It has long been acknowledged that the abolition of slavery in the United States did not actually make all African Americans free—let alone equal—and that it is thus “regrettable but predictable” that Jim Crow arose in slavery’s place. On the other hand, people tend to be highly resistant to the idea that a racial caste system exists in the present era, especially considering the success of famous African Americans such as Obama and Oprah Winfrey. However, American history proves that racism is “adaptable” and takes many forms depending on the social and political climate of a given era.
Here Alexander contradicts several key myths about American history. In many cases, Americans are taught to believe that the Emancipation Proclamation did make all African Americans free. However, scholars of American history point out that the official, legal freedom of black people was undermined by extreme poverty, slavery-like labor, the racially biased criminal justice system, and lynching and other racist violence.
Black people have been placed under systems of control ever since they were brought to the United States, but these systems of control have not always looked the same. Some people argue that each racial caste system is slightly better, less all-encompassing, and more livable than the one that came before it, but Alexander is not sure this is the case. Rather, she argues that “as the systems of control have developed, they have become perfected,” growing more and more difficult to oppose.
One of the biggest debates among scholars of American history is over whether or not there has been a substantial amount of progress in racial equality over time (even though all agree there is still a long way to go). Although it is commonly thought that life is much better for Americans of color now than it was in the past, Alexander questions if this is true.
Alexander argues that the “concept of race” has not been around longer than a few centuries, and that in America race was used to make sense of the fact that white settlers founded the country on the idea of freedom while simultaneously murdering and enslaving indigenous and African Americans. Black people were used as a source of cheap labor, and were placed at the bottom of the racial caste system. Plantation owners increased the transportation of large numbers of people directly from Africa, believing they would be less likely to revolt. In addition, they instituted a “racial bribe,” giving advantages to poor whites in order to dissuade them from forging alliances with African-American slaves.
In ordinary conversation, it is not common to talk about race as an invented concept with a specific (and rather short) history. However, Alexander’s discussion of race in terms of caste helps illuminate the extent to which “race” is not simply a fact but rather a historical, flexible, and ever-changing concept. Early in American history, the poorest white people were nearly as low as African Americans in the hierarchy of racial caste. It was only fears about revolt that led to a consolidated “white privilege” across income levels.
Thanks to pressure from the Southern states to uphold slavery, the Constitution was designed to ensure a weak federal government that wouldn’t take power away from the states or interfere with property rights. The electoral college was also designed “with the interest of slaveholders in mind,” and the Constitution stated that an enslaved individual only counted as 3/5 of a person. By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, the racial caste system created by slavery was so deeply embedded within American society that even the end of slavery could not undo it. White supremacy was by this time “a kind of religion,” allowing whites to claim that all people in America were equal while simultaneously supporting racial inequality and violence.
In this passage, Alexander shows that racism is not only built into the American legal system as it currently exists, but is a key component of the founding document of the laws of the nation: the Constitution. This supports Alexander’s argument that piecemeal reform will not be enough to end racism in the criminal justice system, as racism is built into the system in a fundamental way. Rather than being an unfortunate by-product of American history, racism is at the heart of the history and culture of the country.
The end of the Civil War—and with it, slavery– constituted a crisis for white Southern society. Both rich and poor whites were enraged by the abolition of slavery and the Southern economy was left in chaos. The law and customs of the region were similarly in turmoil; it was unclear what rules would be left in the vacuum created by the abolition of slavery. The “black codes”—racist laws that foreshadowed Jim Crow— emerged into this vacuum, creating a climate in which black people were policed, terrorized, and forced to work in a way hardly dissimilar to the slavery era.
The abolition of slavery is often treated as a triumphant moment in American history, during which the country finally reached a turning point in its moral conscience and resolved to end the horrors of slavery forever. The reality, however, was that most Southern whites were desperate to find ways to keep profiting from the free labor of former slaves and ensure that the black population continued to be violently oppressed.
The black codes were abolished during Reconstruction, a period in which—despite being characterized by chaos and corruption—it seemed possible that the American racial caste system would be dismantled. For the first time in American history, all African-American men had basic civil rights, even if in many cases these rights were “largely symbolic.” One of the most important omissions of the Fifteenth Amendment, however, was the lack of prohibition on using literacy tests, taxes, and other ploys to rob black people of their right to vote. Intense violence prevented many African Americans from exercising the civil rights they had been given. Meanwhile, increasing segregation paved the way for Jim Crow to take effect.
As this passage shows, even moments of apparent progress laid the groundwork for later racial discrimination and terror. While this appears to be a paradox if we believe that America has become gradually more racially progressive over time, Alexander emphasizes that many white people were determined to oppose racial equality at every step. Thus even hopeful periods such as Reconstruction faced a backlash so intense that the same system of racial control that began during slavery remained in place, even as specific laws and customs changed.
Reconstruction did not last long before a “swift and severe” backlash swept over the South. The Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups systematically terrorized black people while the federal government did little to intervene or ensure that the new civil rights laws were actually being carried out. Tens of thousands of black people were arrested for crimes such as minor debt (and quite frequently for no reason at all); once they were made convicts, these people were then considered “the slaves of the state”—and treated as such. Some states even established conflict labor farms. Southern whites were thus able to reestablish a system of control that placed them at the top of the racial caste hierarchy.
Although the era immediately following Reconstruction was defined by chaos and confusion, in hindsight it is clear that Southern whites were doing everything they could to institute a new system of racial hierarchy that would keep African Americans too impoverished and terrorized to access power and advantages within society. While in some ways this was achieved through haphazard means (such as spontaneous acts of racist violence), it was also systematically instituted through the prison system.
Alexander outlines three theories of American race relations that deviated from the “extreme racism” of white Southerners who longed for the age of slavery: liberalism, conservatism, and radicalism. Liberalism criticized the government for not fulfilling the promise of freedom and equality for all, and was unpopular in the South. Conservatism, on the other hand, appealed to Southerners who believed that liberals were pushing the agenda of racial progress too hastily, and that this would lead to backlash and chaos. Radicalism focused its critique on the corporations and wealthy elite who deliberately created a wedge between working-class white and black people, and was an appealing ideology to many African Americans. Radical Populists advocated integration and interracial solidarity, striving to overcome the enormous prejudice of many poor Southern whites. However, eventually the Populists came to believe that working alongside black people would forever inhibit their chances of gaining political power, and abandoned their racial solidarity.
The three theories of race relations outlined in this passage highlight the extent to which racism defined Southern politics. Even the most progressive platform—that of the Populists—ultimately sacrificed black people on the grounds that fighting racial equality would automatically inhibit political success. This turn of events demonstrates the sustained success of the slaveholders’ policy of “racial bribes.” By this time, even radicals had given up hope that white workers in the South could be mobilized to work alongside black people in order to pursue common interests. What is particularly remarkable about this passage is the similarity between conversations about racial interests and political viability in the 19th century and the present day.
Ultimately, conservatives won the day and instituted a new, stable, “permanent” policy of segregation and racial control: Jim Crow. Of course, this system did not turn out to be permanent at all, and by 1945 it was becoming clear that Jim Crow would not survive. The Great Migration, NAACP, World War Two, and Supreme Court rulings against segregation created momentum for racial progress, which—like Reconstruction—was met with a violent backlash. And although the positive impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 was “undeniable,” it was clear that without similar pushes for economic justice, most black people would remain trapped in the cycle of poverty. Martin Luther King, Jr. was particularly adamant that genuine racial equality would require a “radical restructuring of society” involving the redistribution of political and economic power to the “ignored underclass.”
It might seem strange that Alexander describes the rise of Jim Crow before immediately jumping to its demise over the course of the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century. However, this decision highlights the fact that—rather than being a unique system of racialized social control—Jim Crow was in fact only one loop in the cycle of racist control systems that began with slavery. Although Jim Crow uniquely fit the demands of its era, it was not a unique system. Without the substantial change advocated by Martin Luther King and other activists, the end of Jim Crow simply paved the way for a new system to take its place.
The end of Jim Crow created a stigma to calling for segregation, and thus segregationists began advocating “law and order” instead, arguing that civil rights activism and even integration itself caused crime. However, this stance was not limited to whites and conservatives; some black leaders also condoned increased policing and harsh prison sentences. This helped legitimize conservative support for “tough on crime” policies, thereby creating a climate in which mass incarceration could flourish. Alexander explains that law and order rhetoric produced a major shift in the broader American political scheme by uniting anti-black voters behind a subliminally—rather than explicitly—racist platform. Meanwhile, Republicans (correctly) believed that simply the association between black people and the Democratic party would increase Republican power via a consolidated white racist voting base.
Many people argue that the relative lack of explicitly racist rhetoric in the present is an indication that racism is no longer a powerful force in society. However, in this passage Alexander shows that this lack of explicit racism in fact helps to fuel a racist agenda. While this may initially seem counterintuitive, it makes sense when viewed in the context of the cycle of racial social control that Alexander has described. As both anti-slavery activism and the civil rights movement demonstrate, there has always been some level of opposition to explicit racism in the US. On the other hand, people are far less likely to oppose systems governed by implicit, “secret” racism.
The late 1960s and 70s were defined by two theories of race relations. Conservatives argued that poverty was caused by (black) culture, which supposedly led people into cycles of unemployment, drug use, and crime; liberals maintained faith that state social programs such as the War on Poverty could successfully solve racial inequality. Between the 1960s and the election of 1980, a “conservative revolution” took place within the Republican party; the “war on drugs” originally proposed by Nixon later became a centerpiece of Reagan’s campaign and presidency. Reagan drastically expanded federal law enforcement agencies with astonishing speed at the same time as structural changes to the economy took a particularly harsh toll on urban black communities, leaving “African Americans trapped in ghettoes.” In communities suffering from a major lack of legal job opportunities, the use of crack cocaine blossomed.
At this point in the chapter, it is increasingly clear that although the extreme social control of African Americans was not deliberately planned and executed by any single force, in some ways it might as well have been. A range of factors including backlash to civil rights legislation, white fears about black activism and culture, economic inequality, segregation, and a rightward, “tough on crime” turn in the Republican party all conspired to create an environment in which mass incarceration seems practically destined to have arisen.
Alexander stresses that crack had an apocalyptic effect on black communities, and that her critique of the War on Drugs does not intend to belittle this devastation. However, she emphasizes that where other countries confronted similar crises by legalizing drugs and increasing funding for treatment programs, American conservatives utilized the crack epidemic as an excuse to wage war on black people. Reagan’s administration deliberately fueled public hysteria over crack, encouraging the association between the drug and black culture. Important to this move was the distinction between crack and powder cocaine; although there is little substantial difference between the substances, punishment for the possession and sale of crack—disproportionately linked to poor black communities—is far harsher than for powder cocaine, which tends to be associated with wealthy whites.
Mass incarceration is often framed as an inevitable—if regrettable—phenomenon that was nonetheless the only responsible reaction to the crack epidemic. In this passage, Alexander shows that even though crack represented a very real problem, mass incarceration was far from the only possible response. Instead of aiding vulnerable communities that had already been devastated by the impact of crack by providing legal job opportunities and addiction treatment, the government rubbed salt in the existing wound by adding police brutality and mass incarceration to communities that were already in chaos.
Although a few lone voices suggested that crack was being used as a “scapegoat” for all of society’s problems, overall the anti-drug legislation of the 1980s met little opposition as it was being passed. As a result, harsh punishments for even the most minor drug charges continued to escalate. Mandatory minimum sentences of five years became common even for first-time offenders. The War on Drugs achieved enormous public support, and President George Bush, Sr. picked up where his predecessor, Reagan, left off. The public continued to panic about a drug crisis that was mostly the product of media sensationalism, and even progressives were hesitant to criticize anti-drug policies.
Alexander’s history of this period highlights the extent to which politicians and the media conspired to create an impression of society that was patently untrue. Rather than earnestly attempting to solve the nation’s problems—particularly those afflicting the most vulnerable members of society—journalists and politicians stoked fear, misinformation, and prejudice. The effects of all this myth-making were devastatingly real; the success of anti-drug rhetoric imprisoned thousands who would otherwise be free.
Criticism of mass incarceration gained momentum in the 1990s. In 1991 an organization called the Sentencing Project reported that a quarter of young black men were “under the control of the criminal justice system.” On the other hand, both Republicans and Democrats—including newly-elected President Bill Clinton—continued to advocate a “tough on crime” approach. Clinton helped to pass the federal “three strikes and you’re out” law, thereby increasing the prison population at an unprecedented rate. Not only that, he adopted the same “tough” approach to social services, significantly cutting welfare while increasing the total spending of the federal government and banning anyone with a criminal record from accessing benefits such as public housing. 90% of those incarcerated on the new drug charges were black or Latino; “the New Jim Crow was born.”
In hindsight, it can be difficult to understand how little opposition there was to a system that imprisoned and effectively enslaved a huge proportion of the African-American population (along with huge numbers of Latinos). As Alexander demonstrates, however, part of the masterfulness of the New Jim Crow was the skill with which mass incarceration was presented as a bipartisan, uncontroversial, common sense initiative. Any opponent of mass incarceration would find themselves (supposedly) supporting drugs and crime—a death sentence for any political career.