More African Americans are under the control of the criminal justice system today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850. Discrimination in housing, education, employment, and voting rights, which many Americans thought was wiped out by the civil rights laws of the 1960s, is now perfectly legal against anyone labeled a “felon.” And since many more people of color than whites are made felons by the entire system of mass incarceration, racial discrimination remains as powerful as it was under slavery or under the post-slavery era of Jim Crow segregation.
This is the premise of a book which has sparked a new social movement: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, New York 2010). Alexander describes how mass incarceration today serves the same purpose as pre-Civil War slavery and the post-Civil War Jim Crow laws: to maintain a racial caste system. Alexander defines “racial caste” as a racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom. She asserts that Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems, and that our current system of mass incarceration is also a caste system: “The New Jim Crow.” The original Jim Crow laws, after slavery ended, promoted racial discrimination in public housing, employment, voting, and education. The powerful Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s seemingly ended the Jim Crow era by winning the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The book demonstrates, however, that the racial caste system has not ended; it has simply been redesigned.
Alexander explains how the criminal justice system functions as a new system of racial control by targeting black men through the “War on Drugs.” The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, for example, included far more severe punishment for distribution of crack (associated with blacks) than powder cocaine (associated with whites). Civil penalties, such as not being able to live in public housing and not being able to get student loans, have been added to the already harsh prison sentences.
“Today,” says Alexander, “a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living ‘free’ inMississippiat the height of Jim Crow.”
The author argues that nothing short of a major social movement can end the new caste system. Alexander challenges us to establish a grass-roots movement to deal with the very foundation of the mass incarceration system: “If the movement that emerges to end mass incarceration does not meaningfully address the racial divisions and resentments that gave rise to mass incarceration, and if it fails to cultivate an ethic of genuine care, compassion and concern for every human being – of every class, race, and nationality – within our nation’s borders, including poor whites, who are often pitted against poor people of color, the collapse of mass incarceration will not mean the death of racial caste in America. Inevitably a new system of racialized social control will emerge … No task is more urgent for racial justice today than ensuring thatAmerica’s current racial caste system is its last.”
Alexander’s call is being answered through the rise of a new movement to end mass incarceration and its racial underpinnings. The New Jim Crow movement is formed of loosely-linked local study groups reading and discussing The New Jim Crow, and beginning to develop a grass-roots strategy first for exposing the injustice of mass incarceration, and then for challenging and ultimately ending it. At this moment of global awakening in the face of injustice, the focus on mass incarceration and racial injustice could not be more timely.