The New Jim Crow

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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.
The Illusion of Progress Theme Icon

Throughout the book, Alexander argues against the commonly-held view that there has been significant progress in racial equality since the Jim Crow era. She particularly focuses on the significance of Barack Obama’s presidency, which many people take as evidence that America has entered a “post-racial” era in which racism is no longer a powerful barrier to people of color achieving success. However, Alexander argues that there is “no inconsistency” between the election of Obama and the continuation of a racial caste system in the form of a “new Jim Crow.” This is because Obama represents a different racial caste from the African Americans incarcerated in prison. Moreover, Obama’s status as an “exceptional” black person in fact helps to maintain the racist systems of anti-black police brutality and mass incarceration by disguising the fact that racism is still a powerful force in everyday American life. Only by exposing the illusion of the “post-racial” era will there ever be hope of the racial caste system being eliminated.

Alexander is also critical of the extent to which Obama himself is complicit in the post-racial narrative of the contemporary moment. She notes that Obama has repeated the same rhetoric used by white conservatives blaming African-American communities for the problems they face without acknowledging the roots of these problems in the legacy of slavery, economic deprivation, and Jim Crow.

Further, Alexander criticizes the way in which civil rights leaders and organizations have neglected the issue of mass incarceration. She argues that even as these leaders work diligently in order to avoid reversing the “progress” that has been made since the Civil Rights Act was passed, many ignore or underplay the problems within the criminal justice system.

Alexander compares the current illusion of progress to other moments in American history, such as the period that followed the Emancipation Proclamation. Although the abolition of slavery theoretically freed African Americans who had previously been held captive, for many freed slaves the years following Emancipation were not substantially different from the experience of slavery. Economic oppression, violent terror such as lynching, and the “legalized discrimination” of Jim Crow meant that black people were still living under a regime of terror and suppression that meant they were never able to experience freedom at all. Alexander argues that African Americans have remained oppressed by cyclical systems of control that seem to die, but are in fact always revived in a new form. Mass incarceration is thus not only “the new Jim Crow,” but arguably in some senses the new slavery as well.

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The Illusion of Progress ThemeTracker

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The Illusion of Progress Quotes in The New Jim Crow

Below you will find the important quotes in The New Jim Crow related to the theme of The Illusion of Progress.
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.

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.

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.

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.”