The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander (2010)
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the War on Drugs and mass incarceration of African Americans functions as a racialized caste system similar to Jim Crow segregation laws. She defines caste as “as system in which a stigmatized racial group is locked into inferior position by law and custom.” In addition to the mass imprisonment itself, America’s unusually harsh treatment of ex-felons means extraordinarily high numbers of African Americans face legal discrimination for the rest of their life.
It’s both legal and socially acceptable to discriminate against ex-offenders. Federal agencies are legally required to exclude ex-felons from welfare and food stamp programs, public housing and Pell grants and student loans. Job discrimination against ex-felons is legal in nearly all states, and most states prohibit ex-felons from voting or serving on juries. Unable to find jobs or housing (relatives who take them in risk losing their homes under drug forfeiture* laws), many return to prison when they can’t meet the terms of their probation/parole (which usually includes stable housing and employment).
In addition to tracing the political origins of the War on Drugs, The New Jim Crow also provides a detailed analysis of the complex political and sociological dynamics that underlie white racism and the refusal of a post-racial “colorblind” society to acknowledge the immense damage mass incarceration wreaks on African American families and communities. She also explains the perplexing paradox that leads working class whites to vote against their own economic interests by electing Tea Party conservatives.
The War on Drugs: A Republican Scam
As Alexander elegantly demonstrates, the War on Drugs is part of a deliberate strategy by the Republican Party to play on racial animosity among working class whites to win their votes. The American elite has used this divide and conquer strategy to discourage multiracial coalitions all the way back to Bacon’s Rebellion* in 1676. According to Alexander, the original Jim Crow laws were largely a reaction to a brief multiracial coalition that formed as part of the Populist movement in the late 1800s.
Nixon was the first president to deliberately target the racist vote with the intention of transferring previously Democratic southern states to the Republican column. He pioneered the use of racially coded rhetoric such as “law and order,” “tough on crime” and the “undeserving” vs the “deserving” poor.
Here Alexander emphasizes that the affluent white liberals who championed 1960s civil rights legislation were essentially immune to the economic impact of most civil rights legislation. As professionals and academics, they weren’t competing with African Americans for the same jobs. Moreover, as residents of wealthy suburbs, their kids were excluded from mandatory busing laws.
Targeting the Racist Vote
Thanks to a highly sophisticated public relations campaign by Nixon and Republicans, by 1980 low income whites no longer saw poverty as stemming from a faulty economic system. They now blamed civil rights legislation and an overly generous welfare system. As a result, 22% of registered Democrats voted for Reagan in 1980.
Although Nixon coined the term, it would be Reagan who formerly launched the War on Drugs in 1982. The Reagan administration cut the white collar law enforcement in half to focus on street crime. This was during a period when street crime was rapidly declining and sociologists were predicting a phase-out of US prisons as they didn’t deter crime. Reagan also significantly increased DEA and FBI anti-drug enforcement while drastically decreasing funding for drug treatment. He also instituted financial incentives rewarding local policing units for high numbers of drug arrests. Alexander believes these financial rewards were directly responsible for initiating wholesale street sweeps and stop and frisk laws that have led cops to regularly jack up black motorists and inner city youths in the hope of finding illegal drugs.
Finally in 1985, he launched a major media campaign to sensationalize the crack cocaine epidemic. It worked. In 1980, only 2% of the US population viewed illegal drug use as the most important issue facing the US in 1980. By 1989 this number had reached 64%.
Clinton Escalates the War on Drugs
In 1992 Clinton and the New Democrats tried to recapture the Democratic votes they had lost to Regan and Bush by promising to enact even stricter anti-crime and anti-drug laws. Thus it was under Clinton law enforcement budgets and jail populations exploded. It was also Clinton who ended AFDC (Aid For Dependent Children) started under the New Deal – at precisely the same time inner city communities lost all their manufacturing jobs when factories shut down and moved overseas.
Clinton also initiated the federal programs to militarize local police, providing training to set up SWAT teams and surplus Pentagon tanks, body armor, weapons and helicopters. He also enacted the laws denying former drug felons access to federal programs. Sadly Obama, the first African American president, renewed and increased funding for many of these programs.
Discrimination in the Courts
In addition to discriminatory*** drug policing that focuses nearly exclusively on inner cities, African American defendants fare nearly as badly in court. Alexander cites many instances in which poor defendants receive limited or no access to legal representation. Many innocent clients, totally unaware of the future impact of a felony conviction, are intimidated into pleading guilty in return for a reduced sentence.
Ending the War on Drugs
In addition to outlining the ugly racialized history of the War on Drugs, Alexander also summarizes the conservative Supreme Court decisions that have systematically denied due process to people of color facing drug possessions. She concludes by offering a way forward – to end both the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of people of color.
In addition to legalizing marijuana (and possibly other drugs), she calls for the total structural reform of the criminal justice system. She believes only a multiracial movement with bottom up advocacy for poor blacks and whites alike can bring this about. This is exactly what Martin Luther king was working for when he was assassinated.
In the following video, Alexander talks about her book
*Drug forfeiture or asset forfeiture laws allow federal and state authorities to confiscate any and all assets (mainly homes, cars and cash) of an individual suspected of a drug-related crime. A subsequent finding of innocence doesn’t guarantee return of the assets, which often requires a lengthy and expensive court process. Some police departments deliberately misuse this law to confiscate cash and belongings of black motorists even where no arrest is made.
**Bacon’s Rebellion was an armed rebellion of white settlers and black and white indentured servants that would lead plantation owners to push for formal slavery laws to discourage further collaboration between whites and blacks.
***Although African Americans constitute only 15% of drug users, they represent 75% of the US prison population. Statistically drug dealers are more likely to be white than black, but local law enforcement authorities make no effort to police white suburbs or university campuses for illegal drug use. In fact, 80% of drug arrests are for possession (in 80% of cases for marijuana). Only 20% of arrests are for sales