by Hyunjoo Choi
Published in 2010, The New Jim Crow is a book by Michelle Alexander that discusses several racial issues in modern America. Alexander claims that modern America has engendered a new racial caste system, one that stems from the institution of slavery and preys on the economically disadvantaged African Americans. As a result of this new racial caste, African Americans continually suffer an inconspicuous form of racism, hidden by the new social conventions of society. Alexander emphasizes the concealed nature of racism in the premise of the book when she adds, “Only after years of working on criminal justice reform did my own focus finally shift, and then the rigid caste system slowly came into view” (Alexander 12). Throughout the book, Alexander elaborates on her central theme by laying out various forms of racism in our society, such as mass incarceration of African Americans and the targeting of African Americans in the War on Drugs, and she concludes that by incarcerating a disproportionately large amount of black people and removing basic human rights from felons, America is still systematically denigrating African Americans, similar to the Jim Crow era. At the core of its argument, the book states, “mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the new Jim Crow” (Alexander 11).
Historical and Cultural Context
As a civil rights lawyer, legal scholar, and an ardent advocate of criminal justice reform, Michelle Alexander primarily focused on cases regarding race and gender discrimination. These passions, combined with the 2005 Soros Justice Fellowship award and the acceptance of a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, fueled Alexander’s writing of The New Jim Crow. However, what initially pushed Alexander to start writing the book was the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU in California.
When she directed the Racial Justice Project, Alexander also led a campaign called the Driving While Black or Brown Campaign, which attempted to highlight patterns in police brutality and racial profiling (“Legal Scholar”). During this campaign, she interviewed one particular, young African American man who provided an extremely detailed collection of the racism he encountered with the police. However, when he mentioned that he was a drug felon, Michelle Alexander immediately rejected his case due to the notion that his case would lower the campaign’s credibility. He claimed that he was framed for the felony by the police, which Alexander dismissed, but when his story was later proven true, Alexander realized that she had been wrong in that she “[was] blind to all those who were guilty and that their stories weren’t being told” (“Legal Scholar”). This inspiration propelled The New Jim Crow into action.
In historical context, the title of the book “The New Jim Crow” refers to the Jim Crow era of the late 19th and mid 20th centuries. However, the name “Jim Crow” originated from a stage character created by Thomas D. Rice. In 1828, Rice put on a blackface and imitated a sarcastic black trickster whose witty jokes targeted the white man (“The Origins”). Since then, the term “Jim Crow” had evolved to mean the oppression of African Americans during the period between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. The Jim Crow Era was filled with racial injustices for African Americans, such as voting obstructions, segregation, and many arbitrary rules that belittled African Americans. For example, the Grandfather Clause kept African Americans from voting by only allowing those who voted prior to 1867 or who descended from someone who did (Schmidt 836). Michelle Alexander draws a connection between this era in the 19th century and the disenfranchisement of felons in the modern era by claiming that both time periods restrict many black men’s fundamental right to vote. This, in turn, decreases the representation of the African American population in politics, which further strengthen Alexander’s argument that mass incarceration is essentially the “new Jim Crow.”
Themes and Style
The main theme of The New Jim Crow which encompasses all other topics of the book is the definite existence of a racial caste in America. The notion embedded in the subconscious minds of Americans over the years is that African Americans and other minority groups are inferior to white Americans. Alexander states that due to this racial caste that has permeated our society, blacks are being systematically pushed down to the bottom of the social/economic barrel, and the reason why the caste is able to survive throughout American history lies in its adaptability to current events. For example, Michelle Alexander describes the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s as a “disruption” to the racial order of that era: “Once again, in response to a major disruption in the prevailing racial order– this time the civil rights gain of the 1960’s– a new system of radicalized social control was created by exploiting the vulnerabilities and racial resentments of poor and working-class whites” (Alexander 58). This caste system opens the grounds to racial injustices, such as police brutality, disproportionately many black people being mass incarcerated, and the eventual loss of even the most basic rights for African Americans, such as the right to vote.
Michelle Alexander uses a formal writing style to deliver her message. As a social criticism book, The New Jim Crow uses an essay-structured prose to inform its audience of modern racism. Each chapter of this book discusses a different topic of modern racism: history and rebirth of caste, mass incarceration in the War on Drugs, the life of criminals, broken family dynamics, and a discussion of the current fight against racism. Alexander starts off each chapter with a brief story or quote that pertains to the topic, and she gives her own analysis of how that particular problem is crucial in understanding the African American struggle. For example, in the first chapter “Rebirth of Caste,” Alexander starts off by quoting W.E.B Du Bois: “[T]he slave went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery” (Alexander 20). She drives home the point that much like these newly “freed” slaves, African Americans today are being oppressed by a different and deceptive form of racism, one that is implicit but never explicit. Within this introductory section of the first chapter, she presents her argument with clear evidence and anecdotes, and she also presents rebuttals for any counterarguments readers may have. To readers who deny the racial caste, Alexander points out, “The fact that some African Americans have experienced great success in recent years does not mean that something akin to a racial caste system no longer exists” (Alexander 21). Michelle Alexander’s ability to provide historical, statistical, and logical evidence while accounting for any counterarguments fortifies her point and credibility. After her introduction in each chapter, she provides several other subsections that provide historical context, research, or other current events that support her argument. For example, in the second chapter “The Lockdown,” there are subsections related to police constraint, unreasonable suspicion, profiling, and more. The structure of The New Jim Crow helps to clearly portray the parallels between racial oppression in older times and the modern times.
The book was well received by most people, and it gained a plethora of attention to become a New York Times best seller. For many, the book successfully informed its audience of the severity of mass incarceration and the dangers it would hold to the African American race. Larry Aubry of the Los Angeles Sentinel praised the book, stating that “Alexander also provides a useable framework for understanding 21st century mass incarceration and its ominous political and economic implications” (Aubry 6). For the masses, the purpose of the book, which was to allow people to see the truth about racism and its consequences, seemed to have been upheld. However, there were also many critics who argued that Alexander’s work seemed biased and illogical at some points. For example, critic Jelani Jefferson Exum stated, “Alexander herself goes through the limitations of the Jim Crow analogy … She admits that mass incarceration may not be built upon ‘overt racial hostility’ and that there are whites who have fallen victim to the War on Drugs and blacks who support policies that are tough on crime (NJC 197-208).” (Exum 128). Critics like Exum disagreed with Alexander in that her view seemed too black-and-white when, in reality, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration affected not only African Americans but other groups of people as well. In an interview with Annie Stopford of Psychoanalysis, Culture, & Society, Alexander herself agreed that some people found her viewpoints to be disagreeable at parts: “there are some people who find it very difficult to compare anything to Jim Crow or slavery” (Stopford and Smith 381). She referred to those who found her comparison to Jim Crow overdone or inappropriate, but she also defended her own work, stating that it was difficult for her to see the comparison at first as well. In addition, there were other critics who also criticized Alexander’s focus on primarily African American men instead of African American women or children. In his review of The New Jim Crow and other similar social criticisms, Damien Sojoyner notes, “While undoubtedly the number of black men incarcerated is quite astounding, it is important to note that the prison system has developed a reach beyond black men” (Sojoyner 301). Despite its criticisms and debates, The New Jim Crow, packed with real-life cases, research, statistics, and historical context, was mainly praised for spreading awareness of mass incarceration, racial caste, and their horrifying reality.
“About the Author.” The New Jim Crow, newjimcrow.com/about-the-author.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2012.
Aubry, Larry. “The New Jim Crow Re-Visited.” Los Angeles Sentinel, 2 June 2011, pp. A.6-A.6.
Exum, Jelani J. “The Influence of Past Racism on Criminal Injustice: A Review of the New Jim Crow and the Condemnation of Blackness.” American Studies, vol. 52, no. 1, 2012, pp. 143-152,4, ProQuest Central; Research Library, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1348591205?accountid=11107.
“Legal Scholar: Jim Crow Still Exists In America.” NPR, NPR, 16 Jan. 2012, http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=145175694.
Schmidt, Benno C. “Principle and Prejudice: The Supreme Court and Race in the Progressive Era. Part 3: Black Disfranchisement from the KKK to the Grandfather Clause.” Columbia Law Review, vol. 82, no. 5, June 1982, p. 835., doi:10.2307/1122210.
Sojoyner, Damien M. “With Intent? The Malicious Consequences of Prison.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 1/2, 2015, pp. 299–303. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43958503.
Stopford, Annie, and Llewellyn Smith. “Mass Incarceration and the “New Jim Crow”: An Interview with Michelle Alexander.” Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, vol. 19, no. 4, 2014, pp. 379-391, ProQuest Central; Research Library, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.prx.library.gatech.edu/docview/1627799819?accountid=11107, doi:http://dx.doi.org.prx.library.gatech.edu/10.1057/pcs.2014.32.
“The Origins of the Black Minstrel Show.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 42, 2003, pp. 45–45., doi:10.1163/1872-9037_afco_asc_558.
Carney, Steve. “Those Who Lived It Recall the Oppressive Era of Jim Crow; Southerners Tell Their Stories in One of Two KPCC Programs That Explore Segregation in the Years before Civil Rights.” Home ed. Los Angeles Times, 8 Feb. 2002.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau, 2014.
Wakefield, Sara, and Christopher James Wildeman. Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality. Oxford University Press, 2013.
“We Need to Talk about an Injustice | Bryan Stevenson.” YouTube, TED, 5 Mar. 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2tOp7OxyQ8.
Keywords: mass incarceration, Jim Crow, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, social criticism, book, racism, racial caste