The New Jim Crow (Alexander)


Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness

New York: The New Press, [2010] 2012

I consider it a rule that when a controversial belief persists in the minds of a large and diverse enough population, that its controversial status is due to either (or both) 1) it’s not being sufficiently understood; and 2) the challenge it poses to the system that produced it. Given the intractable and often mean-spirited public discourse swirling around issues of race and justice, I think it is fair to say that we do not understand one another. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow offers a starting point for understanding the roots of our present day conflict from a Black perspective. And those who are brave enough, or perhaps I should say Christ-like enough, to give it a charitable and open-minded reading will have a chance to become the peacemakers that Christ has called blessed.

The Gist

The New Jim Crow rests on the back of a few depressing statistics. First, the U.S. has the world’s highest rate of incarceration. Second, the vast majority of these incarcerations are for drug related offenses. Third, the vast majority of those incarcerated for drug-related offenses are racial and ethnic minorities. Fourth, and finally, people of all races use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates—in fact, white youths are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.

What do we do with the story these statistics seem to tell? Alexander offers a study that is part history, part sociology, and presented in an accessible journalistic fashion; a story of the factors that have created this state of affairs and the impact that these social realities have on Blacks and other minorities as they experience such a world.

Alexander sets out to tell a counter-narrative, or rather another perspective on American social and legal history that demonstrates the effects that long-standing racial discrimination has had on Black persons and the communities that they comprise. Racism and discrimination and implicit bias are not necessarily everywhere. These things are, however, located in specific domains of our social world, places that the aforementioned statistics reveal: our prisons and the legal practices that feed into them.

What Stuck

The most significant thing that stuck was the inside look Alexander provides of the devastation that even minor criminal offenses can have on individual lives and the cumulative effect that this devastation has on communities in particular and the Black consciousness in general. Alexander illustrates how the justice system has managed to act on the basis of prejudicial bias to create a state of affairs where Blacks and other minorities have been imprisoned at a rate that exceeds their white counterpart drug offenders. I don’t know if  I fully agree with Alexander’s position that these policies were aimed directly and intentionally to exploit minorities for political and social gain (I think it occurs on a far less organized discriminatory and selfish basis), but regardless of the nature of the motivation, the effect has been the same.


Any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge that racism is highly adaptable. The rules and reasons the political system employs to enforce status relations of any kind, including racial hierarchy, evolve and change as they are challenged. (21)

More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century, and millions more were relegated to the margins of mainstream society, banished to a political and social space not unlike Jim Crow, where discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education as perfectly legal, and where they could be denied the right to vote. Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, and adaptation to the needs and demand so the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born. (58)


Medieval Scholastics had a particular way of debating that I sometimes wish was revived. Before someone could offer a rebuttal of their opponents position they had to give an account of their opponents position that their opponent found satisfactory. So many of the arguments (mostly Facebook, I admit) I see on these issues begin with the fact that people do not actually understand the argument of those who disagree with them—and the “dialogue” (if it can be called that) disintegrates predictably.

Polarizing conflict is useless. If I find myself utterly opposed to an idea or movement or group of people, then odds are I don’t understand them rightly. Those who find themselves offended at the protests, and kneeling, and movements proclaiming Black lives do, in fact, matter, need to figure out why these kinds of things are happening first before the condemnation begins. If you want to understand why so many people are outraged, and be a part of a constructive solution, rather than breed anger and contempt that destroys the souls of both parties, then may I suggest you start with Michelle Alexander’s book.

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