The New Jim Crow

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Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy 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.
Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Theme Icon

In the introduction to the book, Alexander admits that when she first encountered the argument that mass incarceration was a continuation of slavery and Jim Crow, it sounded like a conspiracy theory that would hinder rather than help the fight for racial justice. However, in the ten years following that first encounter, her opinion shifted drastically. The book shows that the phenomenon of mass incarceration is indeed something of a white supremacist conspiracy. The myths upon which this conspiracy is based are so deeply entrenched in society that even Alexander herself—an African-American lawyer and civil rights advocate dedicated to advancing racial justice—spent much of her career believing they were legitimate.

There are countless examples of myths and lies that comprise the conspiracy of mass incarceration. The use of race-neutral rhetoric to discuss the criminal justice system is dangerously dishonest considering the extent to which mass incarceration disproportionately affects black and Latino communities. Furthermore, language such as “law and order” is used to disguise mass incarceration as a positive and necessary social policy, rather than a brutal means of oppressing and controlling black people. Alexander argues that the claim that the Civil Rights Movement was supposedly a threat to “law and order” proves that law and order was in fact a kind of code for white supremacy. Meanwhile, another myth holds that crime is fostered by black culture, rather than poverty, lack of opportunities, and social alienation. Although this myth has existed since black people were first brought to America, it took off in the 1970s in a way that laid foundations for the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs in turn misconstrued facts about the problems of drugs and crime, exaggerating the threat they posed and disproportionately blaming them on African-American communities. Furthermore, Reagan’s government deliberately utilized propaganda in order to perpetuate these myths and increase support for the “tough” approach to drugs and crime.

In many ways, The New Jim Crow functions as a kind of antidote to the myth, dishonesty, and conspiracy on which mass incarceration is based. Whereas the myths Alexander cites have their basis in prejudice rather than reality, Alexander herself uses a range of scholarly methods—including archival evidence, statistical analysis, and anecdotes—in order to prove her points. The amount of evidence contained within the book hints at the difficulty of undoing the myths that prop up the system of mass incarceration. Even as Alexander provides overwhelming evidence of the injustice present within contemporary American society, the myths and dishonesty that produce this injustice may well endure as the more powerful force.

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Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy ThemeTracker

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Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy Quotes in The New Jim Crow

Below you will find the important quotes in The New Jim Crow related to the theme of Myth, Dishonesty, and Conspiracy.
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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For me, the new caste system is now as obvious as my own face in the mirror. Like an optical illusion––one in which the embedded image is impossible to see until its outline is identified––the new caste system lurks invisibly within the maze of rationalizations we have developed for persistent racial inequality. It is possible––quite easy, in fact––never to see the embedded reality. Only after years of working on criminal justice reform did my own focus finally shift, and then the rigid caste system slowly came into view. Eventually it became obvious. Now it seems odd that I could not see it before.

Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has noted that earlier in her career, she was suspicious of the claim made my some activists that the War on Drugs was a kind of “new Jim Crow,” a deliberate way of oppressing African Americans and other people of color. However, during her time working as the director of the Racial Justice Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, her opinion changed. In this passage, she explains that although the brutal reality of mass incarceration now seems “obvious,” she understands how other people remain ignorant of it—particularly those who do not work in law or racial justice advocacy professionally.

The “maze of rationalizations” to which Alexander refers describes the officially “race-neutral” policies that constitute the system of mass incarceration, along with the insistence that American society is no longer racist but in fact “colorblind.” While it might be tempting to believe the promise of these rationalizations, doing so inhibits any chance of achieving real justice.

Chapter 1 Quotes

The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world's people been classified along racial lines. Here, in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery––as well as the extermination of American Indians––with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the new colonies.

Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has argued that ever since the first settlers arrived in America, the country has been defined by successive systems of racialized social control. The first of these systems was slavery, followed by Jim Crow, followed by mass incarceration. She begins the next section of the chapter by arguing that “the concept of race,” rather than being a natural, obvious fact, is in fact a relatively recent invention. This contradicts commonly-held views of race that see it as being entirely related to ethnic origin or skin color.

As Alexander shows, however, the idea of race is in fact more like a tool which is used to place people into categories. During slavery, the ethnic origins of slaves were mixed up and deliberately “forgotten.” Systematic rape of enslaved women by white men meant that some slaves were in fact very light-skinned, with enough white heritage to have entirely European features such as blond hair and blue eyes. Race was thus less a descriptive system of people’s ethnicity or features and more an organization system used to judge who “counted” as a full person entitled to rights and freedoms.

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

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 3 Quotes

It is the genius of the new system of control that it can always be defended on nonracial grounds, given the rarity of a noose or a racial slur in connection with any particular criminal case. Moreover, because blacks and whites are almost never similarly situated (given extreme racial segregation in housing and disparate life experiences), trying to “control for race” in an effort to evaluate whether the mass incarceration of people of color is really about race or something else––anything else––is difficult.

Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has noted that many people are skeptical of the notion that the War on Drugs could racially discriminate on the scale that she describes. She adds that people are often keen to find a nonracial explanation for the phenomenon of mass incarceration even after they are confronted with statistics revealing the disproportionate amount of people of color caught up in the prison system.

However, in this passage she clarifies that this is precisely what is so “genius” about mass incarceration; on the surface it appears entirely race-neutral, and thus anyone wishing to explain that it is not in fact racist will be able to do so with ease. Meanwhile, those who—like Alexander herself—seek to provide evidence of the racial injustice that is rife within the system find themselves confronted with a structure that has been skillfully designed to avoid all accusations of racial discrimination.

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.

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

The clock has been turned back on racial progress in America, though scarcely anyone seems to notice. All eyes are fixed on people like Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, who have defied the odds and risen to power, fame, and fortune.

Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has argued that racial justice in the United States is in a dire state, but that people have hardly noticed due to sustained media attention on black “success stories.” Famous and successful black people make it seem as if racism is a thing of the past, when in fact they are simply masking growing inequity, discrimination, and racist violence. Alexander’s words also suggest that to a certain extent, figures like Obama and Winfrey are complicit in this spectacular distraction. After all, if they used their positions in order to continuously amplify the voices of those who have been left worse off, then the American public might not be so ignorant of the plight of the most marginalized members of society.

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.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Colorblindness, though widely touted as the solution, is actually the problem... colorblindness has proved catastrophic for African Americans.

Page Number: 240
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexander has criticized the reluctance of many Americans to discuss race openly, mentioning research that has shown that discussing race makes some white people so uncomfortable that they choose not to have friends of color in order to avoid it. She argues that while we have been taught that not mentioning race is a sign or tool of racial justice, in fact it is the opposite. Without an honest conversation about race, injustice has flourished. African Americans who attempt to describe the prejudice and discrimination they encounter are accused of obsessing over race simply because they dare to mention it. According to Alexander, America is still governed by a racial caste system that remains in place because nobody will discuss the fact that it is there. In order to achieve racial justice, then, people must admit that they are not in fact “colorblind.”