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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

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"Jarvious Cotton's great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Klu Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole."

As the United States celebrates the nation's "triumph over race" with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life. Although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status--much like their grandparents before them.

In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community--and all of us--to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.

290 pages, Hardcover

First published January 5, 2010

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About the author

Michelle Alexander

34 books1,645 followers
Michelle Alexander is an associate professor of law at The Ohio State University, a civil rights advocate and a writer.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 10,417 reviews
Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.9k followers
June 3, 2020

In February of 2016, a powerful article appeared in The Nation: “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn't Deserve the Black Vote.” The name of its author—Michelle Alexander—struck me as familiar. Then I realized she was the Ohio State law professor who had caused some stir five years ago with her book The New Jim Crow, a book which demonstrated how our criminal justice system was in effect little more than a system of racial oppression. It was then I decide I had put off reading The New Jim Crow long enough.

Alexander has the credentials and the experience to know whereof she speaks. After graduating from Stanford Law and clerking for Justice Blackmun, she went to work for the California ACLU, specializing in criminal justice reform. It was there she began to realize that the American criminal justice system was not designed to reform criminals, or to control them, or even merely to punish them; instead, like the Jim Crow laws in the old South, its result was a virtual caste system, a method of social control that excludes black people in general—and poor black males in particular—from full participation in American society. Its most noticeable effect is mass incarceration: today, the United States locks up more people per capita than any other country in the world, and the number of black people in prison is three times greater than their percentage of the general population.

But The New Jim Crow demonstrates that it is not merely the large number of people in prison, but the severe curtailment of their rights after they leave prison that generates much of the system's hopelessness. Felons are excluded from public housing, welfare, employment opportunities, and even in many states the right to vote. These felons—a significant percentage of the urban black population—become an underclass unable to rise, an underclass filled with pariahs who are excluded from America's freedoms.

Although many people see the rise of mass incarceration as a response to the crack “epidemic” of the 80's, Alexander argues persuasively that it was instead a retaliation against the civil rights gains of the 60's and 70's. “Law and Order” had for years been a code phrase for racial control, exploited by Nixon and others, but it was Reagan's “War on Drugs”—unleashed two years before cocaine was any kind of a problem—that put the system in operation. But it was not until the '90's when Bill Clinton signed the the 1994 crime bill (which Bernie Sanders voted for), and subsequently ended “welfare as we know it,” that the system achieved the merciless efficiency that it maintains to the present day.

This is an important book, and one that progressives like myself—who have put the Bernie shirts away and now display a Hillary sign on the lawn (or at least displayed one until some joker in the neighborhood stole it)—should read carefully and take to heart. It outlines the formidable task--whoever may be president--that we have ahead of us in the years to come.
Profile Image for Judith.
905 reviews
October 9, 2017
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander will pick up your everyday white liberal guilt, tie it in knots, and leave you wondering how you could have ever been so simple-minded as to think colorblindness was benign, let alone desirable. While the “War on Drugs,” hopped up on federal funds and confiscated property, is systematically exploiting African American neighborhoods to supply the ever-growing prison industry with human beings to incarcerate, the mass imprisonment of young black men is inevitable. Felony convictions of African Americans for simple possession of the kinds of drugs that white youth are routinely expected to “experiment with” are easily obtained, but incarceration is just the beginning. Once branded a felon in America today, one has no future--no job, no loan for tuition, no food stamps to help feed the children, no vote, no jury service. In some states, no amount of restitution can change a felon back into a citizen. Alexander’s scholarly study is more than convincing and, as she admits, its lesson is more than challenging. While the best and brightest of African American leaders merely provide evidence for those who insist that racism is not the problem, the future remains grim.
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
805 reviews3,856 followers
May 24, 2020
Hardly an author opened my eyes for the real dimensions and roots of the prison industry as Alexander did, she nails down the problems intrinsic to an injustice system growing like a virus or tumor in a once prospering nation.

I´ll compare 3 examples of systems, from best to worst, to demonstrate that it´s not just a problem of hidden, suppressed racism, but a question of the societal model too.

1. Fair, sustainable, eco social, Keynesian, Nordic model countries with rehabilitative justice such as Scandinavia, Switzerland, the Netherlands,...
2. Democratic countries with a renewed, played down, ignored, and not indemnified history of colonialism, oppression, slavery, and full of sick philosophies, politics, economics, and humanities.
3. Dictatorships with exploitative economic models.

The problem is that the overwhelming majority of the population lives in point 2 and 3 countries and that a change can just come with a sustainable and fair economic and societal model, because as long as stupid doctrines and agenda dominate any aspect of life, economy, education,… and even the public debate about the future is infected, there is no hope.

Look at what rehabilitative justice and punitive justice are related too, take for instance these quizzes showing how other mentalities, ideologies, and faith influence and poison all other aspects of mentality and the lives of other people.

Extremism of any kind in one single aspect, especially certain, not all, kinds of conservatism and right wing politics, not to forget this eye for an eye thing and the wannabe break free market, tend to be against restorative/rehabilitative justice, adoring enforcing retributive/ punitive justice and a destructive and unnecessary system.

There is the old saying that prisons make criminals and nothing could be closer to the truth, because being incarcerated with people with terrible lives full of poverty, abuse, violence, mental health issues,… that forced them to be criminal to survive together with a state that doesn´t care about them, instead of helping these individuals to resocialize is the perfect breeding ground for an endless continuation of a vicious circle.

After surviving in circumstances so cruel and inhuman most won´t go out without permanent psychological trauma, scarred for life, PTSD, and new mental issues added to the ones that led to imprisonment, the delinquents are stigmatized, branded, the state does as much as possible to make their life even bleaker, without hope of resocialization or a new beginning, forcing them to become criminal again to simply survive, because they have close to no other perspective. It´s nothing else than a feudalistic socioeconomic status system with very few chances of escape if one has the bad luck of being born poor and not white.

If one looks at the numbers, statistics, and timelines and compares the War on drugs that destroyed black communities as much as the narcotics, the main economic doctrine, and the politics, one sees a parallel of extreme increase of all problems in the US, while many European countries, especially Scandinavia, have nothing like that.

It might also be a good idea to take a look at the interconnection of public private partnerships, prison industry, and the possible context with the development, because it´s a bit as if the car industry could define the safety standards or the food industry the legal limits for contamination with whatever, there are enough chemicals to choose from, or Big Pharma… You get the picture. This could lead to the interest of both the companies and the state to, well, imprison as many people as long as possible to make money.

Not even to mention the conscious and subliminal racist thinking that is still poisoning many influential minds, that enabled their parents to transform the jurisdiction and legislation, to more or less secretly and subtly integrate Jim Crow in a new, even more vicious way. Because it seems legit and fair for the conservative, rich, opportunistic, and stubborn wing who thinks that they have full rights, while people of color are just three fifths.

They would immediately call their major or governor or, why not, the president, doesn´t seem improbable these days, if the police would dare to make a crackdown in their rich gated community. Ok, the officers would possibly not even come close, because the high security standards and guards would possibly not let them in. „I´m sorry gentlemen, you have no permission to disturb our residents. Why don´t you try it in the red lined, poor, hopeless areas, guess you´ll have much more luck there to boost your busts.“

Because bigoted, politically correct people don´t judge people because of color, but by asking if they are poor, evil, dangerous criminals who, after leaving prison, deserve exclusion from jury and voting, housing, education, and employment discrimination, most citizenship rights,… or honest, hard working, good citizens.

Just progressive social, economic, and political reforms, Big History, and a reprocessing of the past, including redemption, could stop the madness. But it´s still a long way to go, because as long as people think that one black president means that racism has been exterminated, which is the same illogic as saying that sexism disappeared overnight in the countries ruled by women, no important and open public debate can arise.

A wiki walk can be as refreshing to the mind as a walk through nature in this completely overrated real life outside books:


This one is especially creepy and distinctive, because if one clicks „incarceration rate per 100.000 population“ there is the US followed by states that are no great places to live, there are close to no other Western democracies in the top list, giving massive implications of something going terribly wrong here.

Just look at the categories down at the end of the 2 articles, once it´s related to sustainable, intelligent retributive solutions and on the dark side to retributive tribalism founded by wacky humanities. The Big History picture of this, that is close to unexplored, is immense.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,863 followers
February 20, 2015
1988. English 201. I was a college freshman, required to write a paper about fads vs. trends. For reasons I cannot recall, I chose to write about the War on Drugs. I can’t recall anything about the paper, either, though I can still see the “This Is Your Brain On Drugs” commercial that was rolled out in 1987 by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Washington D. C. was embroiled in the Iran-Contra Affair. It was an election year. Perestroika had just begun rolling off western tongues. Benazir Bhutto was named Prime Minister of Pakistan. I was eighteen and although I knew all about apartheid in South Africa, and stood in line to see Mississippi Burning when it was released late that year, I had been raised in nearly all-white communities in rural Washington state. The notion that the War on Drugs was at the heart of a “stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow” (p 4) would have been beyond my limited understanding of race in these United States.

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is stunning. The racialized social control she writes of in the introduction is quite simple to state, but devastating in complexity: the United States, since the dismantling of Jim Crow began in the mid-1940s, has sought to maintain the social dominance of its white population by the systematic mass incarceration of people of color, primarily young black men.

You can’t believe that so radical a policy, carried out on a massive scale that requires the collusion of each branch of government, not to mention the FBI, CIA, and local law enforcement, is possible? Don’t take my word for it. Read Alexander’s painstakingly documented book. Follow up her statements with research of your own; sadly, it’s very easy to connect the dots, all the way back to the start of slavery in the Colonies, long before the Federation was formed, long before the Constitution of the United States declared that slaves were defined as three-fifths of a man.

I could provide you the litany of statistical evidence Alexander lays out, but it’s hard to know where to start or where to stop. The data are here; the numbers are real, and they are soul-crushing. I challenge you to read this and learn for yourself. What makes this book so compelling, however, is Alexander’s ability to put human faces in front of the statistics, to show us that our shared history has neither a shared interpretation nor shared consequences.

Alexander effectively repeats and summarizes the concepts on a regular basis, which is a welcome relief, because so much of this information is hard to process. I expended much energy in rage and frustration of how this system came to be and is allowed to continue that I needed the frequent re-focus. About two-thirds of the way in, she offers this summation:
This, in brief, is how the system works: The War on Drugs is the vehicle through which extraordinary numbers of black men are forced into the cage. The entrapment occurs in three distinct phases . . . The first stage is the roundup. Vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color. … The conviction marks the beginning of the second phase: the period of formal control. Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty whether they are or not. …The final stage has been dubbed by some advocates as the period of invisible punishment. … a form of punishment that operates largely outside of public view and takes effect outside the traditional sentencing framework. . . and collectively ensures that the offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society.
One of the most thought-provoking issues raised in The New Jim Crow is the concept of colorblindness, and how Martin Luther King’s call to create a society where people are not "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" has been badly distorted by politicians in their attempts to dismantle affirmative action and anti-poverty programs. Recognition of this distortion is not new, of course, but it’s been skillfully employed in the mass incarceration movement by those who don’t want to appear racist. As Alexander states:
“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Martin Luther King, Jr fought for a society where people were not judged by the color of their skin. He never called for the color of their skin to be ignored.

Michelle Alexander states in the opening sentence that
This book is not for everyone. I have a specific audience in mind—people who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not yet appreciate the magnitude faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration…(and) those who have been struggling to persuade their friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers, co-workers, or political representatives . . . but who have lacked the facts and data to back up their claims. Last, but definitely not least, I am writing this book for all those trapped within America’s latest caste system. You may be locked up our lock out of mainstream society, but you are not forgotten.
So it’s natural to end such a bleak assessment of race in America with the question, what can be done? Michelle Alexander addresses this extensively, including taking the traditional civil rights organizations to task for turning their backs on the long-standing issue of mass incarceration of black and brown Americans.

As a white woman living again in predominantly white, rural Washington state, I despair at my ability to contribute anything useful to the dialogue, much less to be an agent of change. I accept I’ll be branded an SJW (fine by me) and shout mostly to a choir of my own peers. But I know, after reading what Michelle Alexander wrote in her preface, that this book is for me; I am the audience she had in mind. She also states in the introduction that:
A new social consensus must be forged about race and the role of race in defining the basic structure of our society, if we ever hope to abolish the New Jim Crow. The new consensus must begin with dialogue, a conversation that fosters critical consciousness, a key prerequisite to effective social action.
After Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO last August, and the Black Lives Matter campaign spread across social media, I vowed to listen, read, and better educate myself about racial injustices, as well as hold myself accountable for on my own assumptions and prejudices. The New Jim Crow makes me uncomfortable; it makes me angry, ashamed, fearful, and determined. Determined never to be so blind again.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,302 reviews22.1k followers
August 31, 2019
You need to read this. I don’t pretend to have a terribly high opinion of the US. Like Australia, it is a settler society that really needs to reconcile and make amends with its own past. For instance, until very recently the US had a holocaust museum, but no museum to slavery. The history of slavery and of Jim Crow is a stain that marks the entire sweep of US history – and that stain is red, because it is in blood.

The problem is that since the US has never reconciled itself with its past, it finds it impossible to see how the stereotypes and common sense assumptions that pervade its national consciousness remain profoundly racist. In fact, a large part of the point of this book is to show that ‘colour blind’ visions of US race relations today are perhaps the largest problem facing people of colour. From slavery, to Jim Crow, to the criminalisation of black America, the thing that makes the new racial system so effective is that it is hidden in plain sight.

Effectively, the US has an injustice system, rather than a justice system. I mean, the system is constructed to create criminals, it is created to destroy lives – and it does so in ways that make the pathways of escape from the systematic injustices of ‘law and order’ so narrow that hardly anyone can make it through. Well, when I say that, that only really applies if you are black or brown. White people are much less likely to be caught in the structural traps set by the criminal injustice system – but, hasn’t that always been thus?

The problem is the ‘war on drugs’. By any measure – well, other than counting the wealth of the owners of private prisons in the US, and criminalising huge numbers of black and brown people – the war on drugs has been an abject failure. The US now has a quarter of the people imprisoned in the world. It is quite amusing hearing people from the US go on about their love of freedom – it displays a level of double speak that would make Orwell blush. But the war on drugs has been used most effectively to put black and brown America back in their place after the Civil Rights victories of the 1950s and 60s. As the author points out repeatedly here, whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates, they commit most crimes at similar rates (although, there is evidence that whites are actually more likely than blacks to use drugs) however, the social stereotypes are that blacks are the drug users and drug dealers and that stereotype is then realised in the way blacks are treated by the police force, and then by the criminal justice system, and then by the prison system, and finally in how they are treated after they leave the prison system. A white person caught with drugs is treated better by the criminal justice system at every single stage than a black person is. They are less likely to be arrested in the first place, less likely to get a conviction, less likely to end up in jail – and all of this while being just as likely to commit the crime. But the system has been so rigged by its assertion of ‘colour blindness’ that even the profiling that clearly happens, and the disparities in sentencing that are blindingly obvious, cannot even be complained about, since everyone already knows that ‘racism doesn’t exist’ any more – I mean, President Obama was black, wasn’t he…?

I’m not going to list the examples she gives throughout this of the jaw-droppingly horrible treatment of people – I kept finding myself making involuntary noises throughout reading this. Honestly, there were points in this so shocking I almost laughed out loud, it was like something from an incredibly poor taste comedy show – you know, called Justice in America. The chapter where she details how police are encouraged to confiscate ‘the proceeds of crime’ is so disturbing that Kafka could have written it. No, in fact, Kafka would probably think it was too over the top and so even he might have shied away from writing it.

The worst of this is that it isn’t all that clear to me how the gross injustices detailed in this book are ever going to be overcome. Defining blacks as criminals has been a master-stroke – I mean, it makes it nearly impossible for even the left to support the mostly black men who have had their citizenship rights removed from them – being someone who supports blacks is bad enough, but someone who supports criminals? Who is going to do that? Potentially, not even fellow blacks. Really, this book would make you weep.

A part of this where I made one of my little noises was where she said that prisons are often placed out in the country, you know, where mostly white people live – where the prisoners then swell the local population, but, since they are prisoners, where they aren’t allowed to vote. This gives these mostly white areas more representative power (given their larger population), and it simultaneously takes representative power away from the black neighbourhoods were the prisoners would otherwise live. Three-fifths compromise, anyone? Yep, it’s just like being back in the good ol’ days when a black person’s vote was worth only three-fifths of that of a white person’s – the more things change…

The use of shame to keep black people in their place is particularly disturbing, but has proven stunningly effective. This book is a case study in discussing how effectively shame can be deployed as a form of symbolic violence against an entire population.

Like I said, this really needs to be compulsory reading. Once again, I’ve come away from reading a book utterly despising both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Sure, I would be forced to support either of them before Trump – but the harm they both did as Presidents is beyond disgusting.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
October 27, 2020
Criminal Purpose

Intention is not the equivalent of purpose - neither for individuals nor for societies. Intention is mental and ephemeral, an idea-before-the-fact which is part of a complex of other ideas, many of which may be contrary or contradictory. Intention is expressed in what we say about what we want. Purpose is the behavioral result of actions which are actually taken, and which reveal our frequently unstated or even unconscious commitments. Purpose is the concrete effects of what we do; it is what happens. Purpose emerges from intentions through politics. We can rationalise, delude, and comfort ourselves about intention but purpose is the reality which insists on being seen for what it is. And purpose is often surprising, and sometimes ugly.

The stated intention of the American legal system is equal justice under the law, a part of the American Dream of ‘opportunity’. An actual purpose of this system is the political sterilisation and social suppression of Black America. The intentional Dream is a purposeful Illusion. It matters little whether the majority of Americans intend for this to be the case. The politics of accommodating conflicting intentions has ensured that it has come about. This is the argument presented by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. It becomes a compelling argument once it is recognised that publicly expressed intentions - especially political intentions - have little to do with national purpose.

The American ‘War on Drugs’ is a central example of the phenomenon. Illegal drug usage was on the decline in the US in the 1970’s. The expressed political intention was to eliminate it entirely from American society. The real purpose was revealed only as the accompanying intentions of Black Ops in Central America, Conservative reaction to Great Society and Civil Rights legislation, and unresolved racial hatred began to interact. The behavioral purpose was coherent and deadly: the short term destruction of Black communities through the introduction of crack cocaine and associated criminality; and the long term political disenfranchisement of Black citizens through legislation that denies voting and a range of other fights to drug crime felons.

The purposeful results of the war have been remarkable, and remarkably unnoticed politically in America. What politician can stand against drug legislation while the war against drugs still rages? What liberal intellectual can deny the continuing impoverishment and dependency on public assistance in the Black community? And even in those organisations meant to promote the cause of Black equality like the NAACP, would it not be fatal for the future of affirmative action if they were to align with a ‘weak’ stance on crime? A perfect sociological storm therefore - one might almost say conspiracy, and who knows, it may well be.

It is important to understand that the national purpose has nothing to do with the reduction of crime. Criminality is part of the purpose. Alexander says “The term mass incarceration refers not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison. Once released, former prisoners enter a hidden underworld of legalized discrimination and permanent social exclusion. They are members of America’s new undercaste.” This undercaste is in fact a new way to legitimate racial oppression. That is its purpose regardless of intention. Only when someone like Alexander articulates this sort of implicit purpose, is it possible to do something about it.

The new undercaste in other words is no accident; it is imposed subservience- slavery - by other means. This is clear if one looks at the history of Black oppression in America. Alexis de Toqueville, as usual, provides a convenient datum from the mid-nineteenth century: “The Negro race will never leave those shores of the American continent to which it was brought by the passions and the vices of Europeans; and it will not disappear from the New World as long as it continues to exist. The inhabitants of the United States may retard the calamities which they apprehend, but they cannot now destroy their efficient cause.” In this context The New Jim Crow is but the latest attempt to retard and destroy. The journey from indentured bondage to slavery to violent segregation to criminal servitude is one of continuously pursued purpose. This is the real Deep State Conspiracy.

Postscript: I am once again struck with the ability of literature to anticipate science in the articulation of social issues. In this case a novel such as Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn elaborates just the kind of criminilisation of a social group through the directed use of law more than 50 years before Alexander’s analysis. See: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for William2.
758 reviews3,077 followers
July 3, 2021
This book rends the heart. It will have you exclaiming aloud. Its immediacy, its relevance to how we live today, in short, its astonishing salience, knocks the so-called knowledgeable reader on his or her ass.

Those who read this book should discard all pretense that they are unbiased. My brothers and sisters, it is not something we can choose not to be. It is implicit, engendered in us by our culture. Evidence discussed here even suggests that it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, we’re all subject to the same biases.

In that sense the book is invasive; it tends to show you your faults, personally. It’s utterly gripping. Written with economy and clarity. If only everyone, every American, would read this book. Then perhaps we could begin to address our problems.

The book’s thrust is how the war on drugs, promoted by the Raygun administration, “cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.” (p. 69)

The section about the degradation of one’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure will set your hair on fire. All such searches must be consensual. You have the right to say no. But almost no one does thanks to the Supreme Court’s odious machinations. There’s a wonderful coda, too, that briefly looks at the errors Civil Rights lawyers have made over the years.

That I should be reading this during the fourth week of the Derek Chauvin trial, the day after Daunte Wright, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed in a most despicable manner in a neighborhood of Minneapolis. I throw my hands up in despair. (Now Adam Toledo too, 13 years old. Who’s next?)
Profile Image for Tim Null.
131 reviews79 followers
April 28, 2023
In a caste system, people inherent their socio-economic status. In the New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander describes in great detail America's racial caste system whereby people are segregated by race.This system was started by slavery, then maintained by the old Jim Crow laws. After the death of the old Jim Crow laws, a new caste system was established through a system of mass incarceration and deportation that impacted both the people imprisoned or deported and their families. This system of mass incarceration and deportation has segregated millions of black and brown people and relegated them to a second-class status.

The mass incarceration resulted from Reagan's war on drugs, which wasn't really about drugs at all. It was, and continues to be, a war against people of color. Mass deportation started under Trump.

Alexander states that her greatest concern at this point is that our current system of mass incarceration and deportation will "morph into something new and more dangerous."
Profile Image for Carol.
330 reviews914 followers
February 20, 2017
The New Jim Crow is essential reading for Americans who don't or haven't followed these issues closely over the last 30 years. It's a well-organized, thoughtful, accessible read - neither too light or too cluttered with footnotes. If you have followed the reasons for and impacts of the US approach to incarceration on the African-American community (and be honest with yourself on whether you've read a few WashingtonPost or Atlantic Magazine articles from time to time or really dug in over time on the data and history), there's little new here, but it's a good reminder and summary, anyway.

If you want to wake up friends or colleagues about the reality of the so-called War on Drugs, mandatory minimums, 3-strikes laws, disparities in sentencing between users of powder cocaine vs. users of crack cocaine, and other salient facts covered in The New Jim Crow, you might find it even more effective to invite them to watch The 13th (a Netflix documentary) with you. It does an even more powerful job of communicating the same fundamental facts, with the added bonus of Alexander, Angela Davis, Jelani Cobb, Henry Louis Gates, Newt Gingrich, and others - speaking directly to the viewer.
Profile Image for Gonzo.
55 reviews101 followers
November 13, 2015
This book has a number of things going for it:
1. Most people who read this book are not good with numbers
2. Most people who read this book are not good with complicated arguments, especially if these arguments involve numbers.
3. People who are not good with numbers and arguments generally allow this deficit to be filled with an abundance of sympathy and feeling.
4. Sympathy and feeling facilitate sonorousness much better than facts and reason

That this book is tripe would, in better, freer ages, need not be said. But we live in an age of intellectual oppression--and even the most obvious facts, and the most blatant lies--are not as clear to use as they should be. The New Jim Crow is a symptom of this intellectual glaucoma. The problem is that people actually believe this hazy nonsense when it's very clear that the author of this book is either very dishonest--in which case she is quite intelligent, given the massive sales of this book--or she is very stupid, and does not know the frailty of her own arguments--in this case, she can join the club of her none-too-inquisitive readers.

What is admittedly brilliant about this book is the constant three-card monty Alexander maintains throughout. When it suits her purpose, she's happy to complain about the arrest rate, unaware that her central these lies in the conviction rate, and that the low level of convictions per black arrests may actually signal that crimes are under-enforced. She's also partial to citing her own work, which in turn cites other work, which in turn has, as its source, one unreliable dataset (explained below). Almost as if she's hiding something...

Though there is much dawdling over hack psychology studies (any of those results replicable?), though there are many crocodile tears shed over anecdotes of injustice, though the prose of a wannabe James Baldwin (who isn't?!), the basic thesis of the book is simple: Blacks and whites use drugs as a similar rate, but blacks are locked up at a much higher rate than whites. The system that locks up them up is "mass incarceration," our eponymous blight on the black community. Bad this one supposed insight with three-hundred pages of sob stories and studies unworthy of Chicken Soup for the Soul and, presto, you have a cultural phenomenon.

Because taking arms against this bloated, wretched hydra would take all day, let's strike at that central thesis, the heart of the book: The claim that blacks and whites use drugs at the same rate.

1. The data Alexander use are unreliable. Where do the numbers come from which she uses to claim that whites and blacks use drugs at the same rate? Answer (for those of you who couldn't be bothered to check the footnotes): The census. Yes, that's right, the census. Yes, that's right, the self-reported government questionnaire is what Alexander bases her most important conclusions upon. The census.
Anyone who has ever worked with social science data knows that self-reported data are unreliable. If human behavior were really a mirror to what humans say to interviewers, the world would be Utopia. Instead, what we see are humans who behave much differently in real life than they do in questionnaires.
In this particular instance, the questionnaire is the GOVERNMENT'S. Let's put this another way--what incentive would you possibly have to lie about illegal activity TO THE government? Think on that for a moment.
The data are junk. This alone should be enough to disqualify this book from any regard. But let's keep going.

2. Though the data are so spurious on their face as to warrant immediate dismissal, let's play devil's advocate. After all, if blacks and whites lie to census takers at equal rates, we would come to roughly the same results--that is, that blacks and whites use drugs at the same rates.
Thing is, this is not what we see. Johns Hopkins put out a study showing that when it comes to drug use, blacks lie about drug use. As the journal Addictive Behavior tells us, blacks lie about drug use at much higher rates than whites.

3. Even if Alexander's data weren't corrupt (the possessive is used loosely here, since Alexander can only steal her bad data from other sources)...even if blacks and whites really do use drugs at the same rates....even if these things held, Alexander's complaints against mass incarceration would be piffle. Why? Because even if parity existed between the races in drug crimes, gross disparities would exist in all other areas of recorded crime.
In Chicago in the year 2011, the murder rate among blacks was 20 times higher than among whites. Not 20% higher--20 times. Rates of other crimes--burglaries, rapes, etc. show a similar disparity. Greatly disparate rates are seen even after controlling for urban/rural divides, North/South, suburbs/city.
In other words, if there truly is parity between the races when it comes to drug crimes, it would be a huge and hugely improbable surprise given the tremendously higher rates of criminality of blacks with respect to non-drug crimes. Occam's Razor suggests that it is not some strange aberration we are witnessing, and that, hey, maybe that unreliable data led us astray. Occam's Razor, though, is a tool of common sense. And common sense is not allowed when you're in the center of a lie.
BUT THERE'S MORE. Because even if all the drug offenders were taken out of prison, the US would have the largest prison population in the world (p. 126).

The central thesis of the book is hollow. The rest is racial pornography. The simple truth is this: Mass incarceration exists because the USA has more crime than any other civilized nation on earth. Look it up! And blacks commit a grossly disproportionate amount of this crime. Look it up! That simple. Throw as many bogus numbers and phony studies on it as you want: The truth changes not a lick.

How many people who laud this book actually read the footnotes? How many actually read the studies Alexander cites? Here's the most interesting question: How many readers actually care that her work is bunk? I venture to say none, though there's always a margin of error. This book appeals to the racial onanist, and no one else; luckily, racial onanism seems to be the primary preoccupation of the chattering classes. Keep in mind that this is far different from actually having a desire to help black people. Helping black people actually requires looking at facts, and making policies which--but I'm harshing the buzz, aren't I?

Why is there no book-length rebuttal to this trash? Why are there barely any rebuttals at all? Since when is attacking a blockbuster book a foolish business move? But wait--an attack would require putting for facts which don't accommodate our racial onanism. The much-ballyhooed "dialogue" which, messiah-like, is always just beyond the horizon, is impossible for this fact. That there hasn't been a widespread rejection of this bauble is a testament to how much power white guilt has over whites and blacks alike.

You then encounter the latte-sipping classes advocating for "revolution," since it is, after all, the ruling classes and elites which have led us down this racist path. Brilliant. Of course, now that this tripe is "required reading" on so many campuses, the revolution we really need is one that will demand the truth from its prophets and teachers, and cast away this doggerel bile.

Readers of the world, unite!
Profile Image for T HH.
40 reviews12 followers
August 11, 2013
No, black people aren't the majority in our American prisons because they're more likely to commit crimes. They're there because the "War on Drugs" has been applied to them more frequently than any other racial group.

Give a damn, people. Read this book and stop lying to yourselves.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,782 reviews14.2k followers
October 8, 2018
I grew up in Chicago so I am well aware of how race can divide a city. I've lived it, seen it, the good and the bad. There are no problems harder to solve then sociological ones. One can mandate changes, change the laws, make more and more things people say and do illegal, but.....it doesn't change the way they think, change their long held beliefs, inborn prejudices and biases. Why I believe things only change on the surface, looks like we're making progress, but look underneath and you'll find something else there.

This book looks underneath, to a system that though it has changed focus, has been in place for a very long time. The statistics are staggering, the arguments well presented and thoughtfully explained. Not sure I agree with everything she presents, nor how she does it, but it is eye opening, definitely makes one think. John Legend is now leading a movement to have rights restored to convicted felons. So many of those that are black and brown in jail for drug charges, many for marijusnz, which is now legal n many states. When they get out they are not really free, hard to find a job if not I'm possible, stripped of their rights, they turn back to crime. What else can they do? Where can they go?

I plan to read later this month, American Jail, as a follow up to this one. I have though had great success with listening to non fiction audio books. I'm enjoying them now. I think this narrator was very good and that this was the perfect platform for this scholarly written book. A strong, eye opening read that hopefully will provide room for thought, basic understanding for those who read.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,520 reviews9,007 followers
December 26, 2016
One of the most important books I have ever read. With eloquence, passion, and careful research, Michelle Alexander shows how slavery in the United States has not disappeared - it has just changed shape, into the mass incarceration of black men. Among many formidable arguments, Alexander emphasizes the importance of doing away with the notion of colorblindness and how we need to see race more than ever. A quote that highlights her point:

"In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color 'criminals' and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it."

Overall, I recommend this book to everyone. You really should read this now. Alexander does a remarkable job of revealing uncomfortable truths about the United States - mainly, that racism is well and alive - while urging us to take action, to treat each other with compassion, and to recognize that true compassion involves taking action against institutionalized forms of oppression like mass incarceration. In other words: donate to the ACLU, go out and join protests, and say that "black lives matter" without an ounce of hesitation. I know I have a lot of work to do - and I hope we can all fight together. I will end this brief review with some of Alexander's words, because she says everything way better than I can:

"Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King's dream - a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for."
Profile Image for Lumumba Shakur.
71 reviews54 followers
March 5, 2012
It is Michelle Alexander's experience as a lawyer which makes this such a successful piece. It is not novelty that makes this book so profound, but the authority upon which the argument is made: simple statistics and inarguable facts. In the very beginning, Mrs. Alexander states for whom this book was written: people who have a hard time convincing friends, neighbors and others that there is something oddly familiar with the current order. She has done this perfectly and thus I highly recommend this book to anyone who has a hard time convincing others that the current state of Blackamerica is not due to a mortal/cultural flaw, but instead stems from a perfect storm of institutional control that perhaps was initially well-intended, but at present insist upon maintaining a status quo that has decimated the African-American community and is doing the same to our Latino brothers and sisters.

I was both vindicated and saddened in finding evidence from a lawyer in confirmation of my understanding that the United States Supreme Court, particularly the current make-up, has been a friend to the political and economic elite of this country, an enemy to the politically impotent masses and a main obstacle against any meaningful change in society at large. It was both shocking and appauling to see that the chief justices in the land acknowledging the existence of corrosive racism that has become inherent in the criminal "justice" system, while refusing to do anything but maintain the status quo since the only viable solution would be to dismantle the system - something which they deemed impossible. Once we reach that level of protectionism by the very same institution that is supposed to be the ultimate check on executive and legislative authority, what is left but a complete overhaul of the system - dare I say "revolution"?

The only criticism I have is that in her initial summary of the chapter contents, she seems to often have simply copied key sentences word for word, which is rather annoying, but minimal (and easily forgotten). Stylistically, it made for a redundancy and the book perhaps would have been better off without any foreshadowing summaries at all (current and future authors take note).

It has always been my person theory that most conspiracies are not concocted in smokey backrooms, but simply come into existence when particular interests converge and work towards the same goal in a previously established order. In short, what you have before you is the anatomy of just such a conspiracy and an uncomfortable reality that needs to be first acknowledged before we can ever begin to talk about social, racial and economic justice in the United States in any meaningful way.
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,363 followers
August 20, 2016
5 stars for in depth, persuasive and eye opening analysis of complex and important issues. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the war on drugs and its consequent incarceration of a disproportionate number of black American men amounts to a new form of racialized social control akin to the Jim Crow laws. She does an extraordinary job reviewing history, the different branches of the legal system, and the economic, social and political circumstances of black Americans today. She does a particularly skilful job of anticipating arguments against her thesis, responding to each one with careful and persuasive analysis. She acknowledges that she does not have a clear roadmap to address the new Jim Crow, but she offers some good starting points. This book was published in 2010, but it seems particularly timely now. I listened to this as an audio. It doesn't make for entertaining listening -- it's not a book based on anecdote, flashy drama or humour -- but it reminded me of some of my favourite university courses -- courses that had the ability to shift and challenge my way of seeing things. As I listened to this audio book, I couldn't help thinking that it's unfortunate that current political debate is so far removed from this level of analysis and thoughtfulness.
Profile Image for Mara.
1,638 reviews3,890 followers
June 5, 2020
4.5 stars - This was such a great read for so many reasons... on its face, this is an excellently argued work of historical non-fiction. Even apart from the profundity & implications of the subject matter itself, this book is well researched, well structured, and well written to an extent that makes it a pleasure to read in a way that puts it in the upper echelon of its genre.
Beyond the book as a book, I was also struck by how much there was to learn from this book apart from its main thesis. Because this topic has been an area of interest for some time, I was well aware of its overall argument & contribution to the study of race in America. But there was SO much here beyond that main thesis & I really enjoyed experiencing the way Alexander wove historical details to make her argument. I also absolutely LOVED the last chapter... ten years later, her diagnosis of where progress for the Black community had stalled & prognostication of where it should move is quite prophetic.
All in all, if you think that you already know what this book is like due to its influence on subsequent books-- you don't. This totally stands up as a work unto itself and is a fascinating classic of historical non-fiction.
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews926 followers
February 1, 2021
“Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.

Ten Years After “The New Jim Crow” | The New Yorker Radio Hour | WNYC Studios

Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is, unfortunately, still relevant. Alexander explores systemic racism especially in terms of how the criminal justice system disenfranchises, dispossesses and ultimately disposes of those in the black and brown community. There was a lot of information here and it made me think a lot about Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy. In some ways, though, I feel like didn't need to finish the book although everything is well presented and powerful. 4.25 stars

“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that's why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”

“The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.”
Profile Image for Kevin.
524 reviews108 followers
January 28, 2022
“...the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs” ~W.E.B. Du Bois

Michelle Alexander’s critique of racism in America is thorough, honest, and illuminating. I would be skeptical of an “informed opinion” from anyone who has not read this book and reckoned with its indictments.
Profile Image for Scott.
292 reviews317 followers
July 26, 2017
If you deride the Black Lives Matter movement and believe that there is no substance to claims of African Americans being unfairly targeted and victimized by law enforcement then you should read this book. You probably won’t, but you should.

The New Jim Crow delves deeply into the tragic, seemingly near-invisible underside of the high-profile shootings of people like Philando Castile - the millions of other people of color in the United States who are imprisoned and subsequently discriminated against by their own governments.

Michelle Alexander’s book demonstrates how the US policing and justice system has grown into a vast behemoth of a system (three hundred thousand inmates in 1980 blowing out to more than two million prisoners now), a prison-industrial complex reliant on the continued criminalization of millions of Americans.

And not just any Americans. Across states, in both the federal and local justice systems Alexander shows that it is people from minorities, particularly African American and Latino minorities, who appear to be disproportionately stopped, searched, arrested and imprisoned. This is despite crime statistics showing no greater prediliction for crime in these communities - African Americans use and deal drugs at very similar rates to whites, but are arrested and incarcerated at a far higher rate.

The impact of this discriminatory targeting is so great, and so long-lasting, that Alexander compares it to the impact of racial segregation under the Southern USA’s Jim Crow regime. And argues that the widespread criminalization of black men under the aegis of the war on drugs, often for crimes considered minor in most developed nations, is essentially a form of state control. Once convicted African Americans face being under the control of the state- as a prisoner or parolee - for years, and then face mind-boggling discrimination (the removal of voting rights, the inability to access public housing, being barred from receiving food stamps) for a crime that can be as inconsequential as the possession of a single joint. One small conviction can sentence a person to life-long penury, marking them as a criminal forever and making them far more likely to turn to crime to survive.

You may not agree withAlexander’s hypothesis, but regardless, some of what she reveals about the expansion of police powers in the US is genuinely terrifying.

Law changes connected to “The war on drugs’ mean that Police departments can be financially rewarded for increasing their numbers of drug arrests and convictions, encouraging them to go for easy drug collars rather than pursue more serious crimes. Furthermore laws have been passed that allow police to financially benefit from seized property have incentivized the confiscation of people’s cars, homes, and even pocket change with the inevitable result of police wrongly taking people’s possessions, and even funneling confiscated assets into corruption. Mothers have lost their homes due to one of their children hiding drugs in their ceiling, people have lost their cars for inadvertently driving a drug dealer somewhere, and the standard of evidence required for such seizures is so low that property owners who wish to contest this legalized theft are forced into court proceedings to prove their possessions are ‘innocent’.

Police departments have vastly scaled up their paramilitary SWAT forces, arming them heavily, and using them seemingly without restriction.

Constitutional rights- such as the right to be free from unjustified search and seizure – have been shredded, allowing police to pretty much search whomever they please, whenever they please. These powers have been upheld by the Supreme Court, and seem to have little chance of being reined back.

It’s all pretty scary, and Alexander offers avenues in the last part of her book for mobilizing against this injustice, for bringing civil rights era-style change to the 21st century.

In parts this book is a little academic, and it occasionally repeats arguments, but the injustices and abuses it reveals are of such a scale that they bear being hammered home over and again. What is happening is an appalling waste. The talents, dreams and potential of millions are being laid waste, and the US is missing out on the contributions of vast numbers of citizens, instead condemning them to a life of failure and discrimination.
Profile Image for Christopher.
660 reviews212 followers
December 2, 2016
I don't even know where to start. I'm not a political type of guy. I generally strive to avoid any political discourse with friends, family, or strangers. I've never picketed or protested or sat in. I mostly want to mind my own business.

But every now and then a portrayal of injustice smacks me upside the head, rattles by brains around a bit, and I'm shaken out of my apathy. I realize that not everyone was born with a shiny, silver spoon in his mouth like me. No, no, in fact, I'm among the most blessed of people in existence.

But this review is not about me, so why am I talking about myself?

Here's the thesis of the book: "By targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control—relegating millions to a permanent second-class status—even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness." (That's copied and pasted from the book description on Amazon.)

That's a pretty big claim, huh? Is the justice system really analogous with Jim Crow? I was skeptical at first and it took the majority of the book to really convince me of it. There's a neuron somewhere in my brain that misfires when it tries to process the idea that racism is inherent in the design of my country's laws. (Side note: "Design" may be a misleading word in that it implies the intent of the system to suppress minorities. I do not think that lawmakers consciously designed the justice system to suppress minorities, but that there is a confluence of situations that result in our system being overwhelmingly detrimental for minorities. It's unclear whether the author believes in an intentional design or not. Sometimes her language implies it, but other times she is careful not to imply it)

Nevertheless, I am utterly convinced now that the criminal justice system is fundamentally flawed, to the detriment of minorities and to the benefit of whites. The War on Drugs, conscious and unconscious racial prejudices in the public, the media, police, and courts, overly harsh penalties for drug crimes, lack of education about Constitutional rights, unfair and manipulative tactics by police and prosecutors, restriction of Constitutional rights for ex-felons, and many other factors have converged to create a racial "underclass".

I wish I could explain it all to you, but I don't understand all of it myself; I'm still in shock. If you're American, I would especially recommend you to read this book. I (admittedly, the non-political person that I am) think that this is the great social crisis of our time and most people are unaware of it.
Profile Image for Lady Jane.
47 reviews4 followers
March 19, 2011
The content of this book is so disturbing that I had to take a break from reading it for a week or so. I am still trying to absorb and synthesize the information. I will return later to re-read the last chapter. It is a powerful read, well worth the time and emotional energy.
I live in a city where I can bike a few miles, cross a few neighborhoods and see the divides between the rich, middle-class and poor. I live in a city with a stop-and-frisk policy that unfairly targets African-Americans. I live in a city where ex-offenders struggle with re-entry and probation. I live in a city that is a microcosm of America.
I want to live in a country that embraces all of its citizens, accepts people for who they are and helps people who need support. I want to live in a society that does not judge, condemn and blame, but supports, educates and encourages. I want the color of my skin to matter in a positive way: I am who I am because of my ancestry, my upbringing, my education and my life experiences. This is true for all Americans and we should be able to proudly display our differences.
I do not want to live in the highly-disturbing world described in this book because it is so far from the ideals of America as a nation of possibility. I know, however, that I do live in the America of this book and that I can not change it alone. I need help from my country.

Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,283 followers
June 26, 2020
A war has been declared against poor communities of color, and police are expected to wage it.

When I was in high school, I was taught a story about American history. It went basically like this: The Founding Fathers created the Bill of Rights, which enshrined basic personal liberties into law. But being flawed men, they did not think of extending these rights to black slaves. This error was corrected over time: we fought the civil war, struck down Jim Crow, and marched for civil rights—trying to create a society where a person’s worth depended on the content of her character, not the color of her skin. This long and difficult process culminated in the election of Barack Obama, whose presidency seemed to be the strongest proof that the ark of history did, indeed, bend towards justice. I watched his inauguration in the auditorium of my high school, as living proof of the validity of this narrative.

When I was in high school, I also read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s description of life in a gulag, and was taught about the horrors of repressive countries where citizens lack basic rights. The Bill of Rights would prevent any such thing from happening on American soil.

But there were many things I was not taught. For example, I was not taught that the United States currently has more people behind bars than Stalin ever had. Nor was it mentioned that, with less than 5% of the world’s population, we have over 20% of the world’s prisoners. None of my teachers likely knew that the United States not only has more prisoners per capita than China—an authoritarian country—but more prisoners in total—more prisoners than a country with over four times our population. In my class on American government, we did not learn that the US incarceration rate is six to seven times that of most European countries. In high school, we learned a little about Nelson Mandela, but we did not learn that the United States imprisons a greater percentage of its black population than South Africa during Apartheid.

When I was in high school, a police officer came in to give us a talk about illegal drugs. He was part of the D.A.R.E. program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which has been repeatedly proven ineffective. As if to underline the point, a substantial percentage of my white classmates went on to experiment with drugs, and I cannot recall a single instance of serious legal repercussions faced by any of them. We were not routinely stopped and searched, our homes were not broken into, we did not know anyone who was carted off to jail. My university was the same story: substantial levels of drug use with little enforcement and few consequences. For a white American growing up in these circumstances, the only way to learn about America’s enormous prison population—fueled by a War on Drugs that never seemed to manifest in white neighborhoods—would be to read a book like this one.

In this book, Michelle Alexander describes a criminal justice system totally incompatible with what we think of as the land of the free. She describes a system in which police focus attention on poor, black neighborhoods, and are given legal cover to racially profile. She describes police conducting searches without probable cause and confiscating money and items for mere suspicions. In this system, private residences can be broken into without warning by militarized SWAT teams, often on flimsy or false evidence. Alberta Spruill, a 57 year-old woman in Harlem, died of a heart attack when a flash bang grenade was thrown into her apartment. In 2015, a flash bang grenade was thrown into a baby’s crib in Georgia, burning the infant. In 1992 Donald Scott, a reclusive millionaire, was killed in his own home, apparently because police hoped to confiscate his assets. In none of these cases were drugs found. The case of Breonna Taylor is only the most recent example of this.

Simply put, the Bill of Rights has not prevented a situation from arising that would not be out of place in a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

The Fourth Amendment is intended to protect us from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and requires that warrants have “probable cause” and to specify the “things to be seized.” But when someone can be stopped on the street and patted down based on mere suspicion, or when someone can be stopped in their car and told to lie down in the street while police rummage through their car, confiscating any loose cash they find, then this constitutional language is dead letter.

The Eighth Amendment forbids “excessive bail” and “excessive fines,” and prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” Meanwhile, since the vast majority of those arrested are living in or near poverty, people routinely sit in jails for months, without being convicted of a crime, simply because they cannot make bail. When prisoners are released, they are provided with a pittance at the gate and told to go find work. At a time of extreme financial vulnerability, many are required to pay bills for their own incarceration, their own mandatory drug programs, and their own probation “services.”

As far as cruel and unusual punishment goes, the United States is notorious for being one of the few developed countries that maintains the death penalty. But even putting that to the side, the United States imposes prison sentences for drug offenses that are unusual in the world context, and undeniably cruel. In the Supreme Court case Harmelin v. Michigan, the court upheld a conviction of a life sentence without parole for possession of 672 grams of cocaine. Also unusual and cruel are the penalties imposed on those convicted, even after serving their prison sentences. They are not eligible for food stamps or public housing, and often are forever deprived of the right to vote or serve on a jury. And this is putting aside the legal discrimination against former convicts when it comes to housing and employment. In short, any amount of prison time can turn one into a second-class citizen.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees citizens the right to a “speedy” trial, though I have already mentioned that many people are held in jail, unable to pay bail, for weeks, months, or even years. Though the amendment guarantees a “public” trial, many are thrown into prison without having had a trial at all. This is because prosecutors can tack on charge after charge, with little restraint, meaning a guilty verdict could result in decades behind bars. Faced with such a prospect, even some innocent people take plea deals in order to shorten their sentences.

The amendment guarantees an “impartial jury,” but jury selection—and the exclusion of black jurors—has been common practice for decades. Last, the amendment grants the accused the right to “the Assistance of Counsel,” but, as noted, many are imprisoned without ever having spoken to a lawyer. Even those who do ask for public counsel are wont to be sorely disappointed. Unlike prosecutors—remarkably powerful in the current system—public defenders are underpaid and overworked. The New York Times reports on one lawyer in Louisiana who had 194 cases at the same time.

The Thirteenth Amendment outlaws slavery but makes an exception for convicted criminals. This exception has blossomed into an enormous industry of cheap prison labor. Prisoners work, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily, for far less than the minimum wage. The government also provides tax incentives for businesses to use prison, and it is a popular choice. Prisoners making a few cents per hour have labored for Starbucks, Walmart, and Victoria’s Secret, to name just three of the dozens of companies. In seven states, prisoners work the State Capitol Buildings and Governor’s Mansions, cleaning the spaces for the legislators who write the crime bills. In New York City, prisoners were used to dig the mass graves on Hart Island, where the city’s indigent are buried.

Why did this happen? Up until around the 1970s, the United States had an incarceration rate that was broadly similar to other developed countries. The change was political, and started with Nixon, who pioneered the “law and order” rhetoric that was to replace explicit mentions of race. Ronald Reagan put this rhetoric into action by initiating the War on Drugs, ushering in legislation that beefed up enforcement and instituted harsher sentences. But the Democrats certainly do not have clean hands, either. Michelle Alexander singles out the 1994 Crime Bill as the worst piece of legislation in the War on Crime, which was signed into law by Bill Clinton and written by none other than Joe Biden (even Bernie Sanders voted for it). The result of this legislation was a frightening increase in the incarceration rate. And it is difficult to see the timing of this vast expansion—coming right on the heels of the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s—as coincidental.

If our criminal justice system is really so egregious, why did it take us so long to realize it? One answer is obvious: the War on Drugs (which Alexander holds as mostly responsible for mass incarceration) is primarily directed against poor people of color, who have little political power. If SWAT teams were regularly raiding college dorms and frat houses—which they would be doing if we were really serious about the evils of drug use—then this level of police overreach and incarceration would never be tolerated.

But the other reason that this system was tolerated for so long is that, unlike earlier forms of segregation, the new War on Crime is formally colorblind. Instead of explicit mentions of race, mass incarceration is supported by the logic of meritocracy. Meritocracy is a seductive idea, not only because it allows us to say that the downtrodden “deserve it”—they are criminals after all—but because it always throws up exceptional counter-examples to the rule. This allows us to turn away from the thousands of black and brown people behind bars and turn toward remarkable people like Barack Obama and, indeed, Michelle Alexander herself. Yet just as the remarkable rags-to-riches stories of some entrepreneurs does not show that the economy is fair, the extraordinary success of Oprah Winfrey does not show that racism is dead.

Michelle Alexander has written an important and, in retrospect, a remarkably prescient book. Writing during the euphoria of the early Obama years, she alerted the public to an enormous and, at the time, largely invisible tragedy. Mass incarceration is simply incompatible with a free society; it has torn apart black and brown communities, and it harms many white Americans (mostly poor) as well. Now, as the current pandemic is spreading through our overcrowded prisons, decarceration is especially vital. And, of course, people who have served their time should not be forced to endure second-class citizenship once they are released. The spate of disturbing police killings is just the most visible symptom of a system that arrests far too many people, and can be reduced simply by decreasing the number of arrests. Decades after the War on Drugs was declared, we have millions behind bars, on probation, or on parole; and as the recent heroine epidemic has demonstrated, the drugs have not gone anywhere.
Profile Image for Vannessa Anderson.
Author 0 books177 followers
April 28, 2017
"... I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow."

"… Once they are released, they are often denied the right to vote, excluded from juries, and relegated to a racially segregated and subordinated existence. Through a web of laws, regulations, and informal rules, all of which are powerfully reinforced by social stigma, they are confined to the margins of mainstream society and denied access to the mainstream economy. They are legally denied the ability to obtain employment, housing, and public benefits—much as African Americans were once forced into a segregated, second-class citizenship in the Jim Crow era.”

What I liked about The New Jim Crow is that it used facts that can’t be disputed. The New Jim Crow is a very important read and should be required reading at the high school and college levels.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,104 followers
August 22, 2020
A little bit of honesty here:

This is an extremely important book that too few people will read.


Because it tackles the systemic institutional racism issue and breaks down all the many aspects that turn it into a full-blown machine.

"Wait. Huh? Why wouldn't people want to have that?"

Because it's understandably complicated and people are afraid of complicated.

"Oh. Right."

But this does not mean it shouldn't be read. Indeed, I think everyone should read it and understand it.

I've personally been reading about things like this for ages. Bits and pieces. Never the whole picture. And this one ISN'T the whole picture because no short-ish book can tackle it all. But this one DOES tackle a rather large portion of it.

I won't be able to mention them all here, but I'll do some:

Alexander brings up the historical aspect in brief and specifically how, during the race riots 50-60 years ago the whole idea of even mentioning race became a taboo subject. I think this is very important. If racism is at all to have a future, it must be couched in innocuous terms, and deniable policies or the "obviousness" of it would get all kinds of human rights violations thrown at them. The whole point was to create a new system where they could create a permanent underclass while avoiding racial terms while ALSO making it mostly about race.

Solution? Make a drug war. Ignore the fact that drug-related offenses were going down. Find something everyone can unilaterally agree upon during the '80s, hype it up WAY out of proportion to the actual problem, and turn it into a class/race specific issue without directly calling it a race thing.

The author backs up everything with all kinds of proof, easily verified with 20/20 hindsight, but the vast majority of drug users were white. Crack cocaine was only as addictive as regular cocaine. Alcohol abuse is MUCH worse than cocaine, crack, or especially marijuana, but since crack was actually unloaded upon black communities SPECIFICALLY, shortly after America's involvement in the drug cartels in the '80s, it was fair game to focus almost ALL attention on crack, and specifically, the horrendously pervasive narratives about its danger.

Anyone alive during the time will remember a deluge of ads, focus groups, MILITARY HARDWARE being gifted to police departments everywhere, and new laws that specifically allowed the seizure of property, homes, and vehicles on only SUSPECTED drug use.

Think about it. If someone calls a tip line saying you're up to no good, and you're black, this is all they need to blast down your door, freeze your bank accounts and take all your property. This is not PROOF of wrongdoing. And guess who gets the property? The cops are allowed to keep it all to fund the war on drugs directly.

Add to this that racial profiling is VERY much a proven thing and that it is pervasive, with sometimes more than 4 times as many blacks getting subjected to this and most of them too poor to buy off the racket, it means widespread poverty with no recourse.

And then we get to the good stuff. The prison system. Since the '80s, the prison system grew to an unimaginable size with MOST of the people in jail being black men. Why? Because most of them are there because of draconian laws on drug possession. Even though alcohol is objectively worse across the board, it is relatively light and is almost always focused on treating the problem. In other countries, sentences are described in terms of months, not a minimum of 5 years for possession. And yet, the whole IDEA of being TOUGH ON CRIME seems too GOOD to be TRUE, right? Well, yeah. It IS too good to be true.

The collateral damage is pervasive. Already poor people who have suffered "soft" segregation and housing issues are villainized further with all the same arguments made by plantation owners against their slaves. The forward-looking politicians of either side embraced these narratives equally. On the surface, it FEELS right. And that's the point. Let's not look at the conditions that keep an entire people in fear of losing everything, let's blame the ones who already have practically nothing for being angry that they have practically nothing. And then wonder why they're upset.

Oh! Let's send in more cops to clean up the streets! (Meanwhile more folk lose their houses whether or not they're actually guilty of anything. Take the case of the grandparents who lose their house because a grandchild was caught smoking crack two blocks away. Multiply truly egregious cases like that by thousands, and you might get a better idea.)

And then we come to one of the worst aspects of all this. Post-incarceration.

We all know that felons are massively discriminated against. It's almost like it's a law. Denied jobs, denied schooling, denied housing, denied hope. It's a perpetual system of punishment going on far, far longer than a prison sentence. Basically, the feeling goes, if you do the time, it'll be permanent. Permanent underclass.

So let's look at the judicial system a bit. Most cop dramas are pure narrative. And what I mean by that is that they are NOT accurately portraying the system we have. If a poor person gets a lawyer (and predominately, those arrested are black) they are generally always pressured to plea bargain. This means that whether they actually INNOCENT or not, they're pressured to do the time because the free lawyers are extremely overworked and don't have the time to do anything else with an overburdened system designed to target blacks. Again, the author does her homework and because there are so many obvious cases like this, it's become something of a dark joke.

What isn't clear to most people put into this position is this: once you're branded a felon, you stay one for the rest of your living life.

Most get their driver's licenses revoked. Their right to vote is revoked. Many of these aspects are done in such a way as to be a "soft" prevention, such as needing to pay, in perpetuity, legal fees, probation fees, even whopping $750 fines to just be allowed the right to vote again. When 100% of your paycheck can be garnished to pay for the legal costs (and many, many incidentals) after your getting out of prison, you are permanently locked into a no-win situation with no way out.

Now, combine this with tough on crime laws that target blacks WAY more than anyone else, who pull you over for minor traffic violations and then rifle through your vehicles, maybe finding a dime bag of marijuana, getting arrested, put through the plea-bargain machine, do several years, and then been way below the fact of poverty and be turned away ANYWHERE you go afterward... because you smoked marijuana while being black.

All of this is compounded as a huge social issue happening to millions and millions of people all the time. At one point, the prisons were 40% filled on drug possession charges. And afterward, after the meat-grinder of the justice system is done with you, all your prospects for a decent life dry up.

No, of course not, we don't call this racism now. It's NOT about race. It's about being tough on crime. In a perpetual punitive system that just HAPPENS to focus on mostly black people.

The whites who tend to USE the drugs more is just a weird fact. For all those whites that go to jail under the same rules, it's considered collateral damage. But since the ones that are hurt the most are the ones who are already poor, too, it doesn't really matter. Right? Because, if they could have afforded a good lawyer in the first place, they would have FOUGHT this travesty from the first arrest.

Note that rich drug kingpins and rich people, in general, tend to get out of the penal system. The war on crime doesn't care about getting the drugs off the street. They're too busy making sure that informants keep the seizure machine well oiled, fully funded, and that means making sure that the targets of these attacks are never organized, always politically in-fighting, and physically hurting themselves. It's also classic psychological warfare.

So yes, I don't go into everything that's in this book, but the primary points are here in this review.

I absolutely recommend reading the actual book for a much more detailed analysis. It's not really enough just to know about individual aspects of these problems.

We must see the whole forest, too, and not just the trees.

I *especially* recommend this book if you want to know the fundamental reason why "Defund the Police" is trending. Bazookas? REALLY? IS THIS WHAT WE REALLY NEED?
Profile Image for Peter.
89 reviews49 followers
April 29, 2019
If you aren’t familiar with how America has expressed its racism institutionally since the demise of slavery and the repeal of the overtly racist Jim Crowe laws, you might want to read this book. The author spells out in plain language how our laws and our courts have followed a racist agenda designed to rid our streets of young black men and other so called undesirables.

These laws began in the 1970s, picked up steam under the guise of the war on drugs, and kept rolling with the conservative revolution in the 1980s. And if you think this is only a Republican issue, think again, Bill Clinton, his cabinet choices, and his crime bill have steamrolled more black men into a lifetime of imprisonment than almost any other law.

Whether it’s three strikes and you’re in prison for life, even if those three strikes are for marijuana possession or selling drugs on a street corner and not a violent crime, or the one strike rules which prohibit felons, once they’ve left prison, from receiving food stamps, subsidized housing and some other government services, the criminal justice system we’ve erected has created a large underclass of ex-cons, primarily black men.

This issue is one that I care deeply about and one that often has me despairing. Who are we? What do we believe in? Do we forgive? Do we believe in second chances? Or is the mob that yells "lock em up" the true conscience of America? Michele Alexander answers some of these questions.

Read this book if you think our criminal justice system is equitable, if you believe we are a nation that forgives and believes in second chances, and if you believe that justice is colorblind. Michele Alexander will open your eyes.
Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 30 books415 followers
April 6, 2017
One of the Most Important Books Published in the English Language So Far This Century

Settle down now, class! It’s time for your pop quiz:

1. The number of Americans with criminal records is approximately: (a) 21.3 million, (b) 9 million, (c) 4.5 million, (d) 65 million

2. The highest incidence of the use and sale of illegal drugs is found in communities characterized as: (a) Asian, (b) African-American, (c) Latino, (d) White

3. The percentage of federal prisoners convicted of violent crimes is (a) 31.2%, (b) 62%, (c) 85%, (d) 7.9%

4. The total number of Americans now in prisons and jails or on probation or parole is: (a) 4.8 million, (b) 3.5 million, (c) 2.1 million, (d) 7.4 million

5. The greatest increase in funding for the War on Drugs took place during the Administration of: (a) Ronald Reagan, (b) Barack Obama, (c) George W. Bush, (d) Bill Clinton

All done now? Ready for the answers?

If you answered (d) to each of these five questions, go to the head of the class. If you’re like me, however, chances are you got few if any of these right without first reading this book. And if you now read Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow, you’ll come across a never-ending list of surprises about our country’s vaunted criminal justice system.

For example, “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” In this extraordinary book, Prof. Alexander explains how this came about largely as a result of the so-called War on Drugs; how the country’s criminal justice system has been warped to the point of nonrecognition by a series of Presidential actions, Congressional legislation, and Supreme Court decisions; how the system of arrests, prosecution, conviction, and sentencing really works now; and the catastrophic consequences of this sequence of events for our cities, our African-American and Latino communities, and ourselves. The New Jim Crow is one of the most important books published in the English language in a great many years, because it dispels so many of our cherished illusions and takes no prisoners in naming those responsible or in proposing remedies.

For starters, “The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran.” The number of prisoners of African-American and Latino descent is wildly out of proportion to their share of the general population, and the War on Drugs accounts for the lion’s share of the difference. Despite the fact that the incidence of drug use and drug sales are about the same among whites as they are among people of color, “In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.”

Alexander demonstrates, step by careful step, how this happened, starting in 1982 with Ronald Reagan’s announcement of the War on Drugs. First, legislation proposed and passed by the same politicians (Democrats as well as Republicans) who opposed the civil rights movement) elevated drug offenses far above their previous levels — beginning three years before the introduction of crack cocaine and a nationwide increase in drug use. Next, state and local police have been granted significant financial incentives to arrest large numbers of drug users (not, as TV and film presentations might suggest, “drug kingpins”) and insulated from charges of racism in targeting drug use in inner cities rather than in neighborhoods largely populated by whites. Prosecutors as well as police have been given free rein by a series of Supreme Court decisions to operate as they will, in the absence of any legal representation for the accused, and to justify their actions (such as excluding blacks or Latinos from juries or overcharging to force plea-bargain confessions) using even completely absurd or “silly” reasons. (Don’t believe this? Read the book!) “Almost no one ever goes to trial. Nearly all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining.” Those few who do go on trial frequently face all-white juries and sentencing rules hemmed in by federal legislation that requires judges to impose the harshest possible sentences — even a life sentence for a first-time offense!

Simply possessing modest amounts of marijuana has turned millions of Americans into felons serving years in federal penitentiaries, barred for life from voting or serving on juries, shamed by their families, forced to pay fees for their own parole or probation (including drug tests), excluded from public housing, and discriminated against by most employers. Is it any wonder so many return to prison?

Alexander’s thesis is brutally simple: “Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration 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.” And we all pay the price.

(From www.malwarwickonbooks.com)
Profile Image for Sylvia.
9 reviews3 followers
June 2, 2012
This Isn't Simply a Drug Issue or a Black/Brown Thing.

I appreciate the history detailed this book, i.e., slavery to reconstruction to Jim Crow to the 60s. I also came to the text expecting to agree fully with the concept, having seen far too many black men claimed by the prison system and left with virtually no means to contribute to society once released.

I read this book with increasing skepticism, however, because the author cherry-picked facts. Framing this state of affairs as largely the result of the war on drugs is misleading. Only 25% of prisoners are behind bars for drug crimes. Sure, it's tougher to make the case for restoring rights to convicted rapists, child molesters, swindlers or (in the case of the author's opening example) ex-murderers, but the author slid past the bigger, uglier truth when this really isn't just a drug issue or a black/brown thing.

To be clear: I believe black boys and men are more likely to be profiled, arrested, charged and pressured to plead. For years, we've been chanting that black and brown folks can't catch a break in the system. Nothing's changed, except baby steps toward treating crack and powder-cocaine offenses similarly. Why keep beating our social justice heads against the wall making an unpersuasive case?

The strongest case for change rests on what happens after time served (in prison and on probation/parole). Sentencing people to a lifetime of job, housing and educational discrimination, and denying them the right to vote AFTER they've paid their debt to society is not just wrong, it could be argued to be cruel and unusual punishment. Given the sympathetic case framed in those terms, we've got the basis for a action, as in class action litigation.
Profile Image for Malia.
Author 6 books569 followers
November 1, 2020
This books is deeply thought-provoking, filled with statistics, historical facts, analyses and, significantly, advice on how to move towards creating a more equitable and just society for all. This book and Paul Butler's Chokehold go had in hand, and I would recommend them both highly.

Find more reviews and bookish fun at http://www.princessandpen.com
Profile Image for Lauren Cecile.
Author 4 books326 followers
September 17, 2016
A must-read for anyone who is serious about understanding the current state of law, order and justice.
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