“The New Jim Crow” is must-read for social justice movement
by Sam Webb
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
It should be mandatory reading for anyone in the social justice
movement, for anyone who hopes to see socialism in our nation's
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
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
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
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
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 Barak 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
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.
"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.