Alexander introduces a person called Jarvius Cotton, who—like generations of his family before him—cannot vote. Each generation was prevented from voting for a different reason; first slavery, then the Ku Klux Klan, then poll taxes and literacy tests, then, in Jarvius’ case, because he “has been labeled a felon” and is on parole. Alexander argues that Jarvius’ story shows that as much as America has changed in the past two centuries, it has also remained the same. Racism still inhibits black people’s access to the vote, housing, employment, and other resources. Although Jim Crow has technically ended, its fundamental effects on society have remained, and in this sense Jim Crow still exists today—albeit in a different from.
Conventional understandings of the criminal justice system would emphasize the way in which Jarvius Cotton is different from the generations of his family that came before him. Unlike they were—“innocent” but still deprived of rights and resources—Jarvius is a criminal and thus theoretically deserves to be denied these rights. However, by mentioning the historical factors that prohibited black people from voting, Alexander emphasizes that black people have always been treated as criminals in America.
Alexander admits that ten years ago she would have refuted the central argument of The New Jim Crow: that a racial caste system and “New Jim Crow” currently exist in the United States. Although she was thrilled by Barack Obama’s election in the 2008, at the time she is writing she feels much less hopeful about racial justice. Inspired by the legal victories of the Civil Rights era, Alexander attended law school hoping to fight for racial justice through working as a civil rights lawyer. At the time, she was unaware of the “new system” of Jim Crow—despite the fact that her life was devoted to justice and the law.
Alexander tells the story of her own developing understanding of mass incarceration in order to emphasize that it is not surprising if people do not initially understand or agree with her argument. Even as a lawyer dedicated to racial justice, Alexander did not understand the connection between mass incarceration and Jim Crow, largely because this connection is deliberately concealed by the illusion of progress.
While serving as the Director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project, Alexander encountered a flyer that read “The Drug War is the New Jim Crow” made by a small radical organization. At the time, Alexander felt that the claim was overblown and would hinder rather than help the fight for racial justice. When she began working at the ACLU, Alexander believed that the criminal justice system had a problem with racial bias; by the time she left, however, she had come to feel sympathetic with the radical leaflet she’d seen years before. It had become increasingly clear that mass incarceration was not so much a system with racial biases as a tool of “racialized social control” much like Jim Crow.
The distinction between a system with racial bias and a system of “racialized social control” may sound subtle; however, it is crucially important. If the criminal justice system simply had a problem with bias, this problem could be resolved by the work of lawyers dedicated to advancing racial justice, like Alexander. However, if the whole system was designed to oppress and control people of color, it is less likely that this system could be reformed from within.
Alexander argues that people who have been incarcerated tend to easily understand the connection between mass incarceration and Jim Crow. Those who do not have first-hand experience of the criminal justice system often believe that increases in crime result from a lack of opportunities and resources, but would be unlikely to believe that the War on Drugs is a “racist conspiracy to put blacks back in their place.” This is partly because most people believe that the War on Drugs was devised as a response to the crack cocaine epidemic; however, the reality is that Reagan announced the initiative before crack was really a problem. When crack did emerge as a major social issue, the Reagan administration used propaganda in order to heighten hysteria over the threat it posed.
Throughout the book, Alexander shows that while people who have not been incarcerated are easily misled about the nature of the criminal justice system, those who have personal experience of prison tend to intuitively understand the ways in which “criminal justice” is really a method of social control. While stereotypes about felons suggest that they are more likely to be unintelligent, uneducated, and dishonest, in reality it is people on the outside who are more easily lulled into a false understanding of the criminal justice system.
Due to the strange chronology in which the War on Drugs unfolded, some people grew suspicious that the whole crack epidemic—as well as the oppressive response from the government—were part of a conspiracy designed to eradicate black people. While this may seem outlandish, the CIA has in fact admitted that the American government played a role in encouraging the flow of drugs from Nicaragua to the USA during the last decades of the 20th century.
Alexander is hardly a conspiracy theorist, but she does show that much of what we might at first consider conspiracy has roots in both historical and present realities. While it is difficult to prove that the actions of the American government are racially motivated, the evidence Alexander presents is certainly suspicious.
Largely because of the War on Drugs, the American prison population has ballooned from 300,000 to 2 million people in the last 30 years, making it the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The United States also incarcerates racial minorities at higher rates than any other country. While people of all races statistically consume drugs at the same rates, the War on Drugs has had an enormously disproportionate impact on black and Latino men.
To a great extent, the simplest statistics about mass incarceration speak for themselves. The fact that the United States has a higher rate of incarceration than even authoritarian regimes such as China and Iran indicates that the criminal justice system is indeed being used as a method of social control.
Contrary to popular assumption, the War on Drugs began during a time in which drug crime was actually decreasing. Alexander argues that the lack of correspondence between crime rates and punishment helps to prove that the American government uses mass incarceration as “a system of social control unparalleled in world history.” This is especially strange considering that most researchers argue that prisons are an ineffective method of decreasing crime. In the 1970s, many criminologists and other experts argued in favor of gradually eliminating prisons; since that time, however, the American prison population has increased fivefold.
Rather than responding to the research of scholars and others with expertise in the criminal justice system, the American government has continued to pursue policies that are widely known to inhibit, rather than promote social welfare. Once again, this suggests that—particularly when it comes to racial minority populations—the government is more interested in controlling and suppressing people than ensuring their wellbeing.
If current incarceration rates continue, one in three African-American men will be incarcerated during his lifetime. However, despite the enormous impact of mass incarceration on black communities, over the last 20 years civil rights advocates have largely neglected to confront the topic of prisons, instead focusing on other issues. African-American politicians also often fail to properly address mass incarceration. Although activism in favor of criminal justice reform has taken place, at the time Alexander is writing there is still “no broad-based movement brewing to end mass incarceration.” Alexander argues that this is as “absurd” as if the Civil Rights Movement had not focused on Jim Crow as its main object of attack.
Here Alexander hints at an important issue within the reaction to mass incarceration among African-American leaders (or lack thereof). Whereas black politicians and civil rights lawyers represent affluence, success, and respectability, black prisoners are at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, which Alexander characterizes as a racial caste system. Perhaps part of the reason why mass incarceration is a neglected issue is because black leaders and black prisoners often belong to different social classes.
Alexander claims that now that she has seen the truth of the new racial caste system, it is impossible for her to “unsee” it. At the same time, she remembers how difficult it was for her to understand it in the first place, and thus admits that she expects people to react to The New Jim Crow with suspicion. She suggests it might help to think of the criminal justice system as “a gateway into a much larger system of racial stigmatization and permanent marginalization.” This larger system—mass incarceration—includes social phenomena that are not as visually obvious as physical prisons, but that still prevent people from participating as full citizens in society. Alexander admits that many readers will be unfamiliar with seeing race discussed so frankly, but that it is crucially important to acknowledge the fact that so many African Americans are currently legally prevented from achieving social mobility.
While Alexander now understands the full extent of mass incarceration’s destructive impact on African Americans and the nation at large, she also remains aware of how much this reality is hidden from the public. Part of this deception is achieved by the fact that incarcerated people are literally locked away and hidden from public view. However, in this passage she explains how the social custom of not talking about race also helps keep the reality of mass incarceration hidden from people who do not have direct experience of it. In order to see the truth, people must not shy away from difficult conversations about America, race, and inequality.
Alexander argues that the election of Barack Obama makes it seem as if there is no racial caste system in America anymore, but in fact Obama’s victory demonstrates how the caste system works. She notes that while there are certainly big differences between the original Jim Crow and mass incarceration, the similarities between them are too important not to consider. She urges racial justice advocates working in a legal context to pay attention to mass incarceration, claiming: “A human rights nightmare is taking place on our watch.” Alexander admits that there are many aspects of mass incarceration that she was not able to cover, but that the main purpose of The New Jim Crow is simply to begin a conversation about this issue.
Although she does not say so explicitly, in this passage Alexander creates the impression that those committed to racial justice who are fortunate enough to have the freedom, education, and resources to fight to end mass incarceration have an urgent responsibility to do so. While the racial caste system works on the assumption that “exceptional” black people like Obama can and should be able to gain power, this will not lead to progress unless these successful black people then advocate on behalf of those whose rights have been taken.
Alexander lays out the structure of the book. In Chapter 1, she explains “the history of racialized social control in the United States.” In Chapter 2, she focuses on how the War on Drugs came to exist and how it currently functions. Chapter 3 examines how the criminal justice system, which should be “race-neutral,” works with extreme bias against African-American and Latino people. Chapter 4 shows how the racial caste system affects people’s lives after they are released from prison, and Chapter 5 exposes the similarities between Jim Crow and mass incarceration. In the final chapter, Alexander argues that ending mass incarceration must be an essential part of civil rights advocacy from now on.
In order to fully explain how mass incarceration works and why it is so unjust, Alexander covers an enormous amount of ground from the very beginning of the US to the present. This is necessary because, rather than being a single anomaly, mass incarceration is deeply connected to other forms of racial terror and injustice, and to the way American society functions in general—since its very founding.