Throughout the book, Alexander argues against the commonly-held view that there has been significant progress in racial equality since the Jim Crow era. She particularly focuses on the significance of Barack Obama’s presidency, which many people take as evidence that America has entered a “post-racial” era in which racism is no longer a powerful barrier to people of color achieving success. However, Alexander argues that there is “no inconsistency” between the election of Obama and the continuation of a racial caste system in the form of a “new Jim Crow.” This is because Obama represents a different racial caste from the African Americans incarcerated in prison. Moreover, Obama’s status as an “exceptional” black person in fact helps to maintain the racist systems of anti-black police brutality and mass incarceration by disguising the fact that racism is still a powerful force in everyday American life. Only by exposing the illusion of the “post-racial” era will there ever be hope of the racial caste system being eliminated.
Alexander is also critical of the extent to which Obama himself is complicit in the post-racial narrative of the contemporary moment. She notes that Obama has repeated the same rhetoric used by white conservatives blaming African-American communities for the problems they face without acknowledging the roots of these problems in the legacy of slavery, economic deprivation, and Jim Crow.
Further, Alexander criticizes the way in which civil rights leaders and organizations have neglected the issue of mass incarceration. She argues that even as these leaders work diligently in order to avoid reversing the “progress” that has been made since the Civil Rights Act was passed, many ignore or underplay the problems within the criminal justice system.
Alexander compares the current illusion of progress to other moments in American history, such as the period that followed the Emancipation Proclamation. Although the abolition of slavery theoretically freed African Americans who had previously been held captive, for many freed slaves the years following Emancipation were not substantially different from the experience of slavery. Economic oppression, violent terror such as lynching, and the “legalized discrimination” of Jim Crow meant that black people were still living under a regime of terror and suppression that meant they were never able to experience freedom at all. Alexander argues that African Americans have remained oppressed by cyclical systems of control that seem to die, but are in fact always revived in a new form. Mass incarceration is thus not only “the new Jim Crow,” but arguably in some senses the new slavery as well.
The Illusion of Progress ThemeTracker
The Illusion of Progress 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.
For me, the new caste system is now as obvious as my own face in the mirror. Like an optical illusion––one in which the embedded image is impossible to see until its outline is identified––the new caste system lurks invisibly within the maze of rationalizations we have developed for persistent racial inequality. It is possible––quite easy, in fact––never to see the embedded reality. Only after years of working on criminal justice reform did my own focus finally shift, and then the rigid caste system slowly came into view. Eventually it became obvious. Now it seems odd that I could not see it before.
The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world's people been classified along racial lines. Here, in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery––as well as the extermination of American Indians––with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the new colonies.
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.
It is the genius of the new system of control that it can always be defended on nonracial grounds, given the rarity of a noose or a racial slur in connection with any particular criminal case. Moreover, because blacks and whites are almost never similarly situated (given extreme racial segregation in housing and disparate life experiences), trying to “control for race” in an effort to evaluate whether the mass incarceration of people of color is really about race or something else––anything else––is difficult.
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 clock has been turned back on racial progress in America, though scarcely anyone seems to notice. All eyes are fixed on people like Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, who have defied the odds and risen to power, fame, and fortune.
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.
Colorblindness, though widely touted as the solution, is actually the problem... colorblindness has proved catastrophic for African Americans.