The book begins with a Foreword by Cornel West, who argues that it will prove indispensable to the fight against racial justice in the contemporary moment and that it embodies “the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.” West critiques the political climate that has flourished under President Barack Obama, arguing that despite the apparent signs of racial progress, the United States is still a deeply divided, unequal, and unjust society. He urges the reader to reject the language of “colorblindness” and instead embrace the fight for justice. In the Preface, Michelle Alexander notes that the book was not “written for everyone,” but hopes that it will inform and inspire those who are not yet fully aware of the problem of mass incarceration, as well as provide solace to those who are currently incarcerated.
The Introduction begins with Alexander’s comparison between an incarcerated African-American man today and the man’s ancestors who, like him, were denied basic rights as a result of slavery and Jim Crow, respectively. Alexander explains that ten years ago, she was suspicious of the claim that mass incarceration was a “new Jim Crow,” but that while working on racial justice advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union she came to change her mind. Rather than a neutral system suffering from a problem of racial bias, mass incarceration is inherently a system of “racialized social control” distinctly similar to Jim Crow.
Although it might seem alarming to claim that the War on Drugs is a racist conspiracy, there are certainly many conspiratorial aspects to its history—including the fact that it was started during a period in which drug crime was actually on the decline. Alexander criticizes the lack of action against mass incarceration, which she suspects was partially facilitated by the election of Barack Obama. According to Alexander, Obama’s victory distracted people from the fact that “a human rights nightmare is taking place on our watch.”
In Chapter One, Alexander examines the history of racial caste systems in America, arguing that the cycle of different systems of racist control prove that racism is “adaptable” and will change to suit a particular era. During the colonial period, black people were brought to America as cheap labor and placed at the bottom of the racial caste system created by slavery. This system was eventually replaced by Jim Crow, which, although it looked different from slavery, operated according to the same principles of monitoring, regulating, and suppressing black people. When the civil rights movement tore down Jim Crow, it seemed sadly inevitable that another racist system of control would emerge in its place. This system took the form of the War on Drugs, which used the crack epidemic as an excuse to aggressively police and incarcerate an enormous number of poor people of color. Although the War on Drugs gained much of its momentum under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, it survived beyond Reagan’s presidency and was further escalated by Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
Chapter Two describes the criminal justice system through a step-by-step analysis of the process of being arrested, charged, and incarcerated for a drug offense. Alexander argues that a key part of the War on Drugs has been allowing the police to operate with very little oversight. A series of major court cases have given the police free reign to stop people at random, and it is now all but impossible for civil rights litigators to challenge discriminatory police practices such as “stop and frisk.” Meanwhile, the police have been made even more powerful by the federal government’s decision to outfit drug units in full military gear, to deploy SWAT teams on drug busts, and to allow police departments to seize the assets of anyone who is merely suspected of being involved in drug crime. This last policy has served as a massive incentive for police aggression in the War on Drugs, and many police departments across the country are now primarily funded by assets seized during drug investigations.
Alexander moves on to describe the many injustices that have plagued courtrooms since the War on Drugs began, including the fact that many people never meet their lawyers and are pressured into accepting plea bargains, often without fully understanding their rights or the consequences of this decision. She adds that mandatory minimum sentences have led to people being locked away for years and even decades for minor infractions, including first time offenses.
In Chapter Three Alexander examines the racial discrimination embedded within the criminal justice system. She points out that in some states, 80-90% of those sent to prison on drug charges are African American. This enormous discrepancy cannot be blamed either on black culture or “old-fashioned,” deliberate racism. Rather, much of the racial injustice of mass incarceration can in fact be attributed to unconscious bias. This is made worse by laws that may appear to be race-neutral on the surface, but in fact operate in deeply racist ways; this includes the one hundred-to-one ratio in sentencing recommendations for crack versus powder cocaine. Whereas there is little substantial difference between the two forms of cocaine, crack is more closely associated with black people—and carries sentences a hundred times longer than powder cocaine, which is generally associated with wealthy whites. Meanwhile, black people are often barred from serving on juries as a result of bizarre (yet ostensibly race-neutral) rules, meaning that many African Americans are tried by all-white juries.
In Chapter Four, Alexander considers the stigma associated with being a convicted felon in today’s world. She argues that when defendants are offered plea deals that do not include prison time, they will likely not be aware of how much their lives will be affected by being classed as criminals and relegated to the “undercaste” of American society. Felons are constantly given the impression that they are not wanted within mainstream society, and must navigate an impossible maze of rules, restrictions, fines, and fees in order to avoid being sent immediately back to jail. In many states, convicted felons are denied the right to receive public assistance and vote. Many jobs require applicants to state whether or not they have a criminal record, which makes it all-but-impossible for many felons to find legal employment. Even if they are able to secure a job, many of the recently incarcerated owe the state so much in fees that their entire paycheck is seized in order to pay these debts. As a result, many end up homeless and driven to crime once again.
Alexander argues that, contrary to the views of many people, poor people of color simply want to live ordinary, safe, and healthy lives, but do not have the opportunities or resources to make this happen for themselves. While some people blame gangsta rap culture on the high rates of violence and drug use in African-American communities, research has shown that it is in fact poverty and lack of job opportunities that drives people to crime.
In Chapter Five, Alexander examines moments in which prominent figures in the media, politics, and popular culture have asked the question: “Where have all the black men gone?”. She finds it odd that, despite the ubiquity of this question, nobody gives the honest answer that a large percentage of them are in prison. Alexander argues that in order to address the problem of mass incarceration, we must become more honest about the fact that it is taking place.
Alexander reviews the many similarities between Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Both were created in order to redirect the anger of working-class whites away from economic issues and toward the scapegoat of people of color. Both systems racially segregate people to the point of creating two separate worlds, and both depend on legal and political disenfranchisement in order to survive. Crucially, both systems also heavily depend on the association between black people and criminality. Having reviewed these similarities, Alexander moves on to note some major differences between Jim Crow and mass incarceration. The most important of these is the fact that where Jim Crow was overtly racist, mass incarceration is—on the surface—race-neutral. As a result, there has not been an inter-class solidarity movement among African Americans working to end mass incarceration in the same way there was in the case of Jim Crow. In fact, some African-American leaders have in fact voiced support for the “tough on crime” approach that has created and sustained mass incarceration. This has created divisions in the African-American community as well as among racial justice advocates in general, which Alexander urges must be solved in order for there to be any hope of achieving justice.
In the sixth and final chapter, Alexander argues that people have been living in a state of “collective denial” over the issue of mass incarceration. She is particularly critical of the silence on the issue among civil rights lawyers, who we would expect to have more awareness about it than the general public. Alexander points out that mass incarceration is a notably different problem than the racial justice issues over which civil rights lawyers have successfully taken action in the past. Whereas in the 1950s litigators were keen to use “respectable” figures such as Rosa Parks as the face of their campaigns, it is difficult of find convicted felons who will be deemed “respectable” among the general public. Because of this dilemma, civil rights lawyers have tended to focus on issues such as affirmative action, which affect middle-class, wealthy, “innocent” black people rather than the poor and incarcerated.
Alexander admits that she does not have a concrete vision for addressing mass incarceration, but that she hopes she will inspire others to develop detailed plans. She argues that it is vital not to get caught up in small, individual instances of reform but rather to focus on dismantling the entire system. She stresses the importance of attacking private investment in prisons, ending racial profiling, demilitarizing the police force, legalizing marijuana and perhaps other drugs, eradicating drug forfeiture laws, and—perhaps most important of all—winning in “the court of public opinion.”
Alexander suggests that, in contrast to the dominant view of the civil rights community, it might be necessary to end affirmative action in order to achieve true racial justice. she explains that Americans have been placated by the presence of “cosmetic racial diversity,” which has distracted from the reality of stark racial injustice. She invokes the revolutionary vision of Martin Luther King, who stressed that America will never be a fair or equal country until poor people of all races are no longer oppressed. Alexander then includes a quotation from James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew published in The Fire Next Time. In the letter, Baldwin urges his nephew to remain strong and promises that the fight for justice can be won. The book ends with Baldwin’s statement: “We cannot be free until they are free.”