As Michelle Alexander details in The New Jim Crow, her 2010 seminal study of the criminal justice system, the systematic mass incarceration of African-American men and other minorities since 1980 encompasses three discrete stages: 1) Targeting minorities for minor drug offenses; 2) Giving them onerous sentences for victimless crimes; 3) Stripping them of their civil rights and isolating them economically, even after they have served their time.
Alexander calls mass incarceration the “New Jim Crow,” comparing it to the system of laws and customs in the post-Reconstruction South and North that legally discriminated against freed African-American slaves. She draws a number of amazing parallels between the U.S. between the 1880s and the Civil Rights movement and today, revealing the extent that institutional racism, supposedly eradicated by Brown v. Board of Education and LBJ’s Civil Rights laws, was recreated by federal and state lawmakers of both major parties after 1980.
Here are the similarities Alexander finds between the original and the new Jim Crow:
- Both had their roots in the desire among wealthy whites to use the resentments and racial biases of poor and working class whites to install a legally-enforced racial caste system.
- Both legalized discrimination. Jim Crow discriminated against blacks in matters of housing, education, employment, voting and public accommodations. The New Jim Crow strips voting and employment rights from ex-cons, after jailing them for minor drug offenses, which the authorities enforce only in minority neighborhoods.
- Both involve political disenfranchisement, exclusion from juries, racial discrimination and separate treatment in the criminal justice system.
- Both define the meaning and significance of race in the United States. The original Jim Crow defined blacks as second-class citizens. The New Jim Crow defines black men as criminals. In the original Jim Crow, the mass media and popular myths conflated blackness with inferiority. The New Jim Crow conflates blackness with crime.
These parallels make us realize that whatever the original intent of the developers of the Draconian laws and discriminatory police practices that define mass incarceration, we have created a system that legally defines a caste of humans with lesser rights based on their color.
Alexander also details a few differences between the original and the new Jim Crow:
- The New Jim Crow displays an absence of racial hostility, except at the margins, e.g., rogue police officers. The laws and policies express no overt hatred of blacks.
- Whites are also victims of the laws, although Alexander does make clear that the criminal justice system nationwide has stopped, arrested, charged and convicted many more blacks than whites and has given more jail time than whites received. None the less, because the laws and policies do not expressly single out blacks by race, whites also fall victim to the mass incarceration system.
- Many blacks have supported the “get tough” policies that formed the rationale for all the activity of the mass incarceration system, from stop-and-frisk programs to three-strike-you’re-out laws.
Many forces are converging at the current moment to end the system of American mass incarceration, the New Jim Crow. Some fiscal conservatives have realized that operating prisons costs state and federal governments a lot of cash. Industrialists such as the union-hating Koch brothers, may be anticipating the upcoming labor shortage as millions of Baby Boomer retire and look to empty the prisons to keep the price of labor down. Alexander and others have been talking about mass incarceration long enough that the message that there’s a big problem is finally getting through to the mainstream. Many see the causal connection between creating a caste denied basic rights and the growing inequality of income and wealth.
That leaves only those whom the authorities have scared into thinking we are in a permanent wave of violent crime and the rabid racists to oppose ending the laws that define mass incarceration. And, oh yes, the gun lobby, which makes many hundreds of millions of dollars each year selling more and more weapons to the paranoid and the frightened.