Alexander describes an event in September 2007 when African-American celebrities, activists, and young people gathered in Jena, Louisiana, to protest the fate of the “Jena 6”: six black teenagers charged with attempted murder of their white classmate. Reverend Al Sharpton declared: “We've gone from plantations to penitentiaries,” and statistics about mass incarceration were read aloud. The protest was a success; most of the charges were dropped. Yet Alexander can’t help but think of the parents of other young people who have been unjustly locked up with no attention from protesters or the media. She suggests that people only took note of the Jena 6 because of a hangman’s noose that had been hung up as a “prank” in the area—a sign of the “old-fashioned racism” of the past. Alexander argues that we need to learn to recognize and be enraged about less obvious examples of racism if we are to have any hope of tackling the racism of the present era.
Alexander describes a sense of excitement about the possibility of a new movement launched by the case of the Jena 6. However, she also suggests that racial justice advocates are still stuck in old models of organizing that were suited to previous systems of racial social control. This is deeply problematic, as one of the main points of the book is that if we expect the “new Jim Crow” to resemble the old one too closely, we will miss the racist forces that are unique to the current era. The case of the Jena 6 also suggests that the public responds to visible, spectacular symbols of racism (such as the hangman’s noose) and less to more subtle—yet arguably more dangerous—issues.
Alexander argues that the “collective denial” of the general public over the issue of mass incarceration is somewhat understandable, given the widespread misinformation about the criminal justice system. She is less forgiving of the denial exhibited by civil rights advocates, who she suggests are neither ignorant of nor indifferent to the injustice of the War on Drugs, but have been swept along with the overall consensus of ignoring mass incarceration. Alexander corrects the popular misconception that “civil rights lawyers are the most important players in racial justice advocacy,” arguing that it is grassroots organizers who create the climate in which legal change can take place. The success of the civil rights movement meant that many racial justice organizations were overtaken with lawyers; although this helped to win cases, it risked making these organizations somewhat out of touch with changes taking place on the ground.
Alexander’s critique of civil rights lawyers clearly emerges from her own experience. As someone who was once unaware of the full extent of mass incarceration and is now an expert on the topic, Alexander is in a unique position to analyze the neglect of the issue within the civil rights community. While she is somewhat sympathetic to the fact that civil rights lawyers are influenced by the opinion of the general public, she is keenly aware of the changes that need to be made to the landscape of anti-racist advocacy in order for justice to be achieved.
Alexander admits that the most successful policy for civil rights advocates thus far has been finding the most sympathetic, “respectable” figures—such as Rosa Parks—and using them as the public faces of legal campaigns. This method works less well in the context of mass incarceration, however, because few people “caught up in the criminal justice system have less than flawless backgrounds.” However, simply ignoring felons is hardly a good option either. Because the incarcerated population is not counted in censuses, the public tends to have an overly rosy picture of the economic status of African Americans, as a large percentage of the poorest black people are excluded from the data. This false impression is not helped by the fact that civil rights advocacy tends to focus on subsections of the black population such as “innocent doctors and lawyers stopped and searched on freeways” or “innocent middle-and-upper middle class black children” who risk losing their Ivy league admissions if affirmative action is eradicated.
The decision to use “respectable” figures as the face for civil rights litigation is controversial, even as most people recognize that in the past it has hastened the advance of legal gains for African Americans. Critics of this tactic argue that it contributes to the overall problem of respectability politics—namely, the fact that poorer, less “respectable” African Americans are sacrificed in order for the better off to gain more advantages. As Alexander points out, it also helps to misrepresent the state of the African-American population as a whole to the public. If civil rights lawyers continue on this course, people will continue to be unaware that mass incarceration is a problem.
Alexander admits that she won’t lay out a detailed plan for the best course of action, but rather hopes to inspire people to come up with their own solutions. She begins by arguing that isolated incidents of criminal justice reform are “futile” on their own; even if small victories are won, these will be subsumed under the overall system unless that system is changed at its core. One priority should be attacking private-sector investment in prisons, which can be highly lucrative. Alexander also stresses that the War on Drugs must end, an incredibly complex and daunting task. Dismantling the drug war would include the end of racial profiling, demilitarization of ordinary police forces, eradication of drug forfeiture laws, revocation of mandatory sentences, legalization of marijuana (and potentially other drugs), in addition to a great many other steps.
Depending on one’s perspective, Alexander’s insistence that the whole system must come apart may appear to be either deeply inspiring or hopelessly intimidating. Her argument also breaks with the convention of gaining civil rights justice one case at a time, a tactic which—whether or not it ultimately produces justice—at least appears more manageable. On the other hand, Alexander’s desire to eradicate mass incarceration is not simply an abstract proclamation for revolution, but rather an overarching plan involving many smaller steps.
Alexander evokes the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who claimed that winning in “the court of public opinion” was more important than any legal victory. Winning over public opinion will involve significantly changing popular conceptions about race, drugs, and crime. Such sweeping change should not come at the expense of ongoing efforts at reform; rather, the two tactics must be synthesized into one overall movement. At the same time, too much reform can risk legitimizing the very system it is supposed to erode. Alexander emphasizes that while a system of crime control is of course necessary, the system currently in operation is doing a poor job; indeed, some researchers have concluded that mass incarceration causes more crime than it prevents.
Changing the tide of public opinion might seem like an impossibly daunting task. However, at this point it is helpful to consider the impact of The New Jim Crow itself. The book became a bestseller, won multiple awards, and has been added to high school and college syllabi across the country. The fact that the contribution of Alexander herself has already had such a big impact suggests that there is good reason to be hopeful about the possibility of reversing the average person’s opinion on drugs, crime, and mass incarceration.
Alexander mentions that projects such as Lifeline and Operation Ceasefire, which offer opportunities and resources to gang members if they promise to stop engaging in criminal activity, have proven successful. Another important step is to start talking about race “openly and honestly” in order to improve understandings of unconscious bias and other forms of racism fueling the War on Drugs. Alexander emphasizes that although it will be tempting to accept the “race-neutral” solutions to mass incarceration currently being offered, history teaches us that this will not work out well in the end. Although it may seem like a “colorblind” approach is the progressive way forward, ignoring race is the far more dangerous move. Alexander reminds the reader that Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that racial “blindness and indifference” actually plays a more powerful role in creating racial inequality than explicit hatred.
Here Alexander shows that while it would be tragic to avoid solving the problem of mass incarceration at all, perhaps even worse would be attempting to solve it in the wrong manner. Accepting “colorblind” fixes to certain aspects of the War on Drugs could end up legitimizing the drug war and further entrenching mass incarceration into a permanent fixture of society. Although Alexander is hopeful for change, she stresses that radical action will be needed in order to avoid simply recreating another system of racialized social control in place of mass incarceration.
Alexander moves on to critique “cosmetic racial diversity,” which she argues has too often been made to stand in for genuine racial justice. It is easy for reforms to make systems look equal and fair when they are actually still deeply discriminatory; Alexander suggests that affirmative action is one such reform. Although she acknowledges that affirmative action has made a positive difference in many people’s lives, it has also legitimized the idea that American society is basically fair and meritocratic, rather than structured by a racial caste system, all while taking up disproportionate media attention. Alexander suspects that the civil rights community will be particularly hesitant to revise affirmative action, as it is the racial justice issue that is most likely to affect them directly. Unfortunately, watching black youth who grow up to become lawyers and even presidents risks distracting people from the horrific and racist brutality that remains at the heart of the American legal system today.
In this passage, Alexander examines the way in which affirmative action has been used to manufacture a myth about racial progress—a myth partially authored by the very people who should be on the frontlines of the fight for racial equality. While affirmative action has produced a unique level of “cosmetic racial diversity” in America compared to other countries, the problem with this cosmetic diversity is that it does not seem to have led to any real change. In fact, Alexander suggests that cosmetic diversity may actually be inhibiting chances of actual racial progress. Thus although eliminating affirmative action would be risky, it also might be necessary in the broader fight for racial justice.
Alexander argues that including “people of color in power structures, particularly at the top, can paralyze reform efforts.” This refers both to the black and Latino police officers who are presented as evidence that the police in general aren’t racist, as well as to the highest office in the nation: the position of president. To some extent, the 2008 election was a hopeful moment in the fight against mass incarceration; Obama has openly discussed his own recreational drug use as a young man and at first seemed to be opposed to the War on Drugs. Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden, however, is “one of the Senate's most strident drug warriors” who wrote the notorious Crime Bill of 1994. Obama then chose to increase funding for the drug war, surpassing the pace set by his Republican predecessor George W. Bush. Alexander suggests that black people have not been sufficiently proactive in critiquing Obama’s (hypocritical) support for the War on Drugs.
Obama’s presidency is often discussed in broad, symbolic terms, making it easy for people to brush aside the actual policies of his administration—many of which contradict the message of racial progress with which he is associated. Although Obama is both black and the most openly drug-friendly president in living memory, his presidency has not seen much positive change for those affected by mass incarceration; indeed, Alexander suggests that in many ways, the War on Drugs has actually gotten worse. The difficulty of reconciling this fact with Obama’s overall image highlights how politicians have persuaded the public into accepting mass incarceration.
Alexander cites an Oakland-based organization called “All of Us or None,” whose name evokes an anti-racist politics based on uplift of those who are most vulnerable. She argues that in the wake of Jim Crow, more attention should have been paid to developing an interracial solidarity movement that united people of color with working-class whites whose lives had been “rocked” by desegregation. Alexander urges that the time has come for everyone to give up their “racial bribes” and fight for those who have been forgotten, excluded, and left behind. She stresses that racial justice advocates must ensure that “America’s current racial caste system is its last.”
Throughout the book, Alexander identifies ways in which structures of power operate in order to separate disenfranchised people from one another. This happens when black elites turn against poor and incarcerated African Americans, and also when the white working-class cling to their racial privilege over the chance to work alongside people of color in similar economic situations. Alexander stresses that only by refusing these hierarchies can ordinary people achieve power.
Alexander argues that in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to shift the civil rights movement into a “human rights movement” with “revolutionary potential.” Unfortunately, civil rights advocacy has made little progress beyond the point at which King left it when he was assassinated. In order to have a real chance at achieving justice, civil rights must center the humanity of every person, regardless of whether they are poor, black, and/or a felon. Alexander admits that when the voices of those caught up in the criminal justice system are finally amplified, they may be full of “rage.” Instead of being met with shame or fear, however, these voices should be met with “truth.”
The “revolutionary potential” Alexander mentions has been thought by many to be one of the key reasons why Martin Luther King was assassinated. In today’s world, King is often remembered as a peaceful figure, and is even—ironically—sometimes associated with the contemporary push for “colorblindness.” However, in the final years before his death King emphasized the necessity of a radical restructuring of society, not unlike the one Alexander proposes in this chapter.
Alexander finishes the book with a quote by James Baldwin, taken from the published letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew in 1962. In the letter, Baldwin curses the “innocence” of white America, which is itself a kind of crime. He tells his nephew to remain strong and be inspired by the resilience of the ancestors that came before him, and promises him that America can be made into “what it must become.” Finally, Baldwin asserts: “We cannot be free until they are free,” before wishing his nephew luck.
The quotation from Baldwin draws into question what we mean when we speak of innocence and guilt. While these concepts are often thought of as having straightforward definitions, Baldwin’s letter suggests otherwise. Are the black men locked up in prison really guilty? Or is the guiltier party not America itself?