The New Jim Crow
By Christophe Ringer, Vanderbilt University
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
The New Press (2010), 290 pp.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a revealing, passionate, and rigorously argued call to recognize the emergence of a new racial caste system in American society. Alexander boldly argues that the U.S. prison population, currently 2.3 million, is not the result of racial bias or the socio-economic ills born of the legacy of American slavery and Jim Crow. Rather, the criminal justice system, through the War on Drugs, successfully targets young black men in general and communities of color in particular, all while appearing to be “colorblind.”
Alexander moves beyond dispelling myths about the War on Drugs to articulating the complex relationship between racial injustice, cultural perceptions and legal precedents. Alexander notes, “With only a few exceptions, the Supreme Court has seized every opportunity to facilitate the drug war, primarily by eviscerating Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by the police.” In examining several cases, Alexander demonstrates the key role the U.S. Supreme Court has played in supporting police traffic stops and consent searches without probable cause or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
Alexander reminds us of what might currently seem strange: the drug war initially struggled to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of local law enforcement. That is until the federal government provided cash grants for making drug-law enforcement a top priority. The critical combination of financing and militarization ensured that “… the War on Drugs went from being a political slogan to an actual war.”
Creating a disenfranchised class
In addition, Alexander explains how the criminal justice system effectively immunizes itself from legal challenges. A key example is the account of McCleskey v. Kemp in which the Supreme Court effectively ruled that without evidence of intentional discrimination, racial bias in sentencing could not be challenged. These developments supported by consistent racially charged images of crime facilitated a fundamental restructuring of how police relate to citizens of color.
New Jim Crow articulates well the “invisible punishments” and “collateral consequences” triggered by felony convictions long after the “debt to society” as been paid. New Jim Crow charts new territory in skillfully bringing into focus the shame that comes with being labeled and arguing that it serves to create an undercaste.
This supports Alexander’s key claim that “invisible punishment” is not triggered by prison time, but by the prison label. The use of the term undercaste should be given serious consideration as it fulfills a overlooked issue in cultural values vs. social structure debate: public standing. The primary marker of public standing in the history of American democracy is the right to vote and the ability to earn wages. Alexander displays how our current criminal justice system provides a legal grounds to deny many people of color their rights as citizens and the ability to earn a honest living.
Alexander begins New Jim Crow with an incisive analysis of the durability of racism through “… new rhetoric, new language, and a new social consensus, while producing some of the same results.” More importantly, Alexander demonstrates the persistence of the “racial bribe” that undermines political resistance and solidarity by “… appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American hierarchy.” The same appeals were present in the law-and-order rhetoric fueled by the backlash against the civil rights movement. Alexander positions this as a key moment in which racist agendas were cloaked in the language of “cracking down on crime.”
The "limits of analogy"
Fortunately, Alexander is not content to allow the “new Jim Crow” to be understood as a mere slogan that draws attention to an important issue. Rather, she engages in a frank discussion of the “limits of analogy,” which addresses important similarities and differences between mass incarceration and Jim Crow segregation.
Alexander’s New Jim Crow is more than successful in bringing to light how a new “caste system lurks invisibly within the maze of rationalizations we have developed for persistent racial inequality.” In addition, Alexander’s book balances passion and accuracy as well as accessibility and conceptual rigor. But more importantly, Alexander’s book is a call for serious discussion regarding the possibility of a new social movement that ends mass incarceration. The New Jim Crow will hopefully find readers across a broad array of families, nonprofit organizations, classrooms, places of worship, and American society in general.
Meet the Author: A Community Collaborative Event
The John Perkins Center at SPU, along with several other organizations, invites you to hear Professor Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, speak about her detailed analysis from her book. Her community lecture will happen at Mount Zion Baptist Church, and she will have a Q&A at Seattle Pacific University.
Monday Community Lecture
7 p.m. / Free
1634 19th Ave., Seattle
Question & Answer Session
Seattle Pacific University
3307 Third Ave. W., Seattle
Christophe Ringer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University. His areas of research include public theology; African-American religion and politics; religion and social sciences; and critical prison studies.
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