Who can dispute that African Americans have made unprecedented gains since the civil rights era? African Americans occupy prominent positions in politics and business, and there is a solid black middle class. Of course there is still work to be done, lifting more people out of poverty and closing education gaps, but Barack Obama’s election—with millions of white votes—surely heralds the end of race-based oppression in the United States, right?
Wrong, argues Michelle Alexander, in her potent and challenging book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. In its pages, she systematically and credibly makes the case that the United States now has a system of racial oppression as stark, brutal, and comprehensive as Jim Crow was in its time: mass incarceration. The term, Alexander writes, “refers not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison.”
We’ve all heard the statistics, but let’s review: The number of people in U.S. prisons and jails has more than quintupled in the past three decades, from fewer than 350,000 in 1972 to more than 2 million today. This incredible increase in incarceration has been disproportionately made up of black and brown people. More African Americans are in the correctional system—imprisoned or on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, 10 years before the start of the Civil War. Due to felony disenfranchisement laws, more African-American men are prohibited from voting today than in 1870, when the 15th Amendment was enacted to make it illegal to deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
By themselves, these facts cannot sustain anything more than what Alexander herself once dismissed as “absurd” conspiracy theories. However, Alexander digs much deeper to make her central point: that the “war on drugs” specifically targets black and brown people, resulting in the creation of a racially defined undercaste in American society.
Alexander traces the history of slavery and Jim Crow, pointing out the ways systems of racial oppression adapted and evolved in the United States. She then outlines how, in the 1970s, political rhetoric about crime became a racially coded means of consolidating power as civil rights laws took hold. She examines, piece by piece, the interlocking parts of the “new Jim Crow”: the comprehensive system, fueled by the war on drugs, that now locks millions of urban people of color into a permanent undercaste.
Along the way, she thoroughly debunks several myths, especially the public consensus that the wildly disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration for people of color are inevitable. The inescapable fact is that the drug war has been waged against people of color who are no more likely to engage in drug using or selling than are white people.
Alexander calls on social justice advocates to see mass incarceration and the war on drugs as a racial justice and civil rights crisis, even though the laws and policies that undergird it are officially race-neutral. “Of all the reasons that we fail to know the truth about mass incarceration, though, one stands out: a profound misunderstanding regarding how racial oppression actually works,” she writes. “The widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control is the most important reason that we, as a nation, have remained in deep denial.”
The New Jim Crow is both a call to action for everyone concerned with racial justice and an important tool for anyone concerned with understanding and dismantling this oppressive system.
Liane G. Rozzell is the executive director of Families & Allies of Virginia’s Youth.