Michelle Alexander’s ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’


Review by Lenore Jean Daniels, Ph.D.

“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 of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration.” – Michelle Alexander in the preface to “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”

On Aug. 3, 1980, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the U.S. government officially declared war against Black people residing in its borders. Long live the Southern strategy! Sniper shots and dynamite blasts had efficiently terrorized these people into abject numbness. A pogrom could do the trick! Troops, weaponry, ammunition! Call it the War on Drugs. And the beauty of the pogrom – the American public wouldn’t notice the war underway right on its homeland!

Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” (published by The New Press, 2010) looks at the invisible people and the invisible birdcage that keeps the masses of Black people locked in and alienated from society – the targets of the War on Drugs. She asks questions: How could a government wage a war to practice genocide against Black people after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights bill – after everyone recognized the hatred of a Bull Connors and a KKK pogrom? How could a government conciliatory to civil rights leaders be accused of engaging in war against the same people the government agreed to protect against discrimination? How are we to understand and confront a racial caste system in the age of colorblindness?

History isn’t irrelevant in “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” History here is tangible. As Alexander writes, “Since the nation’s founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time.”

Slavery ended, but “the idea of race lived on.”

A new form of enslavement arrived on stage. A system of peonage that included the Black Codes, developed to re-establish control over Blacks while also providing free or cheap labor, sought to reign in the freedom of predominantly Black men, family men – fathers and husbands. “Nine southern states adopted vagrancy laws – which essentially made it a criminal offense not to work and were applied selectively to blacks.”

When the Black Codes were outlawed, “a slew of federal civil rights legislation protecting the newly freed slaves was passed during the relatively brief but extraordinary period of black advancement known as the Reconstruction Era.” Masses of Blacks began to vote. Before the dismantling of Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau provided basic necessities. Schools opened up allowing Blacks to learn to read and write. “Literacy climbed.” Fifteen percent of all Southern elected officials were Black. The Black community looked toward a just future.

That vision of a just future, however, didn’t sit well with most white Southerners. Loopholes in the language of the 15th Amendment didn’t prohibit states from imposing educational, residential, or other qualifications for voting. “The backlash against gains of African Americans in the Reconstruction Era was swift and severe,” and poor freed Blacks were left without legal resource.

In the North, racial segregation already prevented “race-mixing” to preserve the “racial hierarchy.” Now, in the South, conservative whites began “a terrorist campaign against Reconstruction governments and local leaders” to “‘redeem’” the South.

The U.S. government withdrew federal troops from the South, the budget for the Freedmen’s Bureau was cut so severely as to make the agency “virtually defunct” and the U.S. government made no effort to “enforce federal civil rights legislation.” So here are the freed Blacks left unprotected in a hostile environment. For white Southerners, the drawback of the federal government meant freedom – to turn to the criminal justice system to control African Americans.

“The criminal justice system was strategically employed to force African Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come.” Vagrancy laws subjected Blacks to criminal charges, debt and death. A gesture could be interpreted as an “insulting gesture,” thus a crime! It’s no coincidence that “slavery remained appropriate as punishment for a crime” after “Emancipation.”

Southern whites “concluded that it was in their political and economic interests to scapegoat blacks.” Jim Crow would be a return to “‘sanity,’” a return to a racial caste system that came to represent the “‘natural’” order of the New South. Northern liberals and Populists had already turned a blind eye to African American people, and the South interpreted this silence as “‘permission to hate.’” The racial caste system flourished for many years in the U.S. while many whites turned a blind eye to it and to the suffering of African Americans.

Blacks fought back in increments until small movements became the massive Civil Rights Movement of Black, Brown and white Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drew national and international attention to the criminal caste laws and the hypocrisy inherent in Americans’ understanding of democracy. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed. Many believed that Jim Crow died.

“The New Jim Crow” rightly claims that the caste system didn’t end there. Our educational system and the corporate media usually concludes the civil rights narrative with Dr. King standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial before a huge crowd speaking to the world about a vision, a dream of whites and African Americans sitting together in colorblind America where a person is not judged by the color of his or her skin but by his or her character.

But Alexander recalls a crucial omission in the post-Civil Rights Era’s narrative. It’s the voice of Dr. King who spoke in the last three years of his life about economic inequality that led to poverty not only for Blacks but for poor whites as well. King called for a Poor People’s Movement to eradicate poverty in the U.S.

“Jim Crow” was undergoing reconstruction following the backlash to the civil rights gains. Conforming to the needs and constraints of the time, the new racial caste order “would have to be formally race-neutral – it could not invoke explicit or clearly intentional race discrimination.” It would appeal to “racist sentiments” and accompany a political movement that would succeed “in putting the vast majority of blacks back in their place.”

Above all, it would grant the nation, once again, the permission to hate Black people. The new racial caste system, finally, wouldn’t violate the law or limit “acceptable political discourse.” But the effects of the new caste order would be the same as “‘segregation forever.’”

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 imposed “minimum sentences for the distribution of cocaine, including far more severe punishment for the distribution of crack – associated with blacks – than powder cocaine, associated with whites.” In 1988, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act “authorized public housing authorities to evict any tenant who allows any form of drug-related criminal activity to occur on or near public housing premises and eliminated many federal benefits, including student loans, for anyone convicted of a drug offense.”

Reagan’s War on Drugs, “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.” Senior Bush followed with crafty Willie Horton ads.

Bill Clinton’s Ricky Ray Rector, Welfare Reform and “One Strike and You’re Out” kept the American public’s attention focused on the terror within while the federal government began funding police departments to engage in the War of Drugs. Barack Obama himself, as Alexander reminds us, a past user of illegal drugs, now lectures African American communities about responsibility and points to the image of absentee Black fathers but he and the media, writes Alexander, never ask “where the missing fathers might be found.”

In prison, more African Americans are under correctional control today, she explains, than were enslaved in 1850. More are disenfranchised today than in 1870. African Americans are warehoused in out-of-the-way rural areas where whites make up the majority of employed law enforcement personnel and where white towns benefit in terms of tax dollars and services. Convicted felons “enter a separate society, a world hidden from public view,” governed by “oppressive and discriminatory rules and laws.” In most states, they are denied to right to vote and excluded from public housing and education.

More African Americans are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850. More are disenfranchised today than in 1870.

In the meantime, “today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.” White crime doesn’t exist; “white crime lacks social meaning.”

The new Jim Crow re-establishes a caste system that makes race – Black people – invisible. We must admit out loud, writes Alexander, that “it was because of race that we didn’t care much what happened to ‘those people’ and imagined the worst possible things about them.”

The prison industrial complex hasn’t failed in its goal, she tells us. On the contrary, it has succeeded in marginalizing African Americans and disrupting thousands of families and their communities. It has also allowed the American public to continually sacrifice the idea of democracy.

The battle for democracy can’t be won exclusively in the courtrooms, Alexander argues. Litigation work, often focusing on affirmative action cases, omits the voice and the engagement of those without legal expertise.

“Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: Black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.”

Alexander asks that we consider this: Is it possible to see affirmative action – racial “cosmetic” diversity initiatives – as diversions from the frontline battle, that is, the creation of a caste of people through the criminal justice system? The “abandonment of a more radical movement” opened the space for fear and hatred to mask itself in the rhetoric of diversity, adopted by moderate and liberal whites and elite Blacks. But however comforting to some, a sprinkling of Blacks here and there doesn’t make for a democracy.

The new racial caste system, Alexander argues, depends on this rhetoric of diversity and the “black exceptionalism.” Look at Oprah! Look at Michael Jordan! But Alexander asks, “Who is the us that civil rights advocates are fighting for?” Who is the “us,” since the masses of Black Americans are caught in the correctional system and disenfranchised by and from society? What economic system benefits from this dysfunctional scheme of law and order?

The War on Drugs must end, declares Alexander! “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” ends by urging its readers to pick up the mantle where Dr. King left off. Take up the radical movement that King believed “held revolutionary potential.” Alexander proposes that we accept the “all of us or none” philosophy as we look to amend this egregious wrong by re-igniting a human rights movement in this country.

Lenore Jean Daniels, Ph.D., is a columnist and editorial board member with the Black Commentator. Contact her at http://www.blackcommentator.com/contact_forms/jean_daniels/gbcf_form.php.


  1. Having advocated and organized for years the necessity to counter the so called war on drugs with a political urban strategic agenda. 1st, radically reform Police Command n Control structures thru referendums to decentralize urban police agencies and place their control (Public Safety) in the hands of the communities that are policed. 2nd legalize hard drugs n tax/regulate availability- tax to be used to subsidize drug free maintenance rehabilitation programs (no methadone scam -Corporate Pharmaceutical companies r the foremost dealers of addictive/debilitating drugs) Drug addiction would then be classified as a mental self-abuse health issue, not a crime-and “treatment on demand” a health care right under new health care guidelines necessary to underpin hard drug decriminalization. But what r black leaders talking about? The same yikyak dysfunctional Black community mandra with no strategic vision.

  2. Historically, the auspices of Nixon’s War On Drugs came at a crucial point in the rise of black militancy in America, a militancy reflected in the numerous urban rebellions in White America’s urban colonial enclaves. Lacking a national police force under the command of the executive branch of government, Nixon set out to kill three birds with one stone: 1. Militarize the Police, 2. Consolidate Law Enforcement’s political influence in domestic policy making (LEAA and its offspring agency FEMA et al achieved this) and 3, as Sistah Alexander aptly reveals in her book, portraying phenotypical White Supremacy as the colorblind genotype of anti-drug law enforcement -the criminalization of entire communities. It is unfortunate however, that the existence of Black Political Prisoners in America, most of whom were in the forefront of resistance against Police militarization in the Black community and who delayed right-wing racist consolidation under-color of law,until the Reagan era) are not factored into the current socio-political nature of the war on drugs or for that matter the “war on terror.” The nexus between the two is providential and the institutional complex of “Homeland Security” is testimony to this.

  3. Because the fathers of those children would have been model parents had they not been sent to prison….

    Here's some statistics:

    1) From the U.S. Bureau of Justice "According to the BJS's National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)–

    * Since 1994, violent crime rates (murder, rape and sexual assault, robbery, and assault) have declined, reaching the lowest level ever recorded in 2005.
    * Property crime rates (burglary, theft, and motor vehicle theft) continue to decline.

    According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reports–

    * The violent crime rate decreased 1.4% from 2006 to 2007. From 1998 to 2007 the rate fell 17.7%.
    * The property crime rate decreased 2.1% from 2006 to 2007. From 1998 to 2007, the rate fell 19.5%.

    The FBI's Uniform Crime Reports Program (UCR) collects information from local law enforcement agencies about crimes reported to police. The UCR crime index includes seven offenses; homicide, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft.

    See also Data Online and Homicide Trends in the United States for additional UCR data.

    2) Also from the US Bureau of Justice, prison rates have dramatically risen since 1980. http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/glance/corr2.cfm

    So let's get this straight, prison population goes up and violent crime goes down, right? Does that seem like Jim Crow to you or just sensible policy? Bear in mind that the most common victims of black crime are black victims.

    So please, quit with the conspiracy nonsense and crying about "the system." Stop making excuses for black crime. Take responsibility for black crime and unite against it. The beneficiaries will be black victims.

    Is the majority of the prison population in prison for drug crimes? No. In 2006, incarceration was for the following offenses:
    Total: 667,900 prisoners for violent crime, 277,900 for property crime and 265,000 for drug crime, and 119,500 for other crimes, like sex crimes. (http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/p08.pdf, page 8)

    Thus, drug crimes account for less than 20% of the prison population. Not only that, you are not counting for other priors a person had in addition to drug offenses. Give the Jim Crow argument a rest, it's tired already.

    • Amen. Some people are so attached to the idea that racism is at the center of every action, that they can't look at the evidence and make valid claims about it.

  4. All of the above needs to be addressed. Stats tell multiple stories. The brainwashing through the media and plays a part also. It is cool to text without regard for punctuation. Cats that get out of jail are greeted as heroes. Tattoos are on peoples faces and gold teeth trump food in the house. Jobs are hard enough to come by. Even worse when many don't even want one. Guys and gals will fight in a minute, and tape it for all to see. Do not look at some one too long or else. People compound things by being over weight and allowing the kids to be overweight too. By the time they figure it out their Heart is bad, they have diabetes by 36 or a stroke is waiting for them. People are popping vicadin, soma, perkasett, and oxycontin like tic tacs.
    The desire to be a Hustler is so strong that it trumps going to church. Folks with five kids are riding around in a two seater. Nobody is helping kids with homework any more, High School Diplomas are rare! Cussing is rampant in public. Morals are lacking and on and on.
    Then those that do have something going on in life look down on others and say "I've Got Mine."

  5. This review is a pitiful uncritical fan page of a book that tremendously oversimplifies complex issues. It also has no historical rigor. Sorry folks, this is not what Jim Crow looks like.

  6. The distortions by the author don't help the cause. Population has increase 10x since 1865. There were 4 million slaves and there are only 2.5 million total prisoners of all races. She doesn't acknowledge the role of personal choices, and despite the limited options for poor balck americans – committing a crime is a choice.

    Nonetheless, saying that there is no national responsibility for racial inequity or that the war on drugs doesn't have a racial component is also a gross distortion.

    There are only two possible causes for racial inequities on issues such as income and percent of populations in prison. It is either because of (a) something inherent to black americans as a race, or (b) the continuing effect of a history of discrimination.

    If you beleive (a), you're hopeless and there's no point in discussing the matter further. Since it has to be (b), we have a continuing societal responsibility to remedy the matter.

  7. The war on on drugs must end! We must not fall into the trap of the enemy. Say No to drugs! God will turn it around for you. Just believe in God's power!

Leave a Reply