New Jim Crow, Same (Effect) as the Old Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Michelle Alexander
March 4, 2010

By Michelle Alexander, Associate Professor of Law, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

It's not easy to admit mistakes. It's difficult to acknowledge that one's world view has been seriously flawed - that you've been willfully blind to extraordinary injustice, complicit in the very forms of bigotry, social exclusion, and discrimination that you thought you opposed. But once you see the truth - once you truly reckon with it - nothing is ever the same. You can never look at the world through the same distorted lens or claim not to know. Perhaps that's why we resist knowing the truth about the devastation wrought by the mass incarceration of poor people of color. We don't want to know the truth about what's happening in ghetto communities, prisons, jails, and detention centers. We'd rather not know about that parallel universe, because if we did know all of our illusions about modern America might be shattered. We might not have any more excuses for our silence.

I worked as a civil rights lawyer at the ACLU for several years on issues of racial profiling, police brutality, and drug policy before I finally had my awakening. Looking back, it astounds me that I could have been so blind to what is blatantly obvious to me now: Our system of mass incarceration has emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racial control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.

As I explain in The New Jim Crow:

What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt. So we don't. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color "criminals" and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you're labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination - employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, and exclusion from jury service - are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

Here are some facts I uncovered in the course of my research that you probably haven't heard on the evening news:

* More African Americans are under correctional control today - in prison or jail, on probation or parole - than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

* As of 2004 more black men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

* In some major urban areas, like Chicago, more than half of working-age African American men have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These men are part of a growing undercaste - not class, caste. They are permanently locked into an inferior, second-class status by law and custom, much like their grandparents or great-grandparents once were.

How did we manage to relegate such an extraordinary percentage of the African American community to a permanent undercaste, just a few decades after the official demise of Jim Crow? The answer: The War on Drugs. Thanks largely to the drug war, our prison population quintupled in a few short decades. The war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites. Federal grant programs and drug forfeiture laws create enormous incentives to round up low-level, non-violent drug offenders en masse. And the racial politics that gave birth to the drug war have defined our understanding of who the enemy is, leading to the dehumanization of millions of people and the birth of a new pariah caste. The U.S. Supreme Court, for its part, has closed the courthouse doors to claims of racial bias, immunizing the new caste system from legal challenge in much the same way slavery and Jim Crow once received judicial sanction.

Perhaps the most appalling aspect of this new system is how easily and swiftly it emerged in the so-called era of colorblindness. The relative quiet is deafening. This book is my plea to those who care about racial justice to awaken, as I finally did, to the suffering of the pariah caste and to the existence of racial caste in America.