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|The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness|
|Publisher||The New Press|
|LC Class||HV9950 .A437|
|The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness|
|Publisher||The New Press|
|LC Class||HV9950 .A437|
The New Jim Crow is a book by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights litigator and legal scholar, published in 2010 by The New Press. The book deals with race-related and social, political, and legal phenomena in the United States and attempts to apply the term 'The New Jim Crow' to the situation of African Americans in the contemporary United States. The name derives from the original Jim Crow laws that prevailed in the states of the former Confederacy of the U.S. through the 1960s. Alexander's book was on the The New York Times Best Seller List for ten consecutive months, and philosopher Cornel West has called it the "secular bible for a new social movement in early twenty-first-century America."
The New Jim Crow has also inspired considerable debate and criticism: Yale University Clinical Law Professor James Forman Jr. argues that Alexander relies too heavily on her analogy to the original Jim Crow laws and thus overstates her case; social justice and black studies scholars argue that Alexander's discourse in The New Jim Crow is recuperative, ahistorical, Eurocentric, counterrevolutionary, censored, and self-refuting; and some advocates of radical social change have dismissed Alexander's discussion of the New Jim Crow phenomena.
In the book Alexander deals primarily with the issue of the current mass levels of incarceration in the United States (with 5% of the world's population, the U.S. incarcerates 25% of the world's prisoners) and what she perceives as societal repression of African-American men and, to a lesser degree, Latino men. She discusses the social consequences of various policies for people of color, as well as for the US population as a whole. According to Alexander, the majority of young black men in large American cities are "warehoused in prisons," their labor no longer needed in the globalized economy. Alexander maintains that many young black men, once they are labeled as "felons," become trapped in a second-class status that they find difficult to escape. The conventional point of view holds that discrimination has mostly ended with the Civil rights movement reforms of the 1960s. However, Alexander claims the U.S. criminal justice system uses the “War on Drugs” as a primary tool for enforcing traditional, as well as new, modes of discrimination and repression.
In an article addressing the status of contemporary African Americans, Alexander said, "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 achieved great power, wealth and fame". Alexander sees the masses of ordinary African Americans as being relegated to the status of a "racial caste," even though the official approach to dealing with minorities has been redesigned to avoid explicit use of racial attributes. According to Alexander, forms of "racial control" in the United States evolve as required by changing political circumstances and contemporary standards, with the policies of the current criminal justice system replacing Jim Crow laws, which in turn had replaced slavery. Alexander aims to mobilize the civil rights community to move the incarceration issue to the forefront of its agenda and to provide factual information, data, arguments and a point of reference for those interested in pursuing the issue. Her broader goal is the revamping of the prevailing mentality regarding human rights, equality and equal opportunities in America, to prevent future cyclical recurrence of what she sees as "racial control under changing disguise."
According to the author, what has been altered since the collapse of Jim Crow is not so much the basic structure of US society, as the language used to justify its affairs. She argues that when people of color are disproportionately labeled as "criminals," this allows the unleashing of a whole range of legal discrimination measures in employment, housing, education, public benefits, voting rights, jury duty, and so on.
Alexander explains that it took her years to become fully aware and convinced of the phenomena she describes, despite her professional civil rights background; she expects similar reluctance and disbelief on the part of many of her readers. She believes that the problems besetting African American communities are not merely a passive, collateral side effect of poverty, limited educational opportunity or other factors, but a consequence of purposeful government policies. Alexander has concluded that mass incarceration policies, which were swiftly developed and implemented, are a "comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow."
Alexander contends that in 1982 the Reagan administration began an escalation of the "War on Drugs," purportedly as a response to a crack cocaine crisis in black ghettos. However this escalation was announced well before crack cocaine arrived in most inner city neighborhoods. During the mid-1980s, as the use of crack cocaine increased to epidemic levels in these neighborhoods, federal drug authorities publicized the problem, using scare tactics to generate support for their already-declared escalation. The government's successful media campaign made possible an unprecedented expansion of law enforcement activities in America's inner city neighborhoods, and this aggressive approach fueled widespread belief in conspiracy theories that posited government plans to destroy the black population.
In fact, in 1998 the CIA acknowledged that during the 1980s the Contra faction covertly supported by the US in Nicaragua had been involved in smuggling cocaine into the US and distributing it in US cities. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) efforts to expose these illegal activities were blocked by Reagan officials, which contributed to an explosion of crack cocaine consumption in US inner city neighborhoods. More aggressive enforcement of federal drug laws resulted in a dramatic increase in street level arrests for possession. Disparate sentencing policies (the crack cocaine v. powdered cocaine penalty disparity was 100-1 by weight and remains 18-1 even after recent reform efforts) meant that a disproportionate number of inner city residents were charged with felonies and sentenced to long prison terms, because they tended to purchase the more affordable crack version of cocaine, rather than the powdered version commonly consumed in the suburbs.
Alexander argues that the "War on Drugs" has had a devastating impact on inner city African American communities, on a scale entirely out of proportion to the actual dimensions of criminal activity taking place within these communities. During the past three decades, the US prison population has exploded from 300,000 to more than two million, with the majority of the increase due to drug convictions. This has led to the US having the world's highest incarceration rate, exceeding the rates of a number of regimes strongly criticized by the US government as highly repressive. The US incarceration rate is eight times that of Germany, a comparatively developed large democracy. Alexander claims that the US is unparalleled in the world in focusing enforcement of federal drug laws on racial and ethnic minorities. In the capital city of Washington, D.C. three out of four young African American males are expected to serve time in prison. While studies show that quantitatively Americans of different races consume illegal drugs at similar rates,[verification needed] in some states black men have been sent to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times those of white men. The proportion of African American men with some sort of criminal record approaches 80% in some major US cities, and they become marginalized, part of what Alexander calls "a growing and permanent undercaste."
Alexander maintains that this undercaste is hidden from view, invisible within a maze of rationalizations, with mass incarceration its most serious manifestation. Alexander borrows from the term "racial caste," as it is commonly used in scientific literature, to create "undercast," denoting a "stigmatized racial group locked into inferior position by law and custom." By mass incarceration she refers to the entire web of laws, rules, policies and customs that make up the criminal justice system and which serve as a gateway to permanent marginalization in the undercast. Once released from prison, new members of this undercast face a "hidden underworld of legalized discrimination and permanent social exclusion."
According to Alexander, crime and punishment are poorly correlated, and the present US criminal justice system has effectively become a system of social control unparalleled in world history, with its targets largely defined by race. The rate of incarceration in the US has soared, while its crime rates have generally remained similar to those of other Western countries, where incarceration rates have remained stable. The current rate of incarceration in the US is six to ten times greater than in other industrialized nations, and Alexander maintains that this disparity is not related to the actual rates of crime or their increase, but can be traced mostly to the artificially invoked "War on Drugs" and its associated discriminatory policies. In 1973 the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals of the Justice Department found overwhelming evidence that juvenile detention centers, jails and prisons increase crime rather than reduce it; they recommended the elimination of existing juvenile detention centers and no further construction of adult facilities. During the next few decades, actual developments went in the opposite direction; the US embarked on an unprecedented expansion of its juvenile detention and prison systems.
Alexander notes that the civil rights community has been reluctant to get involved in this issue, concentrating primarily on protecting affirmative action gains, which mainly benefit an elite group of high-achieving African Americans. At the other end of the social spectrum are the young black men who are under active control of the criminal justice system (currently in prison, or on parole or probation) - approximately one-third of the young black men in the US. Criminal justice was not listed as a top priority of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in 2007 and 2008, or of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2009. The NAACP and the ACLU have been involved in legal action, and grassroots campaigns have been organized, however Alexander feels that generally there is a lack of appreciation of the enormity of the crisis. According to her, mass incarceration is "the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement," and those who feel that the election of Barack Obama represents the ultimate "triumph over race," and that race no longer matters, are dangerously misguided.
Alexander writes that Americans are ashamed of their racial history, and therefore avoid talking about race, or even class, so the terms used in her book will seem strangely unfamiliar to many. Americans want to believe that everybody is capable of upward mobility, given enough effort on his or her part; this assumption forms a part of the national collective self-image. Alexander points out that a large percentage of African Americans are blocked by the discriminatory practices of an ostensibly colorblind criminal justice system, which end up creating an undercaste where upward mobility is severely constrained.
Alexander believes that the existence of the New Jim Crow system is not disproved by the election of Barack Obama and other examples of exceptional achievement among African Americans, but on the contrary the New Jim Crow system depends on such exceptionalism. She contends that the system does not require overt racial hostility or bigotry on the part of other racial groups; indifference serves its purpose. Alexander argues that the system reflects an underlying racial ideology and will not be significantly disturbed by half-measures such as laws mandating shorter sentences; like its predecessors the new system of racial control has been largely immunized from legal challenge. She writes that a human tragedy is unfolding under our watch, and The New Jim Crow is intended to stimulate a much-needed national discussion "about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States." 
The New Jim Crow is divided into the Introduction, which provides an overview of the book's themes, and six chapters.
Chapter 1: The Rebirth of Caste reviews the history of racial social control in the United States. Alexander describes the changing forms and reemerging patterns of "racial caste" systems; she contends that proponents of "racial hierarchy" have been able to ensure its reemergence after successful collapses following the end of slavery and the dismantling of the original Jim Crow. Alexander believes this is accomplished, to a large extent, by appealing to the prejudices and insecurities of lower-class whites.
Chapter 2: The Lockdown describes the structure of mass incarceration, focusing on the "War on Drugs." Alexander discusses the expanded powers and incentives of the police and the fate of those who become ensnared by the system. She points out that those arrested seldom receive meaningful legal representation and are pressured into plea bargain deals that involve extended control by the penal system, from which they have a slim chance of freeing themselves.
Chapter 3: The Color of Justice analyzes the ways in which the formally race-neutral criminal justice system ends up focusing disproportionately on "black and brown men."
Chapter 4: The Cruel Hand considers how the system operates once a prisoner is released. The formal discrimination and social stigmatization that follow a convict's release discourage re-entry into the larger society. This unravels social structures, especially those of inner city African-Americans.
Chapter 5: The New Jim Crow explores the many parallels between mass incarceration and the former Jim Crow legal system. Alexander posits that there is a striking similarity between the current and past racial caste systems in terms of their function and effects, even though the systems differ significantly. She contends that the similarities include: racial stigma and shame, as well as the presence of an elaborate system of control that involves disenfranchisement and legalized discrimination.
Chapter 6: The Fire This Time raises the issue of present and future approaches to dealing with the mass incarceration crisis. The chapter's title is based on James Baldwin's seminal forewarning The Fire Next Time. Alexander believes that pushing reforms through a broad-based social coalition, as has been done in the past, while possibly helpful, will not be enough, because "a new system of racialized social control" will eventually appear, assuming forms impossible to predict now. If a movement emerges to confront mass incarceration, Alexander believes it will need to address the underlying causes and ills of society at large, which needs to "cultivate an ethic of genuine care" for every individual, regardless of ethnic background, gender, class, or other considerations.
The New York Review of Books called the book one that would “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... [Alexander] is not the first to offer this bitter analysis, but NJC is striking in the intelligence of her ideas, her powers of summary, and the force of her writing.”
Forbes wrote that Alexander “looks in detail at what economists usually miss,” and “does a fine job of truth-telling, pointing the finger where it rightly should be pointed: at all of us, liberal and conservative, white and black.”
The book received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, saying of Alexander that she “offers an acute analysis of the effect of mass incarceration upon former inmates” who will be legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives, and described the book as “carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable.”
Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, said it “offers a timely and original framework for understanding mass incarceration, its roots to Jim Crow, our modern caste system, and what must be done to eliminate it. This book is a call to action.”
Cornel West called the book an “instant classic” and “a grand wake-up call in the midst of a long slumber of indifference to the poor and vulnerable”.
David Levering-Lewis said the book was “a stunning work of scholarship.” Daily Kos calls the book “invaluable,” and “a timely and stunning guide to the labyrinth of propaganda, discrimination, and racist policies masquerading under other names that comprises what we call justice in America.”
The New Jim Crow has also won several awards including:
The New Jim Crow has received national acclaim since its debut. However, sociologists, race relations and black studies scholars have criticized Alexander for misrepresenting the problem of mass-incarceration in the United States by augmenting and "repackaging" existing social justice research on mass-incarceration to suit white middle-class consumers. Critics have argued that Alexander creates a strained analogy to the original Jim Crow laws, employs a counterrevolutionary conceptual framework, and marginalizes black and brown voices in favor of more mainstream and less radical perspectives. These critics agree that mass incarceration in the United States is a catastrophic situation, but disagree with Alexander with regard to its history, causes, and possible solutions. According to Alexander, her target audience are "people who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration."
Yale University Clinical Law Professor James Forman Jr., son of James Forman, prominent civil rights leader of the 1950s and 1960s, has argued that Alexander simplifies and overstates her case by relying too heavily on her analogy to the original Jim Crow laws.
In his paper Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow, Forman Jr. identifies Alexander as one of a number of authors who have overstated and misstated their case. He observes that her framework over-emphasizes the War on Drugs and ignores violent crimes, asserting that Alexander's analysis is demographically simplistic. He suggests that Alexander does not analyze the way imprisonment is now heavily stratified by class, even among African-Americans, and notes that Alexander does not discuss the mass incarceration of other races, including whites. In the section “Overlooking Race” Forman Jr. writes that the Jim Crow analogy “obscures the extent to which whites, too, are mass incarceration’s targets," noting that “Alexander mentions them only in passing; she says that mass imprisonment’s true targets are blacks, and that incarcerated whites are ‘collateral damage.’”
Forman Jr. further suggests that the original Jim Crow should be kept separate as a unique historical event, and that the New Jim Crow writers leave out descriptions of atrocities, like lynching and torture, that the original Jim Crow entailed. In conclusion, Forman Jr. cautions that a movement against mass incarceration will need to address community safety and the treatment of prisoners, in addition to the sheer number of people imprisoned.
The discourse of The New Jim Crow has been noted for its recuperative tendencies:
In his study Toward Détournement of The New Jim Crow, or, The Strange Career of The New Jim Crow, political sociologist Joseph D. Osel writes that The New Jim Crow is an “exceptional example of recuperation.” According to his study the book promotes a false understanding of mass incarceration in the United States. He observes that The New Jim Crow “paradoxically excludes an analysis of mass incarceration’s most central and defining factors," "omits all truly revolutionary stances from its discourse" (especially those of African Americans), "quietly denies the relevance of controversial American history," and "engages in a paradoxical counterrevolutionary protest that misleads readers about the context, causes and possible remedial methods of mass-incarceration in the United States.” To support his disputed contention Osel cites several contradictions from the text, including that the book does not contain the word “capitalism.” He writes: “The New Jim Crow is a book about a modern American “caste system” without even a single reference to the modern economic paradigm,” noting that "the particular omissions and critical immunizations in The New Jim Crow serve to limit the discursive consciousness of the potential revolutionary subject" and that this limitation "runs contrary to the actual needs of the subject(s) under consideration."
In conclusion, Osel writes that social justice advocates should be deeply concerned about the The New Jim Crow's wide acclaim and argues that a détournement of the text's "commercial misinformation and half-truths" could salvage the book as an instructive category of race relations, providing readers with "a powerful lens through which we could view the strange depths and modes of ideological domination and rhetorical schisms, which sustain societal problems even while challenging them." In his initial review of the book he also notes that The New Jim Crow lacks perspective on the larger systems of capitalism, colonialism, and racism that generate mass incarceration—partly, because Alexander's audience would be uncomfortably complicit with these systems.
In his essay Why Some Like The New Jim Crow So Much, Greg Thomas, an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and English at Tufts University, also criticizes Alexander's understanding of mass incarceration, emphasizing problems with her terminology. He observes that she uses the terms "Jim Crow," "mass incarceration," and "slavery," but not "racism,” “white supremacy," or "capitalism," noting that these choices serve to isolate the problem of mass imprisonment from larger systems of domination. Further, Thomas argues that Alexander's isolation of the "war on drugs" bars an understanding of mass incarceration, writing that "The rhetoric of a “War on Drugs” does not share space in Alexander's work with other language that is basic to other, prior political analyses of Black imprisonment or “mass incarceration,” and that there is "no critical language of “capitalism” or “class” or “exploitation” in The New Jim Crow." Thomas also observes that The New Jim Crow “hides from consumer view” more insightful, radical, and fearless ideas, writing that “Alexander cites everything but traditions of Black political and even academic radicalism,” marginalizes longtime activists as "conspiracy theorists" who are misguided to accuse the American government of genocide or to challenge the prison system itself," and ignores the history of political hip-hop, making only the broad generalization about "gangsta rap" that it enables black youth to identify with the stigma of being criminals.
In conclusion, Thomas argues that Alexander's solutions to the problem of mass incarceration are counterrevolutionary. Instead of demanding changes to the social structure of the United States, and "in lieu of any radical political action or activism," she asks for (Christian) love and for "civil rights," positions that will not create radical change.
One of the major criticisms Alexander’s detractors have raised is one of "bizarre omission:" According to Osel's review Black Out: Michelle Alexander’s Operational Whitewash: "while Alexander's book claims to be concerned with exposing and describing the history and mechanisms of mass incarceration or the American "caste system," which affects the poor and people of color systematically and disproportionately, her work systematically, strangely, and emphatically excludes these voices."
Osel contends that Alexander's work provides the history of criminal justice and imprisonment with "a vast rhetorical and historical facelift where the most relevant and affected voices on the topic at hand are safely expunged from the discussion, from relevance, from history." He observes: "According to Alexander's history, there is no Malcolm X or George Jackson, no Frantz Fanon, no Richard Wright, no Eldridge Cleaver, no Angela Davis, no Huey P. Newton, no Bobby Seale, no Black Panther Party, no Black Power Movement, no self-determination, no prison-struggles, no political prisoners… Suspiciously there is almost no 1960s, no 1970s, no Black History, no Black Criticism, no Black Radicalism, no radicalism, no class struggle...the radical voices of America's black and brown inmates, the strong voices of anti-oppression, anti-imperialism, anti-exploitation, the voices of revolt, rebellion, revolution, Black and Brown power, the most salient historical texts, speeches, time-periods, and philosophies - all these things have been miraculously purged from Alexander's lens in a sort of operational whitewash, a black out, apparently unnoticed."
Greg Thomas’ heavily referenced essay Why Some Like The New Jim Crow So Much also criticizes Alexander for her Eurocentrism and omission of black history, noting that her historical points of reference are the "founding fathers," "democracy," and "Obama," rather than radical black anti-prison leaders. He observes that Alexander meticulously ignores “all of the Black and non-Black radical movements of the 1960s and ’70s…” and repetitively affirms the reality of "colorblindness", noting that Alexander describes the marginalization of blacks as almost accidental. She writes, "Old fashioned racism seems out of the question,"  as though the marginalization of blacks is an afterthought that could not be caused by racial prejudice or bigotry.
Further, Thomas observes that the first chapter of The New Jim Crow, “The Rebirth of Caste,” is a rewriting of history, calling it a "a self-contained or isolationist U.S. history disconnected from the history of the world." He notes that The New Jim Crow "moves from “The Birth of Slavery” to “The Death of Slavery,” despite the fact that “slavery does not ‘die,’" pointing out that "Alexander first lauds the “achievement” of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for “abolishing slavery,” and only belatedly concedes that it re-framed or re-articulated slavery instead of abolishing it. For “slavery remained appropriate as punishment for a crime.”’
Thomas concludes that “there is literally next to nothing to be learned from The New Jim Crow,” writing that “The New Jim Crow is not for “everyone” because from cover to cover “everyone” except advocates of white and middle-class liberalism – in the imperial context of U.S. settler nationalism – are placed totally and completely beyond the pale.”
Referring to the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, which Michelle Alexander has repeatedly referenced in public appearances, race relations scholar and Senior Fellow Shelby Steele at Stanford University's Hoover Institution argues against the politics of victimization:
Alexander's book and work has had media attention including:
a.^ The persistently lingering result of the lack of land reform, of the fact that the former slaves were not granted any of the property on which they had long labored (unlike many European serfs, emancipated and economically empowered to various degrees by that time, their American counterparts ended up with nothing), is the present extremely inequitable distribution of wealth in the United States along the racial lines. 150 years after the Civil War, the median wealth of a black family is a small fraction of the median wealth of a white family.
b.^ According to Ruth W. Grant of Duke University, the author of the book Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives (Princeton University Press 2011, ISBN 978-0-691-15160-1), the expediency-based plea bargain process, in which 90 to 95% of the felony prosecutions never go to trial, but are settled by the defendant pleading guilty, undermines the purpose and challenges the legitimacy of the justice system. Justice won't take place, because "either the defendant is guilty, but gets off easy by copping a plea, or the defendant is innocent but pleads guilty to avoid the risk of greater punishment". The question of guilt is decided without adjudicating the evidence, the fundamental process of determining the truth and assigning proportionate punishment does not take place.
c.^ Michelle Alexander suggested in a March 2012 New York Times article a possible strategy (she attributed the idea to Susan Burton) for coping with the unjust criminal justice system. If large numbers of the accused could be persuaded to opt out of plea bargain and demand a full trial by jury, to which they are constitutionally entitled, the criminal justice system in its present form would be unable to continue because of lack of resources (it would "crash"). This last resort strategy is controversial, as some would end up with extremely harsh sentences, but, it is argued, progress often cannot be made without sacrifice.
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