The New Jim Crow

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The War on Drugs Symbol Analysis

The War on Drugs Symbol Icon

In addition to having symbolic meaning, the War on Drugs is simply the central topic of the book. The first time the phrase was used in a political context was in 1971, by President Richard Nixon. Although there has been a long history of federal anti-drug legislation in the United States—including under Nixon’s administration—the phrase War on Drugs is most closely associated with the anti-drug efforts of President Ronald Reagan. Reagan oversaw the militarization of the police, the institution of mandatory minimum sentences, and massive increases in federal funding to combat drug crime. The Reagan administration is also now known to have deliberately produced propaganda in order to promote racist stereotypes such as the “crack baby” and “welfare queen.” However, the War on Drugs did not subside after Reagan left office. In Alexander’s words, President Bill Clinton “escalated the drug war beyond what conservatives had imagined possible,” and funding for anti-drug policing increased further under President Obama. Although the Obama administration rejected the use of the phrase “War on Drugs,” its policies did not reflect this shift away from war rhetoric.

As well as being an actual set of policies, the War on Drugs is also a metaphor that brings together many of the most charged racial, economic, and political issues of our era. Many people consider the idea of conducting a “war” on drug abuse to be common sense, part of a “tough on crime” approach that will ultimately make society healthier and safer. However, Alexander digs deeper into what has motivated the government’s single-minded attack on drug abuse, suggesting that it may be guided less by social welfare than a desire to police, control, and suppress poor people of color. Indeed, the word “drugs” as it is used in “War of Drugs” is something of a misnomer. Alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, LSD, and powder cocaine are all examples of drugs that have not been targeted with nearly the same level of aggression as drugs associated with African Americans—particularly crack cocaine. The overall impression provided by the book is that the War on Drugs more closely resembles an assault on the freedom and liberty of poor black and Latino Americans than a productive program for social wellbeing.

The War on Drugs Quotes in The New Jim Crow

The The New Jim Crow quotes below all refer to the symbol of The War on Drugs. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the New Press edition of The New Jim Crow published in 2012.
Introduction Quotes

In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men. And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.

Related Symbols: The War on Drugs
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has explained that as a result of the War on Drugs, the number of prisoners in American has ballooned to an enormous size, outstripping that of every other country in the world. Arguably even more horrifying than the number of people locked up in America, however, is the racial makeup of the incarcerated population. As she explains in this passage, African-American populations have been devastatingly impacted by the War on Drugs. The racial injustice caused by the War on Drugs is so severe that, as Alexander notes, it has created a whole new racial caste system in America. By “undercaste,” Alexander describes not only the second-class status but also the profound stigma attached to having a criminal record.

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Chapter 2 Quotes

Few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the War on Drugs. This may sound like an overstatement, but upon examination it proves accurate. The absence of significant constraints on the exercise of police discretion is a key feature of the drug war's design. It has made the roundup of millions of Americans for nonviolent drug offenses relatively easy.

Related Symbols: The War on Drugs
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Two, Alexander provides an illustration of the War on Drugs through describing each step of the process of being arrested, tried, convicted, incarcerated, and released on a drug charge. She begins by explaining the police’s role in the drug war, stating that a defining aspect of this role is the lack of regulation and restraint. In this passage, she suggests that this lack of restraint is vital to the horrifying “success” of anti-drug policy. The discretion given to the police has allowed a massive number of people to be funneled into the criminal justice system, where—as Alexander describes in the rest of the chapter—there is then little hope of escape.

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The War on Drugs Symbol Timeline in The New Jim Crow

The timeline below shows where the symbol The War on Drugs appears in The New Jim Crow. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Introduction
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...from a lack of opportunities and resources, but would be unlikely to believe that the War on Drugs is a “racist conspiracy to put blacks back in their place.” This is partly because... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
Due to the strange chronology in which the War on Drugs unfolded, some people grew suspicious that the whole crack epidemic—as well as the oppressive response... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Largely because of the War on Drugs , the American prison population has ballooned from 300,000 to 2 million people in the... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
Contrary to popular assumption, the War on Drugs began during a time in which drug crime was actually decreasing. Alexander argues that the... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
...racialized social control in the United States.” In Chapter 2, she focuses on how the War on Drugs came to exist and how it currently functions. Chapter 3 examines how the criminal justice... (full context)
Chapter 1: The Rebirth of Caste
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...the election of 1980, a “conservative revolution” took place within the Republican party; the “ war on drugs ” originally proposed by Nixon later became a centerpiece of Reagan’s campaign and presidency. Reagan... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...that crack had an apocalyptic effect on black communities, and that her critique of the War on Drugs does not intend to belittle this devastation. However, she emphasizes that where other countries confronted... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...to escalate. Mandatory minimum sentences of five years became common even for first-time offenders. The War on Drugs achieved enormous public support, and President George Bush, Sr. picked up where his predecessor, Reagan,... (full context)
Chapter 2: The Lockdown
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...innocent people are often pressured to plead guilty. In Chapter Two, she focuses on the War on Drugs because the contemporary American criminal justice system has been defined by anti-drug policies. 31 million... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
Alexander begins by challenging important myths about the War on Drugs . Firstly, she argues that the war does not target “kingpins” (those who control and... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
Alexander argues that the War on Drugs has allowed the police to operate without legal “restraints.” The Supreme Court has consistently ruled... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...moves on to the next question: why? She reiterates that at the beginning of the War on Drugs , drug abuse was neither a new nor particularly urgent problem; national rates of drug... (full context)
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Thanks to this influx of money and weaponry, the War on Drugs quickly “went from being a political slogan to an actual war.” Before the drug war,... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...seize from drug busts. This gave police and local authorities “a massive stake in the War on Drugs .” Furthermore, police were entitled to seize the cars, homes, and money of those who... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...intact. Meanwhile, President Obama dramatically increased federal funding for anti-drug efforts, thereby further embedding the War on Drugs as a permanent component of the American political system. (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...pressured to plead guilty, a phenomenon that “has increased exponentially since the advent of the War on Drugs ” partly as a result of mandatory sentencing laws. Although the criminal justice system has... (full context)
Chapter 3: The Color of Justice
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
...some states, 80-90% of those sent to prison on drug crimes are African-American. While the War on Drugs has also resulted in an increase in white people being sent to prison on drug... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...Kemp. In this case, however, an African-American judge cited evidence of racial bias in the War on Drugs , and sentenced the young man as if the cocaine had been in powder form.... (full context)
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
...police surveillance and aggression has a devastating effect on those communities. The irony of the War on Drugs is that as soon as one dealer is taken off the streets, he will almost... (full context)
Chapter 4: The Cruel Hand
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...control existed in the United States.” It will seem obvious to these scholars that the War on Drugs was merely a pretense used in order to repress and control people of color. Alexander... (full context)
Chapter 5: The New Jim Crow
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...exceptional black celebrities. Meanwhile, the media has helped to create mass public support for the War on Drugs through sensationalism and (racialized) stereotypes. Nowadays mass incarceration is such a normal part of the... (full context)
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...committed a crime. This did not happen “organically,” but was a deliberate component of the War on Drugs . Thus even African-American children are linked to the stereotype of criminality; meanwhile, non-black criminals... (full context)
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...similarity between mass incarceration and Jim Crow. It is very important, for example, that the War on Drugs and mass incarceration are officially framed as race-neutral. The lack of explicit racism has “turned... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...many white people. This does not mean white people are the intended targets of the War on Drugs ; rather, they are “collateral damage.” Although the drug war has affected white people, if... (full context)
Chapter 6: The Fire This Time
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...advocates, who she suggests are neither ignorant of nor indifferent to the injustice of the War on Drugs , but have been swept along with the overall consensus of ignoring mass incarceration. Alexander... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...attacking private-sector investment in prisons, which can be highly lucrative. Alexander also stresses that the War on Drugs must end, an incredibly complex and daunting task. Dismantling the drug war would include the... (full context)
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...in order to improve understandings of unconscious bias and other forms of racism fueling the War on Drugs . Alexander emphasizes that although it will be tempting to accept the “race-neutral” solutions to... (full context)
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...drug use as a young man and at first seemed to be opposed to the War on Drugs . Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden, however, is “one of the Senate's most strident drug... (full context)