There are books that, on their own, are informative and moving. But, oftentimes, reading books together—one right after the other—compounds each works’ transformative power. Michelle Alexander’s much-needed report […] The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, can certainly stand on its own as an important statement about the current use of mass incarceration to maintain a racial caste system in the United States.
The same strength can be found in The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s account of the connection of blackness to criminality in this country. Each book, on its own, gives readers a greater understanding of the racism within the criminal justice system. However, reading them jointly paints a disturbing picture of the past and present use of incarceration and crime rhetoric in America and leaves one with an overwhelming sense of injustice and the data to know that the injustice is real.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander makes the claim that “[w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” using the criminal justice system and colorblind rhetoric (2). In building her argument, she begins with the lineage of Jarvious Cotton, a black man who cannot vote due to his status as a felon on parole.
Alexander explains Cotton’s disenfranchised pedigree this way: “In each generation, new tactics have been used for achieving the same goals—goals shared by the Founding Fathers. Denying African Americans citizenship was deemed essential to the formation of the original union” (NJC 1). Alexander then goes on to explain how incarceration and its collateral consequences (such as bars to employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service) are used to impose what she terms “legalized discrimination” on African Americans (NJC 1-2). The result, according to Alexander, is a population of black men who face similar barriers and deprivation of rights as did blacks during the Jim Crow era. Hence, mass incarceration has become the new Jim Crow.
Slavery was a clear racial caste system in which laws—including the U.S. Constitution—were used to ensure that blacks would live and be treated as a distinct group, best described as chattel. When slavery died, the notions of white supremacy that it helped to breed lived on through Jim Crow laws and practices. The racial division that characterized the Jim Crow era required “[f]aith in the belief that people of the African race were bestial, that whites were inherently superior, and that slavery was, in fact, for black’s own good” (NJC 26). So, with slavery’s demise, a new form of control of blacks was needed in order to maintain the racial order for which white supremacy called.
In addition to the de jure and de facto segregation prevalent at this time, Alexander reveals that it was during the Reconstruction period that America experienced its first prison boom, and “the prisoners were disproportionately black” (NJC 32). But, with the legal and social victories of the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, too, would eventually die. As Alexander explains, “Jim Crow eventually replaced slavery, but now it too had died, and it was unclear what might take its place. Barred by law from invoking race explicitly, those committed to racial hierarchy were forced to search for new means of achieving their goals according to the new rules of American democracy” (NJC 40). So, how were the racial disparities in incarceration maintained? Welcome mass incarceration.
The author describes how the same separatist sentiments that fueled the Jim Crow system were used to appeal to poor and working class whites who were still reeling from the triumphs of the Civil Rights fight. This “law and order rhetoric” was the foundation for the “Southern Strategy,” a political effort by the Republican Party to bring southern white voters into their camp (NJC 42-43). The enthralling aspect of Alexander’s account of the Southern Strategy has much to do with how she craftily weaves powerful quotes into her telling of the story. For example, she incorporates the following words of one of Pres. Richard Nixon’s key advisers on Nixon’s strategy: “He [President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to” (NJC 43-44).
Alexander links this shockingly blatant use of racial polarization to the eventual association of blacks with crime. The steps proceed as follows: Republican campaigns in the late 1960s and early 1970s curried favor with anti-black voters by appealing to their belief that blacks were the root of societal problems; poverty and other social ailments then become divorced from government deficiencies and tied to the culture of the poor; the culture of the poor, which included criminal behavior is no longer associated with responses to poverty, but instead seen as the pathology of the black subculture (the “welfare cheats and their dangerous offspring”)—after all, this all started with the idea that blacks were the root of societal problems anyway (NJC 44-45).
Reagan set the rhetoric into action by declaring the infamous War on Drugs despite the fact that, at the time, the American public did not see drugs as a major issue (NJC 49). Alexander explains Pres. Reagan’s motivations this way: “This fact [that drugs were not the nation’s major priority] was no deterrent to Reagan, for the drug war from the outset had little to do with public concern about drugs and much to do with public concern about race. By waging a war on drug users and dealers, Reagan made good on his promise to crack down on the racially defined ‘others’—the undeserving” (NJC 49). And, with that, the mass conduit to prison for blacks was created.
The Justice Policy Institute reports that the Clinton presidency “resulted in the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history” (NJC 55). Alexander takes that statement and explains that Clinton “more than any other president—created the racial undercaste” by using his tough on crime approach to create barriers to welfare (NJC 56). As the author sets forth, by the 1990s the War on Drugs and all of its collateral consequences were cloaked in race-neutral, colorblind terms. However, the casualties of the War could certainly be understood in racial terms. Alexander reveals that “Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino” (NJC 57).
In Chapter 5, Alexander starts by addressing the reality of missing black men, lulling the reader in with a familiar question, “Where have all the black men gone?” (NJC 174) She blames the void on the War on Drugs, insisting, “Hundreds of thousands of black men are unable to be good fathers for their children, not because of a lack of commitment or desire but because they are warehoused in prisons, locked in cages. They did not walk out on their families voluntarily; they were taken away in handcuffs, often due to a massive federal program known as the War on Drugs” (NJC 175).
“The widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control is the most important reason that we, as a nation, have remained in deep denial” (NJC 178). Alexander proceeds to connect the information presented in earlier chapters to her claim that mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow. She breaks down “how the system of mass incarceration works to trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage” by describing three stages: the roundup; the period of formal control; and the period of invisible punishment (NJC 180-182).
By revealing the pervasiveness of this trap as a “comprehensive system of control over [a] racial [. . .] defined population” (NJC 183) and moving on to discuss the similarities between this trap and the Jim Crow system, Michelle Alexander solidly makes her point that: “It is fair to say that we have witnessed an evolution in the United States from a racial caste system based entirely on exploitation (slavery), to one based largely on subordination (Jim Crow), to one defined by marginalization (mass incarceration)” (NJC 207).
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