The New Jim Crow

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Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies 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.
Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Theme Icon

One of the book’s central arguments is that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have simply redesigned it.” By “caste,” Alexander highlights not only the grouping of people into racial categories but also the fact that certain races are “locked into an inferior position by law and custom.” By using the language of racial castes, which refers not only to skin color but also class position, Alexander emphasizes the way in which race and racism are deeply intertwined. Race is not a neutral system of differentiation, but an oppressive and violent hierarchy that deems some people less equal—arguably less “human”—than others. Alexander explains that this ideology allowed Thomas Jefferson to state in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal” even while slavery was still legal, as Jefferson and many other white Americans at the time did not consider African Americans to be people.

Alexander shows how mass incarceration has created a particular racial caste: that of the African-American “criminal.” This idea refers to the way in which poor black people (and, in many cases, wealthy black people as well) are assumed to be guilty of criminal activity even when there is no evidence to indicate that this is the case. The policy of “Stop and Frisk” demonstrates the way in which this racial caste functions; through this policy, police are empowered with the ability to search anyone, even if they have no reason to suspect they are guilty of a crime. Evidence shows that police disproportionately search young Latino and African-American males, suggesting that police associate Latino and African-American men with criminality. This is similar to the way in which cultural stereotypes such as the “welfare queen” and “crack baby” associate poor African Americans with crime. Importantly, individuals do not have to have any personal association with drugs or crime in order to be associated with this “criminal” racial caste. Rather, they are pushed into this caste simply by the color of their skin.

However, the book is not only concerned with the way in which non-criminals are mistaken for criminals because of racism; it also seeks to change the way that criminals themselves are perceived and treated. Alexander argues: “Criminals, it turns out, are the one social group in America we have permission to hate. In ‘colorblind’ America, criminals are the new whipping boys.” Although there is evidence that many people who are either not guilty or barely guilty of serious crimes are incarcerated, it is also true that many incarcerated people have committed serious crimes. However, Alexander argues that this is not a reasonable excuse for the unjust and cruel way in which they are treated. The stigma of crime does not change the fact that criminals are people with human rights, and much of The New Jim Crow is dedicated to exposing the way in which these rights are violated in America.

Alexander also provides convincing evidence of all the ways in which poor African Americans are disproportionately forced to turn to criminality in order to survive. She provides examples of vulnerable individuals—such as single mothers or children in the foster care system—who, because of lack of resources and opportunities, have no option except to turn to crime in order to survive. By framing her argument in the context of the legacy of slavery, Alexander shows how African-American populations are particularly vulnerable to being caught in the criminal justice system through no fault of their own.

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Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies ThemeTracker

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Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies Quotes in The New Jim Crow

Below you will find the important quotes in The New Jim Crow related to the theme of Racial Castes, Stereotypes, and Hierarchies.
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.

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.

Chapter 2 Quotes

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”