THE NEW JIM CROW
Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, offers a penetrating perspective on today’s mass incarceration. She makes the case that America’s prison industrial complex is the new Jim Crow because it institutionalizes segregation as the nation’s proven method of control. Alexander provides a framework for better understanding 21st century mass incarceration and its ominous political and economic implications.
The new Jim Crow argues that imprisonment, the principal method of social policy directed towards mostly poor, uneducated Black men, frequently reflects race-based public policies that extend well beyond prison walls. Author David Levering Lewis: “The new Jim Crow sharpens the realization that for people of color, the American criminal justice system resembles the Soviet Union’s gulag-the latter punished ideas, the former punishes a condition.”
The following are samplings from The New Jim Crow, a provocative conceptualization of racialized imprisonment that Blacks, especially, experience often but appear reluctant to challenge. Michelle Alexander’s perspective and analysis should open some eyes and generate broader conversation on the implications of today’s mass incarceration:
Mass incarceration in the U.S. is a comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control. Alexander distinguishes between “dismantle” and “reform”, arguing that the latter is essentially ineffective. The system operates through criminal justice institutions, but functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control. The book is intended to stimulate conversation on the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating a racial hierarchy in the U.S. (“Caste” denotes a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position). Racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive; they need only racial indifference.)
Alexander insists the notion that the new Jim Crow can ever be dismantled through traditional litigation and policy reform strategies that are wholly disconnected from a major social movement is fundamentally misguided. Such a movement is impossible if those most committed to abolishing racial hierarchy continue to behave as if a state sponsored racial caste system no longer exists.
In each generation, new tactics have been used for achieving the same goals-shared by the Founding Fathers: Denying African Americans citizenship was deemed essential to the formation of the original union; hundreds of years later, America is still not an egalitarian democracy. The arguments and rationalizations that abound in support of racial exclusion and discrimination forms have changed and evolved but the outcome is largely the same. An extraordinary percentage of Black men in the United States are barred from voting today, just as they have been through most of American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education and public benefits. What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with 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. Rather, 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 that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you are labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination are suddenly legal. We have not ended racial caste in America; it has merely been redesigned.
Michelle Alexander reached the conclusions presented in the book reluctantly. Ten years prior, she says she would have argued strenuously against the book’s central claim- that something akin to a racial caste system currently exists in the United States. And, had Barack Obama been elected president then, she would have argued that his election marked the nation’s triumph over racial caste-the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow.
Later, as an experienced civil rights lawyer, she came to suspect she was wrong about the criminal justice system. It was not just another institution infected with racial bias, but rather, “an entirely different beast.” No one imagined that the prison population would more than quintuple in their lifetime. And despite the unprecedented levels of incarceration in the African American community, the civil rights community–and Blacks–are oddly quiet. One in three young Black men is currently under the control of the criminal justice system-in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole-yet, mass incarceration is categorized as a criminal justice issue, not a racial justice crisis.
The enormous implications of mass incarceration require that a new social consensus be forged about race and its role in defining the basic structure of American society if we ever hope to abolish the new Jim Crow.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at [email protected]