The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

“We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it,” writes Michelle Alexander, in her damning history of mass incarceration. Alexander’s tenet is that in the wake of the civil rights movement, a new system emerged to perpetuate the prior era’s explicit racial caste while appearing, on the surface, to be colorblind. So in the name of the “war on drugs,” huge numbers of young black men are pulled into a criminal justice system that labels them felons, after which discrimination (in housing, social welfare, and jobs) is entirely legal. Meanwhile, white men and women commit minor drug crimes at the same or higher rates, but remain free of the nets that entangle their black neighbors. Alexander’s study makes plain the ways that post-civil-rights era racism operates: no longer blatant, now insidious, but just as (if not more) effective. Required reading.

Reading notes

Five years

Alexander notes the disparity between sentencing laws for drunk driving and crack cocaine, the former a much greater threat to public safety:

In response to growing concern—fueled by advocacy groups such as MADD and by the media coverage of drunk driving fatalities—most states adopted tougher laws to punish drunk driving. Numerous states now have some kind of mandatory sentencing for this offense—typically two days in jail for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense. Possession of a tiny amount of crack cocaine, on the other hand, carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison.

Alexander, The New Jim Crow, page 206

Five years versus two days. Five. Years.

The vastly different sentences afforded drunk drivers and drug offenders speaks volumes regarding who is viewed as disposable—someone to be purged from the body politic—and who is not. Drunk drivers are predominantly white and male. White men comprised 78 percent of the arrests for this offence in 1990 when new mandatory minimums governing drunk driving were being adopted. They are generally charged with misdemeanors and typically receive sentences involving fines, license suspension, and community service. Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death than the use or sale of illegal drugs, 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. People charged with drug offenses, though, are disproportionately people of color. They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison.

Alexander, The New Jim Crow, page 206

So here’s how a law (or laws) can be employed in a racist manner while maintaining a colorblind facade. I can only hope that that facade depends upon our not seeing through it.


Why hatred isn’t a necessary precondition for maintaining a racial caste:

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. If someone were to visit the United States from another country (or another planet) and ask: Is the U.S. criminal justice system some kind of tool of racial control? Most Americans would swiftly deny it. Numerous reasons would leap to mind why that could not possibly be the case. The visitor would be told that crime rates, black culture, or bad schools were to blame. “The system is not run by a bunch of racists,” the apologist would explain. “It’s run by people who are trying to fight crime.” That response is predictable, because most people assume that racism, and racial systems generally, are fundamentally a function of attitudes. Because mass incarceration is officially colorblind, it seems inconceivable that the system could function much like a racial caste system. 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.

Alexander, The New Jim Crow, page 183

Alexander goes on to note that the contrast between today’s system of racial control and the Jim-Crow-era “whites only” signs and lynchings make for an easy (and I would add lazy) kind of denial.

Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of indvidual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.

Alexander, The New Jim Crow, page 183

It’s not hard to spot parallels with sexism here: much outright misogyny is no longer tolerated, or even legal, while a more subtle (but still destructive) sexism remains a systemic problem. Rejection of obvious sexism and racism serves as cover for more insidious manifestations. We have to look past the superficial color- and gender-blindness to see that the outcomes are neither.