The New Jim Crow, Chapter 1

Richard Johnson and I are blogging our way through The New Jim Crow during the next few weeks.  We’ll rotate between chapters, posting reflections and the questions this important book is raising for us.  We hope these series of blog posts will encourage you to pick up the book and begin grappling with unsettling and  consequential issues which have been largely ignored by too many of us.
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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessIn the preface to The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander writes that her book has a specific audience in mind- “people who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration.”  Here the author points to the book’s central claims, that there exists something called “mass incarceration” wreaking havoc among American communities of color and that this epidemic has mostly gone unnoticed, even by those involved with racial justice issues.  Alexander will explore these claims, diving into mountains of data without obscuring the big picture, in the book’s six chapters which, when taken together, make the devestating case for a system of discrimination that can be called, without a whiff of hyperbole, Jim Crow.

For those skeptical of Alexander’s claim of the ongoing influence of Jim Crow policies, the book’s introduction comes as a slap in the face.  Here, in brief, we encounter themes that will be developed more fully throughout the book.  For instance, the reader learns that in the past thirty years, “the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million,” a trend that ensures our country “has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.”  Those imprisoned are also far more likely to be minorities than are the prisoners in other countries.  And while the dramatic increase in the prison population has been largely driven by the war on drugs, the evidence shows that “people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.”

“I came to see that mass incarceration in the Unites States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

In the first chapter Alexander sketches the history of “racialized social control” in America through what amounts to a caste system based mostly on race.  This caste-based system has existed in three different forms: slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.  Alexander’s important contribution is to show how each of these forms was brought about deliberately and how, in its latest form of mass incarceration, the caste system continues to achieve it’s aims of segregation.

For those unfamiliar with Jim Crow’s first iteration, I recommend Slavery by Another Name, an excellent documentary that covers the years after reconstruction in the American South.  PBS has made it available online.  While the Jim Crow laws were eventually (mostly) repealed, the seeds for our current experience of mass incarceration had been planted.  For example, a decision by the Virgina Supreme Court identified prisoners as slaves of the State.

Alexander spends the rest of the chapter showing how a variety of factors – ongoing racial prejudices, the economic collapse of many inner cities, a massive budget increase for drug-law enforcement, and a media blitz to convince the American public of the reality of a newly-conceived drug war – led to the disproportionate incarceration of African American men.

America’s prison system does not function the way it does accidentally.  Whether it’s the total amount of prisoners or the percentage of those prisoners who are African American, the systems exists as it does for good reasons.  One recent study shows that almost one in ten African American men in their 30’s are currently incarcerated!  How can this be?

Thinking about American society as a caste system is not an idea many of us will be familiar or comfortable with.  Is this a reality you are able to consider?  Have you noticed or been impacted by mass incarceration?  Does Michelle Alexander’s explanation of a race-based caste system resonate with your experience?  Does it help explain the disproportionate number of African American men who are in prison in this country?