The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
The New Press: New York, 2020
Reviewed by Emmanuella Amoh
Acclaimed civil rights lawyer, activist, and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, demonstrates the dangers of the rhetoric of colorblindness, which fuels mass incarceration and upholds a racial caste system in the United States. Alexander argues that “mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow and that all those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantle this new racial caste system.” Historically, Jim Crow refers to the period of legal racial segregation, especially in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Black people in that era were limited to “Black only” spaces, denied access to good social amenities and the best of schools and jobs. Furthermore, during the period of Jim Crow, African Americans were often victims of police brutality and other forms of racial violence. Despite the gains of the civil rights era like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Alexander argues that Jim Crow is alive in a “post-racial” or colorblind America. The author’s goal is to stimulate conversation about the criminal justice system and its role in creating and maintaining a racial caste system.
The new Jim Crow in the 21st century refers to the new ways race, racism, and racialized institutions have changed faces to continue to segregate and disempower Black and Brown people within the US. Like the old Jim Crow, social and political systems continue to restrict the right to vote, employment, education, ensure house segregation, etc. In The New Jim Crow, Alexander asserts that the United States has a racial caste system constantly produced and maintained through mass incarceration. Alexander first gives a history of the old Jim Crow by looking at slavery, reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Drugs, and how the language of racism has morphed into colorblindness. The author demonstrates how new systems of social control have emerged over time to exert power over Black and Brown bodies. In this, Alexander underscores the continued racialization of people of color through new legal codes. For instance, she explores the legal frames that give way to the system of mass incarceration. Two of these frames being Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Operation Pipeline, where officers are trained in various tactics of searches for drugs and often get the results they need through racial profiling. This analysis is grounded in President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, which, she argues, set the stage for the current system of mass incarceration populated by Black and Brown people. Focusing on the criminal justice system, the author examines race and racism within the criminal justice system and how it contributes to the mass incarceration of Black and Brown bodies. In addition to race, poverty sometimes keeps innocent people in prison without a court trial, like the case of Kalief Browder. Browder was falsely accused of stealing a backpack, denied a trial for three years, and committed suicide after his release from prison.
Alexander continues by revealing the long hands of the justice system outside prison into the private lives of the formerly convicted. She shows how formerly incarcerated people struggle to find good jobs, housing, and are sometimes forced, by the government, into living in a neighborhood, county, or state, which affects their social and economic mobility. Finally, the author provides some reflections and a way forward. In this, she calls for grassroots activism in reforming the criminal justice system to help develop individuals rather than sentence them to second-class status and into a cycle of poverty. Alexander challenges the idea that mass incarceration is a criminal justice issue and not a racial justice or civil rights one. She also notes that because drug crimes are racially defined as a “black and brown” problem, there is a lack of public consensus to address mass incarceration and, without public consensus, it would be difficult to resolve mass incarceration or the racial caste system it produces in the US. Alexander calls for a new social consciousness and consensus, which “must begin with dialogue, a conversation that fosters a critical consciousness, a key prerequisite to effective social action.” Thus, The New Jim Crow also calls for public response to mass incarceration and the challenges it poses for American society.As a scholar-activist, Alexander calls for reforming the criminal justice system because it sentences not only individuals but sometimes a whole generation or population into second-class status. The author writes, “We had recently birthed another caste system—a system of mass incarceration—that caged millions of poor people and people of color and relegated millions more to a permanent second-class status.” In other
words, some people, especially people of color and poor people often do not get the full benefit of their citizenship and are sometimes dehumanized because of racialized institutions. Alexander’s The New Jim Crow helps demonstrate that a judge’s sentencing does not only affect an individual but families, communities, and even a whole nation. While many see incarceration as impacting those within prison walls, Alexander demonstrates that its impact extends beyond prison walls, especially on Black families. For instance, the imprisonment of Black men, often husbands, brothers, fathers, and caretakers, place a burden on their partners, especially Black women. Alexander points this out stating, “When men are locked up, the women who love them are sentenced too—to social isolation, depression, grief, shame, costly legal fees, far-away prison visits (often with children in tow), and the staggering challenges of helping children overcome the trauma of parental incarceration.” In an after-prison theme, Alexander shows how once the formerly incarcerated leave the prison walls, they enter a dark world of discrimination in employment, housing, and face social stigmatization.
It is important to note that Alexander does not present The New Jim Crow as a solution to mass incarceration but as a stepping stone towards addressing it by drawing attention to its impact beyond those incarcerated. Using accessible language and centering families of formerly incarcerated, Alexander writes not just for the academic world or experts on race and civil rights but for the public and everyone who has a desire for racial justice in the United States. Alexander calls on everyone to not be snared by the rhetoric of colorblindness and help through dialogue and grassroot activism, seek racial equality for all.