Alexander describes a Father’s Day in 2008 when then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama gave a speech at a church in Chicago urging black men to “be better fathers.” Although this message has been advocated by several other famous black men, the mainstream media treated the speech as an astonishing event. Social research has shown that the idea that black men disproportionately “abandon” their families is false. However, criticisms of Obama’s speech generally failed to mention the fact that the stereotype of the absent black father is created by a very real phenomenon: mass incarceration. The question, “where have all the black men gone?” is asked frequently in contexts ranging from political debate to the pages of Ebony magazine, but few people ever provide the true answer, which is that they have gone to prison.
Here Alexander frames mass incarceration as a nationwide secret, which everyone from politicians to journalists to ordinary people refuse to acknowledge. Even as people bring up the fact that a noticeable proportion of the black male population of the country is conspicuously missing, people are still too embarrassed or misinformed to admit that this is because these men are in prison. Of course, tackling mass incarceration is difficult when most people fail to even recognize that it is a problem. The problem is exacerbated by myths that blame black men themselves for “abandoning” their families and communities.
Alexander points out that more African Americans are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850. Yet most people do not notice this regression in racial equality because their attention is focused on exceptional black celebrities. Meanwhile, the media has helped to create mass public support for the War on Drugs through sensationalism and (racialized) stereotypes. Nowadays mass incarceration is such a normal part of the American political system that such propaganda isn’t even necessary. Alexander also considers people’s ability to deny phenomena taking place right before their eyes, which she claims involves a careful mix of “knowing and not knowing” at the same time. Although people might know that a disturbingly large percentage of black and Latino populations are incarcerated, it’s easy to persuade ourselves that this is justified, or—because incarcerated people are by nature hidden from view—simply put it out of our minds.
Up until this point, the book has not confronted the reader directly about their complicity in mass incarceration. Here, however, Alexander suggests that in years to come, people will wonder why those living during our era simply let mass incarceration take place without intervening (or, in many cases, while continuing to vote for politicians who institute “tough on crime” policies). Although the average person can hardly dismantle mass incarceration overnight, Alexander suggests that we all have a responsibility to do our part to end this system. After all, without public support mass incarceration could not have become institutionalized in the first place.
In the 20th century, many otherwise compassionate white people chose to vote for Jim Crow, thereby lending their support to a racist structure of power much like the one that exists in the form of mass incarceration today. Because of this structure, racism can now operate without the conscious actions of individual racists. Alexander compares mass incarceration to “a birdcage with a locked door” in order to emphasize that it consists of multiple different structures that (both literally and metaphorically) imprison a portion of the population as the “underclass.” Each wire of the cage individually can be reasoned away, but it is only when we step back from this “maze of rationalizations” that it becomes obvious how the system truly functions.
“The New Jim Crow” is filled with statistical examples, legal cases, and personal anecdotes that serve to support Alexander’s overall arguments about mass incarceration. However, none of these pieces of evidence could convince anyone of the racist injustice of mass incarceration on its own; rather, they need to be examined together. The more details are added, the more horrifying the picture becomes. Yet for those who wish to deny that mass incarceration is unjust, it is all too easy to choose not to see the forest for the trees.
Alexander reviews the three stages of criminal punishment outlined in Chapter Two. The first stage involves an interaction with the racially-biased police system. The second is the conviction stage, during which defendants are pressured to plead guilty and are often given excessively long sentences due to mandatory minimum laws. The final stage can be thought of as “invisible punishment,” when a prisoner reenters society under the label of “felon” and encounters a whole host of restrictions, sanctions, and discrimination as a result. The prisoner is now part of society’s “undercaste” and will remain so for the rest of his life.
Alexander reminds the reader of the very different—yet equally harmful—stages of the incarceration process in order to emphasize how expansively cruel the system of mass incarceration is designed to be. Even if someone has a relatively better experience at one stage—perhaps by encountering a compassionate police officer or receiving a relatively light sentence—their luck is almost guaranteed to run out at the other stages.
Some people argue that although the brutality and racism of the criminal justice system is abhorrent, it is “nothing new,” and Alexander concedes that there is some validity to this point. As she herself has argued, many of the worst aspects of mass incarceration have their origins in slavery, chain gangs, racist trials, and Jim Crow. The key difference, however, is just how pervasive mass incarceration truly is. Rather than being part of a structure of racialized social control, mass incarceration is the structure. Alexander argues that another striking thing about mass incarceration is how closely it resembles the racist system of control that preceded it: (the original) Jim Crow. While she has outlined many of the similarities already, she proceeds to explicitly identify more now.
Alexander’s argument about the uniqueness of mass incarceration can be difficult to fully grasp, because she argues that mass incarceration is both new and not new at the same time. On the one hand, mass incarceration is a type of systematic racialized social control that can be grouped in the same category as slavery and Jim Crow. On the other hand, the current state of mass incarceration must be distinguished as unique within the history of incarceration in general, and viewed through the specific context of the War on Drugs.
Both Jim Crow and mass incarceration were deliberately created to redirect working-class white people’s anger away from legitimate economic issues and toward the scapegoat of African Americans. Similarly, both systems operate through an elaborate system of legalized discrimination that creates “a parallel social universe.” At the centre of this discrimination is political disenfranchisement, which both systems depend on to survive. Related to this is the deliberate exclusion of black people from juries, along with Supreme Court rulings that prevent challenges to the racial bias of the legal system. Both systems also rely heavily on—and work to reinforce—racial segregation, further increasing this sense of two parallel universes and pushing the most marginalized communities deeper into poverty.
Although Alexander has spent most of the book implicitly comparing mass incarceration to Jim Crow, it is only at this point that many readers will be struck by just how similar the two systems are. Of course, it might be that some readers identify a key difference between the populations Alexander is comparing. Even if we acknowledge that there are a disproportionate amount of people of color in the prison population, is it fair to argue that taking away the rights of black people is the same as taking them away from criminals? By this point in the book, Alexander suggests that yes—both are equally unjust.
Alexander then moves on to a connection between Jim Crow and mass incarceration that she has not yet described in detail: the “symbolic production of race.” This phrase refers to the way that both Jim Crow and mass incarceration “produce” the racial caste that they then criminalize, control, and oppress. Alexander emphasizes that although the word “criminal” is theoretically race-neutral, mass incarceration has made criminality a racialized idea. Black men are associated with criminality whether or not they have committed a crime. This did not happen “organically,” but was a deliberate component of the War on Drugs. Thus even African-American children are linked to the stereotype of criminality; meanwhile, non-black criminals are symbolically “made black” by doing time in prison.
Alexander’s description of the symbolic production of race may seem confusingly abstract and thus not tied to the real, physical way in which mass incarceration functions. However, the concept that she frames in theoretical terms here is in fact quite simple. By generating propaganda that created the stereotype of the black criminal, the government essentially gave itself an excuse to start incarcerating black people en masse. Furthermore, because this stereotype was so aggressively impressed upon the public, most people supported the policy of mass incarceration.
At the same time, Alexander is keen not to overstate the similarity between mass incarceration and Jim Crow. It is very important, for example, that the War on Drugs and mass incarceration are officially framed as race-neutral. The lack of explicit racism has “turned the black community against itself.” Whereas black people across different classes, education levels, and geographic regions joined together to fight against the explicitly racist policies of Jim Crow, this has not taken place in the case of mass incarceration. Similarly, the War on Drugs (mostly) contains a lack of “overt racial hostility.” Whereas overt racism was integral to Jim Crow, from the 1980s onward the general public generally disfavored explicit racist sentiment, and thus the drug war had to hide its racism in order to survive.
Those who argue that mass incarceration is totally unlike Jim Crow often point to the lack of overt racism in today’s world as evidence that mass incarceration is a lot more just and less racist than Jim Crow. However, in this passage Alexander reverses this kind of thinking by suggesting that, paradoxically, the lack of explicit racism in some ways makes mass incarceration worse. Without an obviously racist message to oppose, African Americans have not united to fight mass incarceration in the same way that they did Jim Crow.
Alexander identifies another important difference: the fact that, while most whites did not suffer from Jim Crow, mass incarceration has had a direct, terrible impact on many white people. This does not mean white people are the intended targets of the War on Drugs; rather, they are “collateral damage.” Although the drug war has affected white people, if it had done so on the same scale that African Americans are currently being locked up it would cause national outrage. In order to emphasize this point, Alexander compares drug offenses to another (even more) dangerous social problem that arose to prominence in the 1980s: drunk driving. At the time, public pressure led to the institutionalization of mandatory minimum sentences for drunk driving—yet where for drugs these are in the region of 3-5 years, for drunk driving they tend to be 2-10 days. Alexander argues that this is because 78% of those arrested for drunk driving are white men.
The role of white people caught up in the War on Drugs can be confusing. Throughout the book, Alexander scarcely mentions the white people who are sent to prison on drug charges. This may seem odd, as a large number of white people are currently being held in prison on drug crimes. However, as she makes clear in this passage, this was never the aim of the drug war. If mass incarceration locked up only people of color, it would look far too suspicious; instead, black and Latino people are incarcerated at exceedingly high rates, with some whites thrown in too. It could also be argued that the poorest whites do occupy a lower racial caste than their wealthier equivalents.
Another difference between Jim Crow and mass incarceration is that where no reasonable African American supported Jim Crow, it is often claimed that many black people support “tough on crime” policies. Alexander suggests that these claims are often somewhat unfounded, and do not take into account the fact that African Americans would much prefer spending on resources such as education, health, and employment for their communities. Furthermore, even where some black people may indeed support “tough on crime” approaches, this rarely applies to drugs. Most poor African Americans understand that turning to the drug trade is usually the last resort of those who have no other employment opportunities.
Alexander suggests that the average black person’s understanding of the problems of drugs, crime, and social welfare tend to fit more closely with the findings of researchers than the words of politicians or the media. This is simply because those living within black communities understand their social world better than those who receive their information from popular culture, sensationalist journalism, and inflammatory political rhetoric.
At the same time, there does exist an ongoing debate within African-American communities over the root causes of mass incarceration and whether black people themselves are at all to blame. Alexander points out that although black people can hardly be said to have “benefited” from Jim Crow, those who played by the rules were made marginally more safe by the system; some African Americans today distance themselves from criminals for the same reason. This is part of the broader phenomenon of “the politics of respectability,” which involves the elite sacrificing the rights of the poor and “undesirable” classes for their own advantage. In the past (such as during the development of the New Deal), the political class of African Americans has deliberately diverted resources away from the poorest black communities and toward more “respectable” recipients. Alexander argues that it is thus unsurprising that some black leaders today have also imitated “tough on crime” rhetoric.
As Alexander’s exploration shows, part of the success of mass incarceration has been maintaining a significant enough degree of racial ambiguity to cause divisions among African Americans. Again, if the criminal justice system was only locking up black prisoners, there would be little doubt over the need to perform a major intervention. Instead, however, the system of mass incarceration has gained some African-American supporters who believe that the “tough” approach may be what’s best for their communities. In reality, what is sold as toughness is in fact racist discrimination and brutality. Yet this fact is so carefully concealed that for a long time, even professional advocates of racial justice did not fully understand it.
The tough approach taken by some African-American leaders has meant that black youth are often expected to meet impossible expectations, and are then blamed when they fail to meet them. Alexander argues that in reality, nobody can be expected to make good choices all the time—particularly not young people who face poverty, violence, discrimination, and a lack of jobs and resources. While it’s a good idea to encourage everyone to act in a responsible and principled manner, Alexander urges that this does not work “as a liberation strategy.” Instead, we must focus on why so many people of color who made one or two minor mistakes now find themselves locked up in prison.
Here Alexander suggests that the pressure put on black people in general—and black youth in particular—itself becomes a kind of myth about what is possible in contemporary America. While we would no doubt like to live in a meritocratic society in which everyone has a chance to succeed no matter what neighborhood they were born in or how much money have, this is patently not the case. We must acknowledge that mass incarceration at times makes prison almost inescapable.
Alexander emphasizes that poor people of color are, in the words of the philosopher Tommie Shelby, “forced to make choices in an environment they did not choose.” These people deserve much better, and it is certainly within the realm of possibility to provide them with more. Since the 1960s, black people have been pushed into ghettoes that in many cases have suffered total economic collapse. The “extreme marginalization” that poor black people now face is arguably even more dangerous than their exploitation as slaves, because at least when a population is exploited they are needed by society at large. When a population appears to be neither needed nor wanted, this opens the door for egregious human rights abuses.
Although it might seem absurd to suggest that African Americans were safer as slaves than they are in our current world, history indicates that the statement might have some validity. The occasional protection and resources African-American slaves received was not given from a place of compassion, but rather because white people were invested in making a profit through slave labor. Now that many prisoners serve no obvious social “purpose,” it is hard to know who will protect them.