food anyway. Including low-hanging fruit such as integrating lunch counters made it easy for scraps to be thrown about and lauded as wins. But some of these so-called triumphs didn’t change the lives of many Black people in any long-term meaningful way.
Granting one or two individuals at a time access to resources like top-tier schools or jobs made it possible for these institutions to preserve the system without having to change or sacrifice much in the process. We won’t bring the schools in your neighborhood up to standard and provide them with adequate resources. Instead, a few students from your neighborhood, preferably the brightest or most talented, will attend our schools but they will have to travel across town to get a decent education. With a chosen few being granted access to resources, it then provided cover for institutions and organizations to defend against allegations of racism. But what about the others that are barred from participation or aren’t given access to these resources?
When speaking about Black success and discrimination, people often point to the against all odds outliers. The success stories of people like Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, etc. These Black people came from humble beginnings and achieved a degree of success in life. They are pointed to as having overcome. As indications that there are no longer problems in the system or that the problems are now minor. But the reality is that those individuals achieved what they did because they’re exceptional. Whereas most people are not; they’re just regular. You’ll have a skewed perspective if we settle for average people suffering but one or two of the exceptional being used as the barometer of success or opportunity.
There is harm in the concept of Black exceptionalism. It falls in line with the idea that as a Black person, you have to be 10 times better to get ahead. It puts the burden on Black people to be exceptional to succeed rather than addressing inequality. You can’t make a mistake and you have to have everything figured out as there is no room for flaws. You can’t be an average human being. Because if you’re anything less than perfect, less than exceptional, or less than gifted or talented then your odds of success and your opportunities for progress will be severely limited.
This makes it look as though things are headed in the right direction when they’re standing fairly still. It answers the question of what happened after the Civil Rights Movement and why does it seem like those dreams and promises were never realized. The reality is that sure there were wins within the Civil Rights Movement. But even though some of these things were achieved, they didn’t make much difference in the lives of everyday Black people.
When people point to individuals like Oprah, Barack Obama, etc. as examples of Black progress it’s a way of shutting down meaningful conversations and discussions about race in today’s society. Especially, because as Alexander points out, so many people hide behind this false notion of colorblindness. We see how this supposed post-racial society worked out with mounting racially motivated incidents during Obama’s presidency and the mess that came after.
Not to mention, while Obama was in office conversations about oppressed and disadvantaged people being used as tokens in the system was hushed. Because their status and standing are so precarious it can be difficult for them to enact change. When you, as an oppressed person, integrate into a problematic institution or system upon which your livelihood, future, and personal success are dependent you’re less likely to speak out against the inequities and problems within that system. Look at Black people who get into positions of power or even just publicly visible positions and then either refuse to speak about race or downplay the problem.
Imagine you have a Black person in place heading up a racist organization or in a position of authority within a racist organization. Black people are going to be less inclined to speak out against that person as an individual and sometimes even the institution. Why? Because it poses the question of how can this organization be racist if there are Black people in positions of authority within its structure. And also the discomfort with criticizing one of the few Black people within the structure.
If you’re just one or two Black people in a system that’s predominantly something else it’s possible to not have the power to change that system on your own. As Alexander points out and we’ve seen from Obama he did some positive things while in office but there were also some shortcomings. There were some things that he did that were at odds with the needs of Black people. But because he was so heralded as the first Black president and the symbol of this Black man and Black family in the White House was so valued, a lot of Black people didn’t feel comfortable publicly criticizing him as they might have any other politician. And he’s made statements since that he didn’t feel that he could aggressively make changes operating within the system as it’s not how things are done.
Think of mayor’s offices, city councils, judges, prosecutors, and police departments that now have Black people in public-facing positions of leadership. Imagine if you have a Black police chief or commissioner and there’s a police brutality incident. It makes people pause to call out such a department leader about racist policing practices. Or even just individual police officers. Police brutality is wrong regardless of who is committing the act. When Black officers are aggressive, hostile, and equally willing to brutalize Black people, we might call that police brutality. But even when they are functioning within a racist system, it seems like there’s less of a racial element when the person carrying out the abuse is themselves Black.
I agreed with Alexander’s idea of the usefulness of a broad-based coalition across races. But I can’t get behind what I think was her saying Black people need to give up some things gained through affirmative action in exchange for White people giving up things with regards to racial privilege. Maybe I misunderstood her point but it didn’t make sense to me.
The entire book was a lot more interesting and easier to read than I thought it would be. The last few chapters were a bit different but good as well. Often, when we have these kinds of conversations everyone knows the problems and sometimes even the answers but the solutions are difficult to implement. I liked how thorough Alexander was about explaining the problem of mass incarceration and also explaining her perspective on solutions though I didn’t agree with everything.
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