Alexander jumps back to the summer of 1853, during which Frederick Douglass and other delegates attended the “National Colored Convention” in order to discuss the condition of African Americans and the problem of anti-black racism. Although Northern Emancipation had taken place, free black people still faced intense prejudice and were at constant risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Alexander argues that the position of freedmen in the 19th century is hardly different to that of felons freed from prison today. As in Douglass’s time, freed criminals face intense stigma, surveillance, and exclusion, and are constantly at risk of being sent back to prison or being harmed or killed by a police officer. Alexander concludes that felons “are the one social group in America we have permission to hate.”
It might at first seem absurd to argue that criminals today have about the same rights as black people in an era when slavery was still legal. However, as Alexander points out, the parallels are too compelling to ignore. In some ways, it is even more disturbing that the cruel, violent treatment of criminals today is built into the law of the nation. After all, if a free Northern black person in 1853 was kidnapped into slavery, he could at least have a glimmer of hope of appealing to the law to save him (however unlikely it was that this would actually work). Today, there is no such hope.
When a defendant is offered a plea deal, they are not told that admitting guilt will rob them of “two of the most fundamental rights in modern democracy”: the right to serve on a jury and the right to vote. Similarly, they are not told about the maze of rules they will be subject to as a convicted felon, nor about the stigma and permanent “second-class” status they will be marked by forever. Defendants are often unaware that, by accepting the plea deal, they will be excluding themselves from welfare, housing, job opportunities, and other basic rights. Although plea deals can initially seem appealing (especially if they involve little to no prison time), this is usually because the true nature of the deal has been hidden. Because courts have chosen not to classify these consequences as part of the “punishment” for criminal behavior, there is no legal requirement for them to inform defendants that they will happen.
The New Jim Crow is filled with examples of legal rules designed to look innocent on the surface, but which actually conceal deeply sinister realities beneath. By simply listing all the consequences of being deemed a felon as not part of the “punishment,” the courts proceed with a massive lack of transparency that has a devastating impact on people’s lives. Even as a highly successful civil rights litigator and advocate for racial justice, it took Alexander ten years to fully come to terms with the realities of mass incarceration. What hope is there for the average person who has no specialized understanding of the law?
Alexander argues that the disproportionate number of African Americans in prison fits into larger cultural messages that black people are “not wanted in mainstream society.” Offenders released from prison must navigate an almost impossible maze of rules and prohibitions in order to survive on the outside. Firstly, they must find a place to sleep—a difficult task when you are now excluded forever from public housing. Being unable to find housing often means people will lose custody of their children, who—as Alexander points out—are thus cruelly punished despite having committed no crime themselves. Although banning “criminals” from living in public housing might sound good in the abstract, in reality it is a highly discriminatory policy that, rather than solving social problems, simply makes them worse.
Here Alexander identifies one of the problems at the heart of the criminal justice system. Policies that sound appealing to the non-criminal population (in other words, the population who can vote) have a catastrophic impact on convicted felons and those around them (such as their children). A person with little experience of prisons might happily vote for the politician who promises them they will never have to live next to a felon. Yet this person has failed to consider what this policy will actually mean for the many families who end up homeless as a result.
Access to public housing is one of the most important factors in ensuring that felons have a chance at remaining “drug- and crime-free” once they are released from prison; yet this fact has done nothing to change the policy of housing discrimination against felons. Similarly, ex-prisoners must find employment to meet the conditions of parole (not to mention in order to survive), yet it is still perfectly legal for private employers to discriminate against those with a criminal record. Once applicants have admitted that they are a felon, it is almost impossible to get an interview—especially considering that many will already have disadvantages to their profile, such as lack of education, a suspended driver’s license, and gaps in work experience. Black offenders face an especially strong stigma in the job application process due to the double impact of racial and criminal discrimination.
The corrupt nature of the criminal justice system becomes most evident when one examines how difficult it is for those who wish to “play by the rules” to do so. Even the “perfect” offender who has the motivation and dedication to becoming a productive member of society will face near-insurmountable barriers at every turn. Again, if the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate criminals and help them to contribute productively to society, it is difficult to understand how the state expects them to do this, given the obstacles that face every offender trying to reintegrate themselves into ordinary life.
Alexander cites examples of grassroots initiatives aiming to combat the requirement that job applicants disclose their criminal history. However, she warns that there is a chance that black men will actually face more discrimination without the criminal record check due to the (often unconscious) association between black men and criminality. Although “flat bans” on hiring felons are in many cases illegal, research has shown that those with a criminal record face significant discrimination in the hiring process anyway. Even the fraction of ex-prisoners who are able to secure a stable, legal income are often crippled by the amount of debt they have incurred simply through being caught up in the criminal justice system. There are a whole host of “fees, costs, and fines” associated with being a felon, and thus many newly employed ex-prisoners must hand their entire paychecks over to the state, leaving nothing left for them to survive.
The problems of the criminal justice system are so deeply intertwined with broader social issues that even well-intentioned attempts to counter its effects—such as efforts to eliminate the criminal record box on job applications—can backfire, leading to further discrimination against black men overall. This point demonstrates the extent to which black people in general have been linked to criminality in the public imagination. Eradicating the system of mass incarceration is thus a matter of urgent racial justice, as mass incarceration negatively impacts all people of color (along with many white people) in the US, not just those who are convicted of crimes.
As a result of these debts, many newly released prisoners end up returning to jail. Even those who do their best to earn a living legally are often taken back to prison anyway. Alexander compares this situation to that of ex-slaves in the aftermath of Emancipation; saddled with “debts” they had no hope of paying, many people were re-enslaved by being thrown into prison or otherwise roped into forced labor. Additionally, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform legislation includes a clause stating that those who have been convicted of drug-related crimes are permanently prohibited from receiving federal welfare, such as food stamps. Although most states have “opted out” of this clause, thousands of people are still denied public assistance because of it.
As with criminality, we are used to thinking of debt as a simple, self-evident moral wrong. Theoretically, people with unpaid debts deserve to be punished. However, the reality is that debt is not so straightforward. Newly released criminals have no choice over whether or not to pay the fines and fees imposed on them by the state. Due to poverty and discrimination, they may well find it impossible to come up with the money to pay through legal means; yet if they are unable to pay, they are sent back to prison. Is this fair?
Alexander points out that in most countries, people with a criminal record are allowed to vote, including while they are serving time in prison. The UN has even stated that America’s disenfranchisement of felons violates international law. In order to have their right to vote restored, felons must navigate a “bureaucratic maze” that often involves costly fees. Alexander cites the case of a Vietnam veteran denied the right to vote due to having served time for $10 worth of marijuana, pointing out the absurdity of the fact that someone who served in the American military is denied the right to participate in democracy. Disenfranchised felons form such a significant voting bloc that, if felons were allowed to vote, American presidential elections (such as George W. Bush’s election in 2000) would have turned out differently. Even felons who are not technically barred from voting are often resistant to the idea due to the fact that it involves interaction with government authorities. This fear recalls the violent tactics used by the KKK in order to dissuade black people from voting in the 20th century.
Alexander’s portrayal of the American political system suggests less a true democracy than a system in which the “right” kinds of citizens are allowed to contribute. While this in itself is problematic enough, considering it violates the very meaning of democracy, what is arguably even more disturbing is how closely the idea of the “right” kind of citizen is tied to race. Voter disenfranchisement among the non-criminal population has been proven to take place along racial lines. But whereas this is technically illegal, denying the right to vote of the prison population, which disproportionately consists of people of color, is protected by law. Yet while felons are denied the right to vote, how will there be any hope of this law changing?
Alexander admits that it is difficult for Americans who are outside the criminal justice system to even imagine what it would be like to be legally discriminated against in almost every aspect of their lives. She also emphasizes that rather than affecting criminals alone, the stigma of criminality impacts whole groups of people who have never seen the inside of a jail—particularly young black men. This stigma is so intense that it can be difficult to overcome. She quotes one African-American man who describes his felony conviction as “a mental punishment,” and a black minister who claims that “‘felony’ is the new N-word.” Yet the emotional pain and shame this stigma causes often goes unrecognized, due to the prejudice and apathy with which black people are so often viewed in America.
The minister’s statement that “‘felony’ is the new N-word” emphasizes the public association between blackness and criminality, while also suggesting that disdain for felons demonstrates a lack of conscientiousness and sympathy. As Alexander emphasizes elsewhere in the book, everyone makes mistakes—and, more specifically, everyone breaks the law, even if only in a minor way. The shame attached to black felons is thus more often created less by what they’ve done than who they are—people who have never been treated as truly welcome in American society.
Studies show that, despite making criminality far more pervasive, mass incarceration has also increased the stigma associated with having a criminal conviction. This shame in turn isolates and divides people affected by incarceration, as they are likely to keep their experiences hidden from friends, family, and neighbors. People who might otherwise find comfort and strength in communities such as their church deny themselves this opportunity on account of their shame. Alexander compares lying about the status of incarcerated family members to the Jim Crow phenomenon of light-skinned black people cutting off darker relatives in order to “pass” as white. Shame over incarceration can contribute to the self-hatred instilled in people of color through living in a racist society. This in turn contributes to a “repression of public thought” and community.
As Alexander shows, shame can cause people to act in a way that is ultimately destructive to their loved ones, their communities, and themselves. Although this behavior cannot directly be blamed on the government, it is nonetheless obvious that the state’s policy of mass incarceration sets off a cruel and harmful cycle within which society’s most vulnerable communities find themselves trapped. While it is possible for grassroots organization to tackle some of the stigma of incarceration, ultimately these efforts will be limited by the sense of shame imposed by society at large.
Alexander argues that poor people of color simply want to live safe, healthy, productive lives, and that the idea that they seek out or are indifferent to criminality is a racist myth. Sometimes people will point to “gangsta rap” culture as evidence that criminality and violence are glorified within black communities. However, Alexander responds that it is a normal coping strategy for people to respond to stigmatization by “embracing their stigma,” much as LGBT people have done in the form of Pride parades. She concedes that there is a difference between embracing gay sexuality and embracing criminality, because the latter is doomed to be self-destructive. Nonetheless, it is hard to see what else young black men are supposed to do when all other options available to them are shut down.
Alexander is not trying to argue that gangsta rap culture is beyond critique or that it doesn’t have some harmful effects. Rather, she is rejecting the (highly common) argument that gangsta rap is the root source of criminality within black culture, and hence the cause of mass incarceration. As her history of the American criminal justice system shows, black people have been criminalized for centuries before gangsta rap culture even existed. Mass incarceration would thus continue to exist even if a massive cultural shift took place within poor black communities.
Alexander argues that the “commodification of gangsta culture” and adoption of “black attitudes, cultures, and mores” in popular culture are the equivalent of modern-day minstrel shows, which—like the minstrel shows of the past—are designed to entertain white people while further stigmatizing African Americans. She imagines that in the future, historians will look back at gangsta rap with the same puzzled curiosity with which contemporary historians view black people who participated in and attended minstrel shows. On the other hand, not all hip hop artists fill their music with negative stereotypes about black culture. Alexander argues that the origins of rap lie in “the struggle for a positive identity among outcasts.”
The question of whether gangsta rap is an empowering or degrading genre is contentious, often dividing people along generational lines. While Alexander is sympathetic to the reasons why rap is filled with imagery of criminality and violence, she cannot help but see parallels between this music and the minstrel shows of the past. Others criticize this view, suggesting that rap and minstrelsy have little in common and that hip hop can be a source of strength, rebellion, and power for young black people.
Alexander speculates that when mass incarceration “collapses,” historians will find it baffling that “such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States.” It will seem obvious to these scholars that the War on Drugs was merely a pretense used in order to repress and control people of color. Alexander notes that it is remarkable how many people manage to survive at all after time spent in prison, considering the obstacles mounted against them. The people struggling against those obstacles are “heroes” whose experiences are not only unacknowledged, but are even stigmatized within broader society. Alexander argues that if we truly want to aim for liberation, instead of shaming those caught up in the criminal justice system, we should “embrace” them.
While Alexander is generally not particularly optimistic about the possibility of progress, she is confident that mass incarceration will eventually collapse. This belief is less founded on hope for positive change than by the precedent set by previous systems of racialized social control, including slavery and (the first) Jim Crow. As her book warns, though, there is a strong possibility that when mass incarceration ends, another racist system of control will emerge in its place. It is only by understanding the system of control that currently exists that there can be hope of ending the cycle forever.