“The New Jim Crow” is must-read for social justice movement

Any number of superlatives could easily describe Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Few books in recent years have left such an indelible impression on me.

It should be mandatory reading for anyone in the social justice movement, for anyone who hopes to see socialism in our nation’s future.

Much like James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” or Michael Harrington’s “The Other America,” Alexander’s book is a wakeup call to this nation.

At stake is the future of millions of young African American men (and other people of color) who are caught in the web of a justice system that callously, unfairly and systematically turns them into a racial caste in their own land.

“Although this new system of racialized social control purports to be colorblind,” writes Alexander, “it creates and maintains racial hierarchy much as earlier systems of control did. 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.”

But unlike Jim Crow, the stigmatization, marginalization and discrimination of African American men who make up the new racial caste is not ostensibly the result of being black, but the consequence of falling into a supposedly “non-racialized” criminal justice system at the core of which is mass incarceration.

In other words, this system of social control (from stop-and-frisk to incarceration to parole and probation) is on the surface colorblind and non-racial. The courts have said that intent, not disparate racial outcomes (for example, the disproportionate number of African American men as compared to white men that are incarcerated), is necessary to prove racism – something that is nearly impossible to do. But in its essence and functioning, racial bias permeates every pore of this system.

Thus millions of African American men who have “done time” for mainly non-violent and minor offenses find themselves unable to vote, qualify for food stamps, live in public housing, sit on juries, etc., – that is, turned into a socially and legally excluded racial caste without rights. “A criminal freed from prison,” according to Alexander, “has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living in “free” Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow.”

This turn to mass incarceration as a mechanism of racialized social control dates back to 1982, which is when then President Reagan officially declared a “War on Drugs.” Over the next three years, the number of African American men in prison for drug offenses nearly quadrupled and then increased steadily until it reached its high point in 2000, a level more than 26 times the 1982 level.

By 2006, 1 in 9 African American men between the ages of 20 and 35 was behind bars, and far more were under some form of penal control – such as parole or probation. Of the 7.3 million in the web of the criminal justice system, Alexander tells us, only 1.6 million were in prison.

The site of this “war” is the ghetto (and barrio). It would, therefore, be reasonable to assume that this war was driven by a tsunami-like wave of drug use and violent crime sweeping poor Black communities. But actually, crime rates and drug use were trending downward as Reagan made his announcement.

Moreover, drug use in the suburbs and on the college campuses is about the same as in the ghetto.

What then was behind this formally color-blind, but in fact deeply racist, “war”?

Shaken by economic, political and ideological ground lost in the preceding decade and a half at home and abroad, the Reagan administration and its supporters were determined to set into motion a counteroffensive whose objective was to restore the class power and profits of the 1 percent, while crushing any opposition on a domestic and global level.

An integral part of this effort was to destabilize and disempower the African American community and to divide the working class, especially in the South, along racial lines.

The most reactionary sections of the ruling class and its representatives in government had not forgotten the decisive role of the African American people in general and African American youth in particular who at the head of a multi-racial movement overturned the formal system of racial segregation (Jim Crow) in the 1960s.

That social power, therefore, had to be neutralized, preferably crushed. The “War on Drugs” and mass incarceration became the vehicle to fracture the Black community and establish a new racial caste system of social control, while at the same time appealing in the name of “law and order” to the racial hostilities and resentments of some white workers.  

To a degree the counterrevolution that Reagan began was successful. It not only restored class power and profits, reestablished the Republican Party in the South to a position of dominance, and put in place a new system of racialized social control, but it also threw the Black community and the entire people’s movement onto the defensive for the next three decades.

It wasn’t until the election of Barack Obama that the terrain of struggle shifted in a more favorable direction, although the right wasn’t defeated decisively, nor was the new racial caste system dismantled.

Both still need to be done, which in turn would create a  better playing field to move a progressive agenda. So let us begin by crushing the right at the polls in November and proceed to take apart the new racial caste system. No small task, but never underestimate the power of a multi-racial people’s movement of millions.

Book information:
“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”
by Michelle Alexander
The New Press, 2012 (reprint of 2010 original), 336 pages, paperback, $19.95. Also available on Kindle.


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.