The New Jim Crow

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Justice vs. the Law Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The New Jim Crow, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Justice vs. the Law Theme Icon

The book emphasizes that although Jim Crow laws were legal (and indeed an intrinsic part of the Southern legal system), they were also deeply unjust. Alexander argues that both Jim Crow and mass incarceration are versions of “legalized discrimination,” and that we therefore cannot assume that the law is always just. Similarly, the police operate in a way that often terrorizes rather than helps the communities they are theoretically supposed to protect. Alexander states that “few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the War on Drugs.” The police therefore operate above the confines of justice, even when they are not technically violating the law. Alexander also details the ways in which corruption and injustice influence the courts, pointing out that defendants often do not receive adequate legal representation and are pressured to plead guilty due to mandatory sentencing laws. Overall, she shows that the phrase “criminal justice system” is deeply ironic, as there is nothing “just” about the way in which this system operates.

Alexander also shows how justice is warped by society’s definition of criminality. She argues that mass incarceration is the result of “changes in our laws… not increases in crime,” pointing out that an enormous number of people currently incarcerated are convicted of minor nonviolent drug offenses. They do not pose a major threat to society and—considering that a large percentage of the American population has consumed drugs—their involvement with drugs does not make them exceptional among the general population. (Indeed, Alexander points out that contrary to popular opinion, the War on Drugs has had little effect on putting drug “kingpins” behind bars, but has rather targeted low-level dealers and consumers of drugs.) On the other hand, a disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated population are black and Latino, despite people of all races consuming drugs at very similar levels. Thus the definition of what it means to be a criminal is connected to race in such a way that suggests that the American justice system is not only racially biased, but intrinsically racist on a deep and damning level.

Alexander is keen to point out that the gains made during the civil rights movement began with grassroots activism before emerging into legal victories. She argues that as the momentum of the era came to be associated with Supreme Court rulings, the passing of the Civil Rights Act, and other legal changes, people began to trust that racial justice could be achieved through legal means. In hindsight, this was a mistake, as we remain in an era in which legalized discrimination is deeply embedded in the criminal justice system. Whereas in the past civil rights activists could rely on using sympathetic figures (such as Rosa Parks) in order to garner support for legal changes, the stigma against criminals is so powerful that it is difficult to persuade people that mass incarceration is unjust. Alexander emphasizes that, because we cannot rely on the law being just, we must hold the law accountable to our own sense of justice, rather than the other way around.

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Justice vs. the Law ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Justice vs. the Law appears in each Chapter of The New Jim Crow. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Justice vs. the Law Quotes in The New Jim Crow

Below you will find the important quotes in The New Jim Crow related to the theme of Justice vs. the Law.
Introduction Quotes

Once you're labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination––employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, 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.

Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has explained that there is a strong continuity between the experiences of convicted felons today and African Americans during Jim Crow. She notes that many African-American felons have their rights and freedoms infringed upon in almost the exact same manner as their grandparents did in the South during the early-to-mid 20th century. In this passage, she introduces the full scope of this “legalized discrimination.” Rights that we often think of as universal are, in contemporary America, denied to a large percentage of the population. Rather than being an effective way of preventing crime, the criminal justice system is thus in fact a deeply unfair system of control that arbitrarily relegates millions of people—mostly poor people of color—to an “underclass” subjected to intimidation, surveillance, and violence.


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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.

Chapter 1 Quotes

It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society. The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system––slavery––while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially propertied whites.

Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has explained how the American racial system developed during slavery, along with the significant impact of slavery in shaping American society overall. She points out that slavery existed before democracy in America, and in this passage argues that the Constitution aimed to solidify the “racial caste system” instituted through slavery. This perspective contradicts what most Americans are taught to believe about the Constitution, which is more often framed as a document enshrining the values of democracy, equality, and freedom for all. However, as Alexander reminds the reader, these promises were in fact limited to a very small percentage of the overall American population. Women, people of color, and poor people were not included in the Constitution’s promises or protections.

Under the terms of our country's founding document, slaves were defined as three fifths of a man, not a real, whole human being. Upon this racist fiction rests the entire structure of American democracy.

Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has argued that, rather than ensuring liberty and equality for all, the Constitution in fact only aimed to protect white property owners, and was actually designed to preserve the racial caste system introduced by slavery. In this passage, she reminds the reader that the Constitution stated that a slave only counted as three fifths of a person. Alexander stresses that rather than being a historical anomaly, this “racist fiction” has significantly shaped the subsequent development of American society into the present. As she will argue throughout the book, the American political and legal system in many ways still functions as if black people—and especially poor black people—do not have the same rights as other members of the American population.

Genuine equality for black people, King reasoned, demanded a radical restructuring of society, one that would address the needs of the black and white poor throughout the country. Shortly before his assassination, he envisioned bringing to Washington, D.C. thousands of the nation's disadvantaged, in an interracial alliance that embraced rural and ghetto blacks, Appalachian whites, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans, to demand jobs and income––the right to live. In a speech delivered in 1968, King acknowledged there had been some progress for blacks since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but insisted that the current challenges required even greater resolve and that the entire nation must be transformed for economic justice to be more than a dream for poor people of all colors.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr.
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has described the legal wins achieved during the civil rights movement, which she claims constituted “undeniable” progress. Yet while civil rights victories helped to end Jim Crow segregation, they fell significantly short of reaching racial justice. In this passage, Alexander describes the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. for an “interracial alliance” that would work to achieve justice for poor people of all races. Alexander’s words highlight an aspect of King’s work that is often overlooked in contemporary references to his legacy.

While many people today emphasize King’s commitment to nonviolent interracial organizing, few include the crucial addendum that King wanted this to be in service of the “radical restructuring of our society.” Although King was assassinated before he could turn this vision into reality, Alexander argues it is now time to pick up where he left off and institute the radical change described here.

During Clinton's tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation's main housing program for the urban poor.”

Related Characters: Bill Clinton
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has described how President Bill Clinton was determined to appear more “tough on crime” than any of his predecessors or Republican peers. As a result, he not only dramatically increased support for the War on Drugs but took the same “tough” approach to public assistance, significantly cutting welfare. In this passage, Alexander describes the horrifying result of these twin actions by arguing that prisons became the new “housing program” for poor communities of color. While this statement may seem unbelievable, the statistics Alexander cites throughout the book provide evidence that it is valid. In this light, the “tough on crime” approach of Clinton and other politicians looks like little more than merciless neglect and cruelty.

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.

Anyone driving more than a few blocks is likely to commit a traffic violation of some kind, such as failing to track properly between lanes, failing to stop at

precisely the correct distance behind a crosswalk, failing to pause for precisely the right amount of time at a stop sign, or failing to use a turn signal at the appropriate distance from an intersection. Allowing the police to use minor traffic violations as a pretext for baseless drug investigations would permit them to single out anyone for a drug investigation without any evidence of illegal drug activity whatsoever. That kind of arbitrary police conduct is precisely what the Fourth Amendment was intended to prohibit.

Page Number: 67-68
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has described the practice of using traffic violations as a pretext for stopping and searching people at random for drugs. In some cases, traffic stops are used in order to circumvent charges of racial profiling. In this passage, she explains the logical absurdity of using traffic violations as a pretext for drug searches, arguing that this makes any driver vulnerable to being stopped by the police; in this sense, there is no real difference between traffic stops and racial profiling.

Alexander’s words also emphasize one of the book’s most important themes: the arbitrary nature of criminality. Whereas we might ordinarily think of “criminals” as an entirely separate and distinct group of people who choose to break the law, this passage disproves this assumption. Everyone breaks the law at some point, even if it is through an act as ordinary as a minor traffic violation. The fact that it is disproportionately young, poor men of color who are then funneled into the criminal justice system and labeled “felons” is evidence of a profound injustice at the heart of American society.

As legal scholar David Cole has observed, “in practice, the drug-courier profile is a scattershot hodgepodge of traits and characteristics so expansive that it potentially justifies stopping anybody and everybody.” The profile can include traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs, driving with out-of-state license plates, driving a rental car, driving with “mismatched occupants,” acting too calm, acting too nervous, dressing casually, wearing expensive clothing or jewelry, being one of the first to deplane, being one of the last to deplane, deplaning in the middle, paying for a ticket in cash, using large-denomination currency, using small-denomination currency, traveling alone, traveling with a companion, and so on.

Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has described the policy of stop and frisk, whereby the police stop and search a massive number of people and thereby increase the likelihood of finding individuals carrying drugs. She moves on to describe the use of drug courier “profiles,” which she notes are “notoriously unreliable.” In this passage, she explains that this unreliability is based in the fact that the profiles contain so many behaviors—many of which are commonplace, vague, or contradictory—that they could be used to describe pretty much anyone.

Of course, the dangerous consequences of this is that it allows for more racial profiling to take place. If police are looking for someone “traveling with luggage” who is “wearing expensive clothing” and “using large-denomination currency,” they are not going to stop a wealthy white grandmother dressed in designer clothes. Instead, they will likely seek out young black and brown men who by their skin color, rather than behavior, are automatically deemed “suspicious.”

Property or cash could be seized based on mere suspicion of illegal drug activity, and the seizure could occur without notice or hearing, upon an ex parte showing of mere probable cause to believe that the property had somehow been “involved” in a crime. The probable cause showing could be based on nothing more than hearsay, innuendo, or even the paid, self-serving testimony of someone with interests clearly adverse to the property owner.

Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has introduced another deeply unjust facet of the War on Drugs: the ability of the police to seize the assets of anyone accused of being involved in a drug crime. As she explains in this passage, the seizure of property is not limited to convicted criminals—which would be unfair enough already—but extends to anyone who happens to find themselves the target of gossip, a deliberate smear, or unfounded suspicion. Again, this gives the police free reign to ruin the lives of anyone they happen to deem suspicious. And due to the well-documented problem of racial bias among police officers, those who fall victim to drug forfeiture laws tend to be poor people of color who have little chance to protest their fate.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living “free” in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow. Those released from prison on parole can be stopped and searched by the police for any reason––or no reason at all––and returned to prison for the most minor of infractions, such as failing to attend a meeting with a parole officer. Even when released from the system's formal control, the stigma of criminality lingers. Police supervision, monitoring, and harassment are facts of life not only for all those labeled criminals, but for all those who “look like” criminals. Lynch mobs may be long gone, but the threat of police violence is ever present. A wrong move or sudden gesture could mean massive retaliation by the police.

Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has jumped back in time to describe the precarious position of free black people living in the North while slavery was still legal in the South. Every day, these individuals risked being kidnapped and dragged back into the slave system that still thrived in the Southern states. In this passage, she compares the situation of these people with people today who have been released from prison only to live at the mercy of constant surveillance and intimidation on the part of the state.

Whereas we might assume that being released from prison constitutes a moment of triumph and freedom, Alexander argues that it is simply the beginning of a new stage of aggressive monitoring and harassment. While this is certainly trying on an immediate, practical level, Alexander’s words also evoke the extent to which it harms people psychologically. Living under the constant “threat of police violence” can have a profound effect on people’s emotional wellbeing, further inhibiting their ability to act as ordinary members of society.

The churning of African Americans in and out of prisons today is hardly surprising, given the strong message that is sent to them that they are not wanted in mainstream society.

Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has described all of the ways in which the post-prison period is made difficult for the formerly incarcerated—so difficult that many people, finding themselves unable to survive, simply end up back in prison. In this passage, she argues that this cycle of prison and parole is “hardly surprising,” as it fits within overall trends of African Americans being made to feel rejected from the rest of society. Indeed, Alexander provides ample evidence of the ways in which black people—and convicted felons in particular—are given no opportunities to improve themselves and make positive contributions to the country at large. It is thus no wonder that so many people find themselves caught in cycles of crime and incarceration—for many, there is literally no other choice.

No other country in the world disenfranchises people who are released from prison in a manner even remotely resembling the United States. In fact, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has charged that U.S. disenfranchisement policies are discriminatory and violate international law.

Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has explained that where prisoners in other countries are allowed (and even, in some cases, encouraged) to vote, no prisoner in the United States is entitled to vote, with many continuing to be disenfranchised even after they are released. To emphasize how unusual and unjust this is, Alexander notes that the United Nations Human Rights Committee has actually pointed out that this mass disenfranchisement violates international law. While the United States often frames itself as the most free and democratic nation in the world, Alexander’s words tell a different story. In reality, the United States so heavily curbs the rights and freedoms of its own citizens that it does not even meet the minimum standards outlined by the international community.

One need not be formally convicted in a court of law to be subject to this shame and stigma. As long as you "look like" or "seem like" a criminal, you are treated with the same suspicion and contempt, not just by police, security guards, or hall monitors at your school, but also by the woman who crosses the street to avoid you and by the store employees who follow you through the aisles, eager to catch you in the act of being the “criminalblackman”––the archetypal figure who justifies the New Jim Crow.

Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has explained that for Americans who do not have firsthand experience of the criminal justice system, it can be hard to understand just how much social stigma is attached to the status of “convicted felon.” In this passage she argues that this stigma is so powerful—and so closely tied to race—that even people who have no history of criminality at all are swept into the negative stereotype of “criminalblackman.” This point helps illustrate why mass incarceration has had such a potent effect on African-American communities; even those who, despite the odds, manage to avoid seeing the inside of a prison cell are implicated in the shame associated with incarceration. Furthermore, Alexander’s words suggest that when so many people are treated like criminals despite their innocence, this fuels a culture in which criminality feels inescapable.

Poor people of color, like other Americans––indeed like nearly everyone around the world––want safe streets, peaceful communities, healthy families, good jobs, and meaningful opportunities to contribute to society. The notion that ghetto families do not, in fact, want those things, and instead are perfectly content to live in crime-ridden communities, feeling no shame or regret about the fate of their young men is, quite simply, racist.

Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has examined the racist stereotype that poor black people “feel no shame” and choose to live lives dominated by drugs, violence, and criminality. In reality, she counters, people are simply driven to these choices because they have so few alternatives. It is a racist conspiracy to argue that the roots of criminality lie in black culture or black people’s choice, particularly when academic research has proven time and time again that poverty and lack of job opportunities are what drive people to drugs and crime. Yet despite the overwhelming scholarly consensus on this matter, politicians, the media, and public opinion still favors the view that drugs and crime are a matter of personal choice and responsibility.

Chapter 5 Quotes

In ghetto communities, nearly everyone is either directly or indirectly subject to the new caste system. The system serves to redefine the terms of the relationship of poor people of color and their communities to mainstream, white society, ensuring their subordinate and marginal status. The criminal and civil sanctions that were once reserved for a tiny minority are now used to control and oppress a racially defined majority in many communities, and the systematic manner in which the control is achieved reflects not just a difference in scale. The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer concerned primarily with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed. Prior drug wars were ancillary to the prevailing caste system. This time the drug war is the system of control.

Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has explained that while “racial minorities have always been overrepresented” in the criminal justice system, in the past there were still few enough people incarcerated in general that this did not have a major overall impact on society. This has all changed, however, with the system of mass incarceration. Here Alexander explains how a system theoretically designed to control and rehabilitate only a small sliver of the overall population has now been instituted on a mass scale, such that millions of people who have personally never committed a crime still find that their lives are being controlled by the system of criminal punishment.

In doing so, she highlights the absurdity of the fact that huge sections of the American population have had their rights and freedoms stripped away entirely. If this had taken place in another country, it is likely that Americans would be the first to denounce it as a massive violation of human rights; as it stands, the majority of the population has remained silent.

Who is more blameworthy: the young black kid who hustles on the street corner, selling weed to help his momma pay the rent? Or the college kid who deals drugs out of his dorm room so that he'll have cash to finance his spring break? Who should we fear? The kid in the ‘hood who joined a gang and now carries a gun for security, because his neighborhood is frightening and unsafe? Or the suburban high school student who has a drinking problem but keeps getting behind the wheel?

Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has critiqued the tendency to create a binary divide between criminals and non-criminals, pointing out that everyone makes mistakes and that almost everyone at some point breaks the law. In this passage, she emphasizes the arbitrary nature of “criminality,” suggesting that who we define as a criminal has much more to do with who a person is—and particularly with the color of their skin—than what they have actually done. While overt racism is generally now seen as unacceptable in America, taking a harsh, unforgiving attitude toward criminals has arguably served as a veil for racist sentiment. Furthermore, Alexander’s words suggest we ought to be taking an even harsher view of those people who commit criminal activity despite having the advantages of white privilege and wealth, rather than those driven to criminality out of desperation.