The New Jim Crow

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I started reading The New Jim Crow late last year, long after I had been a devout supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Being a cognizant human being, it had always seemed clear to me that there was deep institutional racism in America. The fact that people of color are incarcerated at disproportionate rates and white people own a disproportionate amount of all wealth is explainable only by racist theories or institutional racism. And growing up living and working with white people and people of color, all racist theories that people of color were more inclined toward crime or that white people were smarter or harder working, were obviously, patently false.

I honestly didn’t think I would gain much from The New Jim Crow, other than evidence and articulation of truths I already knew.

I did gain that, but I also gained a shocking understanding of how pervasive and destructive institutional racism is in America, and a disturbing knowledge of how intentionally America’s current racial caste system was created and is maintained.

Michelle Alexander puts this racial caste system in stark terms early on in the book: “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” (6)

Alexander succinctly explains the history of the unparalleled boom of our prison population, which began with the end of Jim Crow and was largely fueled by the drug war.

She leaves no doubt that the drug war has been and is still actively, disproportionately fought against people of color.

As she points out, drug use is almost identical among every race in America, but people of color and especially black people are far more likely to be incarcerated for it.

African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct. (197)

Disproportionately waging the drug war against people of color was obviously intentional from its declaration, as anti-black sentiment was at a fever pitch after the end of Jim Crow, and drugs were not on anyone’s mind:

At the time he declared this new war, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation…the drug war from the outset had little to do with public concern about drugs and much to do with public concern about race. (49) 

The racism of the drug war permeates every level of the criminal justice system. Even though drug use occurs equally in all communities, police target communities of color.

As Alexander points out, if this were reversed, and the drug war started targeting white communities, and one out of every four young white men were being incarcerated and having their rights revoked for life, the drug war would end tomorrow.

She also dispels any myth that communities of color are targeted because drug use is more public in these communities or because communities of color ask for more policing – both claims are patently false.

Police are encouraged to ramp up their over-policing of the drug war in communities of color through massive federal grants, the right to keep property seized during arrests related to the drug war, even if those arrests turn out to be bogus (“A person could be found innocent of any criminal conduct and the property could still be subject to forfeiture.” (79)), and through donations of military weapons from the Pentagon.

The courts, for their part, completely defended the actions of the police in relation to the drug war, which led to massive rollbacks in civil liberties, and many of the most problematic elements of policing that we see today, including but not limited to:

Search warrants based on an anonymous informant, expanding the government’s wiretapping authority, legitimating the use of paid, unidentified informants by police and prosecutors, approving the use of helicopter surveillance of homes without a warrant, and allowing the forfeiture of cash, homes, and other property based on unproven allegations. (62)

Indeed, the Supreme Court stated its unyielding support of the drug war in California v. Acevedo:

No impartial observer could criticize this Court for hindering the progress of the war on drugs. On the contrary, decisions like the one the Court makes today will support the conclusion that this Court has become a loyal foot soldier in the Executive’s fight against crime.

The court’s most pointed decisions proving that the drug war was a tool of racial caste system and not merely an erosion of rights across the board, pertain to the rights of the police to racially profile. In United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, the Court concluded it was permissible…for the police to use race as a factor in making decision about which motorists to stop and search.” (131)

“It is difficult to imagine a system better designed to ensure that racial biases and stereotypes are given free rein than the one devised by the U.S. Supreme Court.” (119)

Even among the disproportionately black and brown people who were arrested under the drug war, prosecutors are far more likely to bring charges against people of color, and new stiff sentencing laws created for the drug war – often sending people to prison for life for first time offenses – were used almost exclusively against people of color.

Georgia’s ‘two strikes and you’re out’ sentencing scheme, which imposes life imprisonment for a second drug offense” was invoked “against only 1 percent of white defendants…but against 16 percent of black defendants. The result being that 98.4 percent of those serving life sentences under the provision were black. (114)

These injustices were also attacked in court cases, but the Supreme Court held that this too, could not be challenged on the basis of racism. Judges and prosecutors cannot be removed from cases

absent an admission that a prosecutor or judge action because of racial bias…Long-standing rules generally bar litigants from obtaining discovery from the prosecution regarding charging patterns and motives, and that similar rules forbid introduction of evidence of jury deliberations even when a juror has chosen to make deliberations public. (111)

In whole, “It is difficult to imagine a system better designed to ensure that racial biases and stereotypes are given free rein than the one devised by the U.S. Supreme Court.” (119)

To see how this system functions like Jim Crow, one only need to look at the right to vote:

“Felon disenfranchisement laws have been more effective in eliminating black voters in the age of mass incarceration than they were during Jim Crow.” (195)

But the extent of the New Jim Crown does not end there. It extends into the ability to obtain housing, find jobs, and much more, crushing the lives of thousands of families.

As John Oliver recently noted, absurd drug laws that make it nearly impossible for people to find jobs and housing after they are released, make it a herculean accomplishment to not turn to crime. It’s hard to imagine any motivation for our extremely punitive drug laws other than to maintain a caste system. 

In one of the most powerful parallels outlines in the book, Alexander illuminates this by comparing the punishment for drug possession to punishment for drunk driving. 78% of people arrested for drunk driving are white. Almost the exact ratio of people of color arrested for drug crimes. Drunk driving is far more likely to result in violent death than drug crimes, yet mandatory minimums for drunk driving is typical a couple days in jail and rehab, where mandatory minimums for drug crimes can be years in jail plus permanent disenfranchisement.

The societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person functional and in society while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling. (207)

In the age of increasingly partisan politics, it is critical to note that both parties have waged the drug war and contributed to The New Jim Crow with equal fervor.

The notion that the 1990s – the Clinton years – were good times for African Americans, and that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats,’ is pure fiction…Young African American men were the only group to experience a steep increase in joblessness between 1980 and 200, a development directly traceable to the increase in the penal population.” (229)

The crimes of the Clintons against black Americans are almost unforgivable, as Alexander points out in her latest essay, Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve The Black Vote.

It is also critical to note that The New Jim Crow is in no way a paste-tense problem, nor one that exists only in racist pockets of America. In 2015, 92.5% of people arrested by the NYPD were people of color.

So how is it that so many Americans who claim to be fervently anti-racist have lived under the wildly racist caste system for so long? Alexander offers many explanations, including media bias:

“African Americans constituted only 15 percent of current drug users in 1995,” but when asked to picture a drug user, 95% of respondents picture a black person. (106)

Colorblindness:

Mass incarceration has been normalized, and all of the racial stereotypes and assumptions that gave rise to the system are now embraced (or at least internalized) by people of all colors, from all walks of life, and in every major political party. (181)

Affirmative action:

Affirmative action “creates the appearance of racial equity without the reality and does so at no great cost, without fundamentally altering any of the structures that create racial inequality in the first place… Cosmetic diversity, which focuses on providing opportunities to individual members of under-represented groups, both diminishes the possibility that unfair rules will be challenged and legitimates the entire system. (250)

And black elites:

In many cases, the relatively privileged black elite turned against the black urban poor, condemning them and distancing themselves, while at the same time presenting themselves as legitimate spokespeople for the disadvantaged. (213)

But I think the problem ultimately lies with complacent white people, and I think Alexander would agree.

Perhaps the most terrifying part of the book is when Alexander notes that a new tool to maintain the racial caste system will likely be created before we have dismantled this one, long before we are aware of it.

This dynamic, which legal scholar Reva Siegel has dubbed ‘preservation through transformation,’ is the process through which white privilege is maintained, though the rules and rhetoric change. (21)

I have grown up under this oppressive system, and am committed to dismantling it, to making our society more just and equitable. But to imagine that if we do ultimately topple this racial caste system the elite will already have built another in its place is almost unbearable. She does however, give us a plan for preventing this.

And often, the new system can be worse than the old, as she points out between Jim Crow and mass incarceration:

It is not at a all obvious that it would be better to be incarcerated for life for a minor drug offense than to live with one’s family, earning an honest wage under the Jim Crow regime. (22)

Alexander does however, give us a plan for preventing another racial caste system from rising up as we squash the old one:

Failure to care, really care across color lines, lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world. (234)

Ultimately, white people simply cannot be okay with the fact that injustices are disproportionately heaped upon black people. We have to rise up anytime they are. We must do so wisely, and take our lead from the black and brown people oppressed by these injustices, but we must do so every time, and with as much as vigor as if the injustices were being heaped upon us.

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6 thoughts on “The New Jim Crow”

  1. “Now and then a book comes along that might in time touch the public and educate social commentators, policymakers, and politicians about a glaring wrong that we have been living with that we also somehow don’t know how to face.

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