Michelle Alexander, the author of the book The New Jim Crow, asserts that in each generation new tactics have been used to achieve racial exclusion of and discrimination against African Americans. Her main thesis is that the United States has not ended the racial caste system, but rather redesigned it to fit into the new social context. During the days of the Jim Crow laws (from 1876 until 1965), it was acceptable and legal to discriminate against African Americans on the basis of their skin color. Alexander refers to mass incarceration as the new system of racialized social control similar to the original Jim Crow laws. Mass incarceration is the tool used to restrict political participation, employment, housing, wages, education, food stamps, and other social benefits. For instance, the continued exclusion of African Americans from voting since the days of slavery demonstrates how African Americans have been systematically removed from the political process. Tactics used in the past included citizenship and literacy tests. Currently, the disenfranchisement of felons accomplishes the goal of keeping African Americans out of the political decision-making process. Thus, they lack the ability to change discriminatory practices.
Since the formation of American society, there has been a pattern of African American oppression by Caucasians. From about 1500 until 1865 African Americans were subject to slavery. The Jim Crow laws continued the oppression of African Americans by restricting where they could live; preventing them from voting, or serving on a jury; and creating “separate but equal” buses, sections in restaurants, and access to jobs. The Jim Crow laws restricted African Americans in nearly every aspect of life, making them essentially second-class citizens. During the time of slavery and Jim Crow laws, this oppression was blatant. In the 21st century, oppression is accomplished via the criminal justice system. Legal scholar Reva B. Siegel refers to this as “preservation through transformation.” While racial exclusion is preserved, means for such exclusion have evolved to fit society’s values.
The preservation of racial exclusion has been accomplished through various institutions. In the past, these included slavery and the Jim Crow laws. Currently, the institution of oppression is the criminal justice system. Specifically, mass incarceration and drug laws achieve the goal of preserving the racial hierarchy and the white elite. Alexander discusses how “law and order” rhetoric has caused legalized discrimination against African Americans. In the last 30 years, the U.S. penal population has risen from 300,000 to 2 million people, much of which has been attributed to drug laws that target African Americans. Sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine was one of the tools used to incarcerate African Americans for long periods of time. The War on Drugs substantially expanded the power of police and increased prison sentences for drug offenses, especially lower-level offenses such as simple possession and low-level drug dealing.
In addition, almost all drug offenses are now classified as felonies, attaching the label “felon” to these offenders. After release from jail or prison, the “felon” label becomes the tool of social control by limiting opportunities to find meaningful work; lowering wages; preventing felons from receiving student financial aid, substitute housing, and food stamps; and barring participation in the political process.
Alexander stresses that the War on Drugs was declared before drug use increased. President Ronald Reagan encouraged the media to promote the idea that there was a crack cocaine epidemic in order to increase support for the War on Drugs. Alexander points out that the crack epidemic started after the War on Drugs had been declared, suggesting that the War on Drugs was a cover-up for an ensuing mass incarceration of African Americans.
Poor, young, black males are at the highest risk of being arrested, when arrested prosecuted, when prosecuted convicted, and when convicted sentenced to long prison terms. The criminal justice system as a whole is racist, according to Alexander; the War on Drugs concentrates on poor minority communities. Poor neighborhoods are patrolled more closely than the suburbs because drug use and drug dealing is expected in poor neighborhoods. This is not a new concept. In the 1960s and 1970s, black poverty was already attributed to the black subculture, which was viewed as inherently criminal. Thus, politicians wishing to be perceived as “tough on crime” pushed to implement laws targeting the “black subculture.” Support for these reforms came from the white lower and middle classes. Hubert M. Blalock referred to this as the racial threat thesis, arguing that when a minority group is perceived as a threat to economic resources by the majority population, the majority’s punitive attitudes increase, and they will vote for policies and laws that will preserve their own social status and economic advantages over those of the minority population.
Research has consistently shown that African Americans are greatly overrepresented in prisons for most offenses, but especially for drug offenses. Michael J. Lynch points out that only about 13 percent of the population is African American. Yet, 57 percent of incarcerated drug offenders are African American, 19 percent are Hispanic, and 23 percent are white. Research also shows that all races use drugs at similar rates, so the current demographics of the U.S. prison population lend support to the argument that mass incarceration and drug laws serve to assert racial control.
Much of the existing literature agrees with Alexander’s idea of the New Jim Crow. There are, however, some critics of her work. For instance, James Forman, a professor at Yale University, agrees that mass incarceration is being used as a tool of racial control. He argues, however, that comparing mass incarceration to the Jim Crow laws diminishes the severity of the Jim Crow laws, which included lynching and other forms of violence against African Americans.
- Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press, 2010.
- Blalock, Hubert M. Toward a Theory of Minority Group Relations. New York: Wiley, 1967.
- Forman, James, Jr. “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow.” New York University Law Review, v.87/1 (2012).
- Lynch, Michael J. Big Prisons, Big Dreams: Crime and the Failure of America’s Penal System. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
- Siegel, Reva B. and Jack M. Balkin. “The American Civil Rights Tradition: Anticlassification or Antisubordination.” http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/jbalkin/articles/theamericancivilrightstradition1.pdf (Accessed September 2013).
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