10 Chilling Passages From “The New Jim Crow” That Every American Should Read
“The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
Last month marked 10 years since the publication of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book on the rise and normalization of mass incarceration in the United States.
Alexander is unyielding in her denunciation of American criminal “justice,” exposing both the false comfort of our colorblind mentality and the racial bias inherent in the disastrous, decades-long drug war.
Before Black Lives Matter, before Ferguson, before Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Philando Castile, the book confronted everything from police militarization to a legal system that has largely backed the state in its systematic criminalization of minorities, particularly young black men.
And while the combined jail and prison population appears to be leveling off and even declining, the residual impact of mass incarceration is immeasurable. What message do we send when corrections represents a higher portion of the federal budget than education?
The 10 passages listed below stuck with me in reading The New Jim Crow. Of course, I could have included countless more. But I hope you will take the time to absorb the book on your own and share it with others.
Any emphasis in the passages below is mine.
Locked Up and Locked Out
Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color. That is not what one would guess, however, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offenders. 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. And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.
The More Things Change…
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. The valiant efforts to abolish slavery and Jim Crow and to achieve greater racial equality have brought about significant changes in the legal framework of American society — new “rules of the game,” so to speak. These new rules have been justified by new rhetoric, new language, and a new social consensus, while producing many of the same results. This dynamic, which legal scholar Reva Siegel has dubbed “preservation through transformation,” is the process through which white privilege is maintained, though the rules and rhetoric change.
Rolling Back Reconstruction
While the Reconstruction Era was fraught with corruption and arguably doomed by the lack of land reform, the sweeping economic and political developments in that period did appear, at least for a time, to have the potential to seriously undermine, if not completely eradicate, the racial caste system in the South. With the protection of federal troops, African Americans began to vote in large numbers and seize control, in some areas, of the local political apparatus. Literacy rates climbed, and educated blacks began to populate legislatures, open schools, and initiate successful businesses. In 1867, at the dawn of the Reconstruction Era, no black man held political office in the South, yet three years later, at least 15 percent of all Southern elected officials were black. This is particularly extraordinary in light of the fact that fifteen years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — the high water mark of the Civil Rights Movement — fewer than 8 percent of all Southern elected officials were black.
The Dark Side of Clinton’s Triangulation
Practically overnight the budgets of federal law enforcement agencies soared. Between 1980 and 1984, FBI antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million. Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,026 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to $181 million.
During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.”
The Drug War’s Legacy
Drug offenses alone accounted for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, between 1985 to 2000, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population. Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41,000 in 1980 — an increase of 1,100 percent. Drug arrests have tripled since 1980.
Racial Bias Is a Feature, Not a Bug
The racial bias inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men. For young black men, the statistics are even worse. Once in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006, and far more were under some form of penal control — such as probation or parole.
From the outset, the drug war could have been waged primarily in overwhelmingly white suburbs or on college campuses. SWAT teams could have rappelled from helicopters in gated suburban communities and raided the homes of high school lacrosse players known for hosting coke and ecstasy parties after their games. The police could have seized televisions, furniture, and cash from fraternity houses based on an anonymous tip that a few joints or a stash of cocaine could be hidden in someone’s dresser drawer. Suburban homemakers could have been placed under surveillance and subjected to undercover operations designed to catch them violating laws regulating the use and sale of prescription ‘uppers.’ All of this could have happened as a matter of routine in white communities, but it did not.
The sense that black men have disappeared is rooted in reality. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2002 that there are nearly 3 million more black adult women than men in black communities across the United States, a gender gap of 26 percent. In many urban areas, the gap is far worse, rising to more than 37 percent in places like New York City. The comparable disparity for whites in the United States is 8 percent. Although a million black men can be found in prisons and jails, public acknowledgment of the role of the criminal justice system in “disappearing” black men is surprisingly rare. Even in the black media — which is generally more willing to raise and tackle issues related to criminal justice — an eerie silence can often be found.
The Task Before Us
A new civil rights movement cannot be organized around the relics of the earlier system of control if it is to address meaningfully the racial realities of our time. Any racial justice movement, to be successful, must vigorously challenge the public consensus that underlies the prevailing system of control. Nooses, racial slurs, and overt bigotry are widely condemned by people across the political spectrum; they are understood to be remnants of the past, no longer reflective of the prevailing public consensus about race. Challenging these forms of racism is certainly necessary, as we must always remain vigilant, but it will do little to shake the foundations of the current system of control. The new caste system, unlike its predecessors, is officially colorblind. We must deal with it on its own terms.
I hope you read the book and pass on these lessons.