The book emphasizes that although Jim Crow laws were legal (and indeed an intrinsic part of the Southern legal system), they were also deeply unjust. Alexander argues that both Jim Crow and mass incarceration are versions of “legalized discrimination,” and that we therefore cannot assume that the law is always just. Similarly, the police operate in a way that often terrorizes rather than helps the communities they are theoretically supposed to protect. Alexander states that “few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the War on Drugs.” The police therefore operate above the confines of justice, even when they are not technically violating the law. Alexander also details the ways in which corruption and injustice influence the courts, pointing out that defendants often do not receive adequate legal representation and are pressured to plead guilty due to mandatory sentencing laws. Overall, she shows that the phrase “criminal justice system” is deeply ironic, as there is nothing “just” about the way in which this system operates.
Alexander also shows how justice is warped by society’s definition of criminality. She argues that mass incarceration is the result of “changes in our laws… not increases in crime,” pointing out that an enormous number of people currently incarcerated are convicted of minor nonviolent drug offenses. They do not pose a major threat to society and—considering that a large percentage of the American population has consumed drugs—their involvement with drugs does not make them exceptional among the general population. (Indeed, Alexander points out that contrary to popular opinion, the War on Drugs has had little effect on putting drug “kingpins” behind bars, but has rather targeted low-level dealers and consumers of drugs.) On the other hand, a disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated population are black and Latino, despite people of all races consuming drugs at very similar levels. Thus the definition of what it means to be a criminal is connected to race in such a way that suggests that the American justice system is not only racially biased, but intrinsically racist on a deep and damning level.
Alexander is keen to point out that the gains made during the civil rights movement began with grassroots activism before emerging into legal victories. She argues that as the momentum of the era came to be associated with Supreme Court rulings, the passing of the Civil Rights Act, and other legal changes, people began to trust that racial justice could be achieved through legal means. In hindsight, this was a mistake, as we remain in an era in which legalized discrimination is deeply embedded in the criminal justice system. Whereas in the past civil rights activists could rely on using sympathetic figures (such as Rosa Parks) in order to garner support for legal changes, the stigma against criminals is so powerful that it is difficult to persuade people that mass incarceration is unjust. Alexander emphasizes that, because we cannot rely on the law being just, we must hold the law accountable to our own sense of justice, rather than the other way around.
Justice vs. the Law ThemeTracker
Justice vs. the Law Quotes in The New Jim Crow
Once you're labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination––employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service––are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.
In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men. And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.
It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society. The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system––slavery––while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially propertied whites.
Under the terms of our country's founding document, slaves were defined as three fifths of a man, not a real, whole human being. Upon this racist fiction rests the entire structure of American democracy.
Genuine equality for black people, King reasoned, demanded a radical restructuring of society, one that would address the needs of the black and white poor throughout the country. Shortly before his assassination, he envisioned bringing to Washington, D.C. thousands of the nation's disadvantaged, in an interracial alliance that embraced rural and ghetto blacks, Appalachian whites, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans, to demand jobs and income––the right to live. In a speech delivered in 1968, King acknowledged there had been some progress for blacks since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but insisted that the current challenges required even greater resolve and that the entire nation must be transformed for economic justice to be more than a dream for poor people of all colors.
During Clinton's tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation's main housing program for the urban poor.”
Few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the War on Drugs. This may sound like an overstatement, but upon examination it proves accurate. The absence of significant constraints on the exercise of police discretion is a key feature of the drug war's design. It has made the roundup of millions of Americans for nonviolent drug offenses relatively easy.
Anyone driving more than a few blocks is likely to commit a traffic violation of some kind, such as failing to track properly between lanes, failing to stop at
precisely the correct distance behind a crosswalk, failing to pause for precisely the right amount of time at a stop sign, or failing to use a turn signal at the appropriate distance from an intersection. Allowing the police to use minor traffic violations as a pretext for baseless drug investigations would permit them to single out anyone for a drug investigation without any evidence of illegal drug activity whatsoever. That kind of arbitrary police conduct is precisely what the Fourth Amendment was intended to prohibit.
As legal scholar David Cole has observed, “in practice, the drug-courier profile is a scattershot hodgepodge of traits and characteristics so expansive that it potentially justifies stopping anybody and everybody.” The profile can include traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs, driving with out-of-state license plates, driving a rental car, driving with “mismatched occupants,” acting too calm, acting too nervous, dressing casually, wearing expensive clothing or jewelry, being one of the first to deplane, being one of the last to deplane, deplaning in the middle, paying for a ticket in cash, using large-denomination currency, using small-denomination currency, traveling alone, traveling with a companion, and so on.
Property or cash could be seized based on mere suspicion of illegal drug activity, and the seizure could occur without notice or hearing, upon an ex parte showing of mere probable cause to believe that the property had somehow been “involved” in a crime. The probable cause showing could be based on nothing more than hearsay, innuendo, or even the paid, self-serving testimony of someone with interests clearly adverse to the property owner.
Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living “free” in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow. Those released from prison on parole can be stopped and searched by the police for any reason––or no reason at all––and returned to prison for the most minor of infractions, such as failing to attend a meeting with a parole officer. Even when released from the system's formal control, the stigma of criminality lingers. Police supervision, monitoring, and harassment are facts of life not only for all those labeled criminals, but for all those who “look like” criminals. Lynch mobs may be long gone, but the threat of police violence is ever present. A wrong move or sudden gesture could mean massive retaliation by the police.
The churning of African Americans in and out of prisons today is hardly surprising, given the strong message that is sent to them that they are not wanted in mainstream society.
No other country in the world disenfranchises people who are released from prison in a manner even remotely resembling the United States. In fact, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has charged that U.S. disenfranchisement policies are discriminatory and violate international law.
One need not be formally convicted in a court of law to be subject to this shame and stigma. As long as you "look like" or "seem like" a criminal, you are treated with the same suspicion and contempt, not just by police, security guards, or hall monitors at your school, but also by the woman who crosses the street to avoid you and by the store employees who follow you through the aisles, eager to catch you in the act of being the “criminalblackman”––the archetypal figure who justifies the New Jim Crow.
Poor people of color, like other Americans––indeed like nearly everyone around the world––want safe streets, peaceful communities, healthy families, good jobs, and meaningful opportunities to contribute to society. The notion that ghetto families do not, in fact, want those things, and instead are perfectly content to live in crime-ridden communities, feeling no shame or regret about the fate of their young men is, quite simply, racist.
In ghetto communities, nearly everyone is either directly or indirectly subject to the new caste system. The system serves to redefine the terms of the relationship of poor people of color and their communities to mainstream, white society, ensuring their subordinate and marginal status. The criminal and civil sanctions that were once reserved for a tiny minority are now used to control and oppress a racially defined majority in many communities, and the systematic manner in which the control is achieved reflects not just a difference in scale. The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer concerned primarily with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed. Prior drug wars were ancillary to the prevailing caste system. This time the drug war is the system of control.
Who is more blameworthy: the young black kid who hustles on the street corner, selling weed to help his momma pay the rent? Or the college kid who deals drugs out of his dorm room so that he'll have cash to finance his spring break? Who should we fear? The kid in the ‘hood who joined a gang and now carries a gun for security, because his neighborhood is frightening and unsafe? Or the suburban high school student who has a drinking problem but keeps getting behind the wheel?