The New Jim Crow aims to radically reverse the reader’s understanding of the relationship between the criminal justice system and violence. Whereas we are usually taught to believe that prisons and police keep people safe from violence, Alexander argues that prisons and police are in fact tools through which the state inflicts violence on people in order to control them. While she concedes that many people find it absurd that society could be safer and less violent without prisons, this was a widely-held view among criminologists only a few decades ago, and is becoming increasingly accepted in the present day.
Alexander emphasizes that many poor African Americans face a life that is inescapably violent. Although the criminal justice system places blame on individuals for being caught with weapons or involved in violent crime, this fails to take into account the pervasive violence that such individuals likely face every day. Furthermore, the notion of self-defence is often applied inconsistently to white and black Americans. Whereas many white people—and particularly conservatives—are staunchly in favor of protecting the right to bear arms, many of these same people will support a “tough” approach on crime that imprisons black people for weapon ownership. This hypocrisy is evidence of the way that racist ideology obscures the extent to which black people can be victims of violence as much as perpetrators, much as white people can be perpetrators and not only victims.
Mandatory sentencing and the increased length of sentences provide evidence that the motivation behind mass incarceration is to control the population, rather than keep the rest of society safe from danger. Alexander adds that even if people are released from prison, they are then further observed and controlled through the systems of probation and parole. Seen from this angle, the prison system appears to be closer to an excuse to spy on people than a legitimate social program.
Indeed, Alexander emphasizes the way in which black people have been under disproportionate and extreme forms of surveillance since the slavery era. Although some of the methods of this surveillance have changed, its function remains the same—to suppress the African-American population, creating a dynamic in which the state (and often individual white people) has the ability to control black people’s everyday actions.
Alexander argues that if the criminal justice system’s main role was to make society a better place, then it wouldn’t be so difficult for former prisoners to transition into ordinary, productive citizens. Instead, criminal convictions often leave people unable to vote, get a job, secure housing, receive food stamps, and so on. Alexander therefore concludes that the true function of the criminal justice system is to control the population and continue the oppression of certain racial castes, particularly poor African Americans.
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control ThemeTracker
Violence, Surveillance, and Social Control 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.
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.
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?