The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Review & Reflections)

If you're anything like me, you know down deep that justice is just love in public.

If you're anything like me, your report card on justice has high marks for beautiful ideas.

And if you're anything like me, you got even lower marks for being aware of injustices outside of your own life, still lower marks for knowing how to right these wrongs.

Law professor and racial justice advocate Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has been hailed as the Bible of a new social movement. This book was like smelling salts, waking me up to injustices happening right around me. I can't get back to sleep.

I hope to offer a summary of the book below before ending with four thoughts.


Since Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first African-American president, our society glides along on the assumption that we have basically reached racial equality in America. The argument is faulty, Alexander argues, because it ignores how the justice system interacts with the average citizen. And though we are a nation that is fundamentally about opportunity-- the notion that anyone can rise above their situation to a new level of prosperity-- Alexander argues that this is simply not true for all Americans, specifically African-Americans.

"To put the matter starkly: The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy... Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration [skyrocketing numbers of imprisonment over the last three decades, disproportionately affecting poor and/or African American people] operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race." (13)

The Rebirth of Caste

Slavery, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration represent three eras of racial control in America. Alexander's main argument is that after each system collapses, "there has been a period of confusion in which those who are most committed to a racial hierarchy search for new means to achieve their goals withing the rules of the game as currently defined." (21)

Alexander traces the beginning of a race-based slavery to Bacon's Rebellion in 1675, a movement of black and white laborers against the rich plantation elite. In addition to shipping more slaves from Africa, plantation owners "extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves... Poor whites suddently had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system."

As the institution of slavery died, Southern conservatives sought new ways to suppress the movement for social and economic equality, eventually leading to the birth of Jim Crow laws that "disenfranchised blacks and discriminated against them in virtually every sphere of life, lending sanction to a racial ostracism that extended to schools, churches, housing, jobs, restrooms, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, orphanages, prisons, funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries." (35)

And as the death knell rung on Jim Crow laws in the 1950s and '60s, Alexander argues that those committed to a racial hierarchy had to find colorblind, race-neutral ways to install a new racial caste system. Enter the birth of mass incarceration, which Alexander will take up the rest of the book.

The Lockdown

Alexander focuses on the drug war, which skyrocketed in the '80s under the Reagan administration. FBI antidrug funding jumped from $8 million to $95 million; Dept. of Defense antidrug spending went from $33 million to $1.04 billion; DEA antidrug spending from $86 million to $1.03 billion.

A key point in Alexander's argument is that "few legal rules meaningfully constrain... the War on Drugs." (61) Citing both state and Supreme Court cases, she argues the Supreme Court "has seized every opportunity to... [eviscerate] Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by the police."

In an environment where police are granted far-reaching latitude to search and seize, gifted with military equipment to launch the drug war, and often incentivized for drug arrests, the incarceration rate has soared in the last few decades. With little meaningful legal representation and daunting mandatory sentencing for even first-time drug possession, defendants are often left with little choice but to accept plea deals.

Though there has been little change in crime rates, the U.S. prison population has leaped from 350,000 to 2.3 million in the past twenty-five years. (93) And although drug use is similar between races (99), "ninety percent of those admitted to prison for druge offenses... were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow [is] born." (58)

The Color of Justice

H0w does a formally race-neutral criminal justice system achieve such racially discriminatory results? Alexander argues the process is an easy two-step: (1) grant law enforcment extraordinary discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, and (2) close the courthouse door on any claim that the system operates in a discriminatory way. (103)

With ten percent of Americans violating drug laws every year, Alexander argues that strategic choices needed to be made: "if we're going to wage this war, where should it be fought and who should be taken prisoner?" (104)

The 1980s marked the shift in media imagery: at once, the typical cocaine-related story switched from a white recreational user to poor, nonwhite users and dealers. Slowly, a bias crept into our national consciousness. Although the vast majority of drug users are whites, surveys show that ninety-five percent of respondents imagined the typical drug user as black.

This media campaign fueled police bias that is mostly unconscious, "even among law enforcement officials genuinely committed to equal treatment under the law." The formula for unfair targeting African Americans in the drug war consists of three things: (1) a target too large to take on (10% of Americans annually violate drug laws), and (2) the unconscious, media-driven assumption that African Americans are the main perpetrators, (3) the expansive latitude given to police officers to search those according to their suspicions.

And, citing multiple court cases, there is virtually no way for a defendant to claim racial bias as the motivation for any given charge. Multiple studies across states have demonstrated a disproportionate amount of stops and searches among racial minorities. These same studies demonstrated a higher likelihood for whites to be carrying illegal drugs in their car than people of color. And yet defendants have no viable options to claim racial bias in their criminal charges.

This two-fold system, Alexander argues, ensures that "those who find themselves locked up and permanently locked out due to the drug war are overwhelmingly black and brown." (139)

The Cruel Hand

Alexander turns her attention to life after imprisonment. After mounting her argument in the previous chapter that the criminal justice system disproportionately targets and imprisons African American men, now she argues that those released from prison are forever designated as second-class citizens.

A first time petty drug offender, for example, may be loaded with probation, community service, and court costs. As a result of their conviction, they may be ineligible for federally-funded healthcare and welfare, food stamps, public housing, federal educational assistance, driver's license, military enlistment, and voting rights. (143)

And black men convicted of felonies, in particular, "are the least likely to receive job offers of any demographic group, and suburban employers are the most unwilling to hire them." (151) Combine the limited opportunities with the lingering fees from several departments, and so begins the "impossible predicament, making [any ex-convict] even more susceptible to criminal relapse." (156)

The New Jim Crow

Alexander summarizes her argument thus far by comparing mass incarceration to a birdcage with a locked door.

The War on Drugs is the vehicle through which extraordinary numbers of black men are forced into the cage. Entrapment is three phases.The first is roundup. Drug operations are conducted primarily in poor communities of color, and the rewards from federal grants and drug forfeiture laws incentivize the mission. And because there is no meaningful check on police discretion, Alexander argues, implicit racial biases are granted free rein.

That police are even allowed to rely on race as part of discerning who to stop and search effectively guarantees that those swept into the cage are primarily black and brown. (185)

The second is formal control. Defendants are often denied good legal representation, and prosecutors are given latitude in determining sentences. Minor, nonviolent drug offenses often carry mandatory minimums of five to ten years.

The third is invisible punishment. Denied full re-entry into their communities, discriminated from employment and housing opportunities, and stigmatized by the criminal label, the predominantly black and brown population released from prison are doomed to second-class citizenship.

Alexander spends the rest of the chapter drawing eerie parallels between Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration laws-- legalized discrimination, political disenfranchisement, exclusion from juries, and racial segregation. She also acknowledges key differences: absence of racial hostility, white victims of mass incarceration, and black support for "get tough" policies.

The Fire This Time

Although Alexander acknowledges the need for certain reforms--ending federal grant money for drug enforcement, legalizing marijuana and possibly other drugs, rescinding mandatory minimums for drug sentencing, and police engagement that partners compassion and trust alongside justice and law enforcement to name a few (233)--she rejects what she calls "cosmetic" reforms, or symbolic changes that only make the system look more just.

As she notes, a civil war was waged in order to end slavery; a mass movement was needed to bring a formal end to Jim Crow laws; dismantling mass incarceration will take something of similar magnitude.


Wow, this book flooded my mind. If it's basically true-- which I believe it is-- then its implications are sweeping. I'm still in the process of drawing out applications for my own life, but here's what I've got so far:

1. Lean into the discomfort, and talk about it.

G.K. Chesterton once said that if it's worth doing, it's worth doing badly; similarly, if an egalitarian society is worth pursuing, then it's worth fumbling our words. It's worth the risk of looking ignorant. For people like me-- white people, really, who grew up around other white people-- our biases have gone unchallenged and our ignorance has been blissful.

It's unnatural to talk about it. But we open our silly little mouths. To ask questions. To offer reflections. To express repentance. To stumble awkwardly, trying to admit that "it was because of race that we didn't care much about what happened to "those people" and imagined the worst things possible about them." (238) Because the table of brotherhood may be a thousand miles away, but it begins with a step on our shoelaces.

2. We are the same, but we are definitely not the same.

As a white person, I get the "all lives matter" thing. After all, who can deny the intrinsic value of every single human being? Paradoxically, that's the entire point of the Black Lives Matter movement. To respond to this movement by saying "all lives matter" only proves the entire point of the movement, which is that white Americans refuse to see the plight of black Americans.

We all know the person in our lives who would respond to another's tragedy with cheap platitudes. It's similar to saying all lives matter. These words insulate the person who says them from the massive inconvenience that is empathy. We know once we have empathized, we cannot go back from it. We know once we have peered into the great pit of another's suffering, we are bound to them.

Structural racism is true. Mass incarceration is real, it disproportionately targets black communities, and it sustains the nasty hierarchy upon which America was founded. Black lives matter, too. In a nation of complete social, economic, and relational justice, race may not matter. But so long as America isn't, we must have the courage to name the injustices that will never affect me. We are the same, but we are definitely not the same.

3. More siblings, less fathers.

Hear me out. I grew up fatherless in lots of ways. I subscribe to the belief that good fathers beget good communities. But the black & other minority communities disproportionately affected by mass incarceration don't need the white community to come and parent them to solutions. Colonialism is when one group decides what's better for another group; reconciliation is when two groups come together as sisters & brothers to grow love & justice together.

4. Who is my neighbor?

A Jewish man who knew he was to love his neighbor once asked Jesus who exactly his neighbor was. The text literally says the man "wanted to justify his actions." (luke 10:29, nlt) Then Jesus painted a story that implied that our neighbor is whoever we are least likely to call our neighbor.

I disagree with my family about most things. Some of our disagreements make me guffaw and wonder how they could think such things. But I never stop wanting to learn love with them. I assume their motives are sparkling with love. Where they seem mean, they must be under a lot of stress. Where they are generous, that's who they are.

The neighbor line changes between people, but we all draw those lines. Our neighbors are the ones to whom we make our whole selves available. Our neighbors are the ones who can do no wrong. Our neighbors are the ones who may be hurt, but never mean-spirited; struggling, but never lazy; guarded, but never bitter; afraid, but never threatening. Our neighbors are the ones who get our benefit of the doubt and, consequently, the ones who get the invitations to become a part of us.

Who is my neighbor? As a Christian, I approach the true answer when I get uncomfortable. If my answer doesn't confront my implicit biases; if my answer doesn't uncover the ugly skepticism I have about "them"; if my answer doesn't require me to take a step further than I'd like, then I might be missing the Jesus who meets people with foreign truths about the way things actually are.

May the conversation continue.


#race #reviews #reflections