THE NEW JIM CROW: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Because of an increasing desire to grow in my understanding of race relations in the United States, I have focused much of my attention on older books to help me get a better sense of where we’ve come from as a nation (and better understand where we are now). In reading the likes of Frederick Douglass, Charles W. Chesnutt, John Howard Griffin, and Martin Luther King, Jr., I’ve had a specific aim: to guard against the deception of short-sighted, modern-day commentary without a broader understanding of history. After all, as has often been said, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
In an attempt to dip my toe into present-day scholarship, I decided to work through Michelle Alexander’s seminal book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This is the first modern book on racial discrimination I’ve read by someone outside my political and ideological circles. And since I have failed to find a detailed review of the book that evaluates its weaknesses and strengths, I challenged myself to do just that.
An Inadequate Summary
It should pointed out that Alexander herself “reached the conclusions presented in this book reluctantly” (2). Even as an employee of the ACLU, she thought it absurd to compare modern-day incarceration rates to defunct Jim Crow laws. But after spending years in the legal system and seeing its inner workings first-hand, she finally came to the conclusion that “mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow” (4).
In an attempt to boil The New Jim Crow down to its essence, the following paragraph, taken from the Introduction, may serve as a good (albeit, overly-simplified) thesis:
In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you are afforded scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. (2)
Of course, such a thesis requires a lot of explanation and defense. Hence, Alexander’s book. With an estimated word count of over 100,000, The New Jim Crow is heavy in both volume and mass. Each of its six chapters is roughly 40 pages long, with an average of 94 endnotes per chapter. This is an incredibly dense book.
Rather than a blow-by-blow description of The New Jim Crow (which you can find here—albeit, from a progressive source), the following paragraphs represent a topical, rather than strictly chronological, dissemination of the book’s content.
Fair warning: I recommend you unbuckle your seatbelts and take off your driving gloves; this is going to be a slow and deliberate ride.
Caveats and Clarifications
It should come as no surprise that Alexander’s progressive biases come into play: her distaste for historical conservatism is palpable, she appears to impute motives to certain individuals without sufficient cause, and she sometimes views historical events through a distorted lens. One cannot—indeed, must not—read through this book with the assumption that everything laid out before the reader is completely accurate and historically factual.
We will explore Alexander’s biases in more detail later. Before delving into those issues, I’d first like to share the more positive aspects of Alexander’s research.
A Somewhat Conservative Approach
The New Jim Crow spends a great deal of time following the process a person undergoes in our current justice system: his arrest, prosecution, sentencing, incarceration, and probation. In doing so, Alexander addresses how the laws of our land have changed over time—and not for the better—due to interference from the court system. For example, in regards to the Constitution itself, the courts have chipped away at the Fourth Amendment (which guarantees protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures”) bit by bit and piece by piece, to where it is virtually non-existent.
Because our court system has gutted important historical laws, legal recourse against racial profiling has nearly disappeared in the legal system. In addressing these legal developments, Alexander surprisingly (and maybe inadvertently?) makes a strong conservative argument—i.e., that a major cause of the injustices of today is the erosion of our country’s founding and early laws by an overzealous, power-hungry Court. For conservatives like myself, this argument rings true and carries a lot of rhetorical weight.
The Problem of Color “Blindness”
There is a misconception that, in order for racialized social controls to exist, most everyone involved in a particular society must be actively racist. Alexander addresses this misunderstanding, leaning on the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr.
King asserted that most proponents of slavery were not especially wicked, but rather intellectually ignorant and spiritually blind. As King himself said (quoted by Alexander),
This tragic blindness is also found in racial segregation, the not-too-distant cousin of slavery. . . . [N]ot all of the resistance to integration is the rear guard of professional bigots. Some people feel that their attempt to preserve segregation is best for themselves, their children, and their nation. Many are good church people, anchored in the religious faith of their mothers and fathers. . . . What a tragedy! Millions of Negroes have been crucified by conscientious blindness. (241, 242)
This “conscientious blindness” has continued to play a role in our nation’s more recent history. Alexander elaborates:
The widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control is the most important reason that we as a nation have remained in deep denial.
The misunderstanding is not surprising. As a society, our collective understanding of racism has been powerfully influenced by the shocking images of the Jim Crow era and the struggle for civil rights. When we think of racism, we think of governor Wallace of Alabama blocking the schoolhouse door. We think of water hoses, lynchings, racial epithets, and “whites only” signs. These images make it easy to forget that many wonderful, good-hearted white people who were generous to others, respectful of their neighbors, and even kind to their black maids, gardeners, or shoe shiners (and wished them well), nevertheless went to the polls and voted for racial segregation. Many Whites who supported Jim Crow justified it on paternalist grounds, actually believing they were doing Blacks a favor, or believing the time was not yet right for equality. The disturbing images from the Jim Crow era also make it easy to forget that many African Americans were complicit in the Jim Crow system, profiting from it (directly or indirectly), or keeping their objections quiet out of fear of the repercussions. Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally—almost invisibly—and sometimes with genuinely benign intent, when it is embedded in the structure of a social system. (183, 184)
And lest one surmise that white people are the ultimate problem, Alexander asserts,
It’s not that white people are more unjust than others. Rather, it seems that an aspect of human nature is the tendency to cling tightly to one’s advantages and privileges, and to rationalize the suffering and exclusion of others. This tendency is what led Frederick Douglass to declare that “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never [did] and it never will.” (257, 258)
Law and Order
Just as the word “urban” can be used as a euphemism today (to address black people or black culture without actually mentioning race), so the term “law and order” has historically been used as a euphemism to address the African American community. Alexander explains how the phrase has been used over the last several decades:
For more than a decade–from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s–conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime. Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political in nature, and federal courts were accused of excessive lenience, thereby contributing to the spread of crime. In the words of then vice-president Richard Nixon, the increasing crime rate “can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them.” Some segregationists went further, insisting that integration causes crime, citing lower crime rates in Southern states as evidence that segregation was necessary. (40, 41)
This cloaking of anti-black sentiment with innocuous terminology took a turn for the worse in the 1960s, instigated by Richard Nixon:
H.R. Haldeman, one of Nixon’s key advisers, recalls that Nixon himself deliberately pursued a Southern, racial strategy: “He [President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Similarly, John Ehrlichman, special counsel to the president, explained the Nixon administration’s campaign strategy of 1968 in this way: “We’ll go after the racists.” In Ehrlichman’s view, “that subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.” (44)
This oblique anti-black sentiment gained more traction when President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” Alexander unpacks the functional purpose of this war, and how its “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” (54).
As Alexander goes on to show, Ronald Reagan continued Nixon’s War on Drugs, reducing the government’s broad response to crime and instigating a hyperfocus on one area of crime in particular:
[T]he Justice Department announced its intention to cut in half the number of specialists assigned to identify and prosecute white-collar criminals, and to shift its attention to street crime, especially drug-law enforcement. In October 1982, President Reagan officially announced his administration’s War on Drugs. (49)
Alexander’s views of Reagan are quite unflattering, and the way in which she describes his efforts to clandestinely use racist rhetoric has been hard for me to swallow. But even if Alexander overplays her hand here (and I suspect she does), there is sufficient evidence to prove that Reagan was, at the very least, willing to cater to racist ideals.
As further evidence of this, we now have access to a phone conversation between then-governor Reagan and then-President Nixon. Unearthed in 2019, this audio recording includes Reagan referring to some black members of the United Nations. He can be heard saying, “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!”
Regardless of the actual heart-level of malice behind the actions of men like Nixon and Reagan, The New Jim Crow maintains that the War on Drugs has been perpetuated, to one degree or another, by just about every sitting President since—including both Republicans and Democrats. In fact, Alexander pronounces an especially harsh indictment against Bill Clinton: “[M]ore than any other president,” she says, “[Clinton] created the current racial undercaste” (56, 57). There’s plenty of blame to go around.
Share the Blame
Yes, Alexander asserts how prejudiced policies come from both sides of the political aisle. Progressives often give lip service to the needs of minorities while enacting practices that actively hurt them. (Two examples from The New Jim Crow include Clinton’s increase of the War on Drugs and Obama’s drastic increase of immigrant deportation).
Looking back through history, there are also those within the black community who have contributed to the problem. For example, the minstrel shows of the 1800s involved complicit blacks who treated racial oppression as a commodity for personal advancement. They pandered to white racism, and made racial oppression entertaining. Minstrels presented a romanticized version of slave life, which contributed to the numbing of the national conscience, insulating it from the horrors of slavery.
In modern times, many black youths “do what all severely stigmatized groups do—try to cope by…embracing their stigma in a desperate effort to regain some measure of self-esteem” (172). They celebrate the stereotypes associated with ghetto life: “Gangsta rap—while it may amount to little more than a minstrel show when it appears on MTV today—has its roots in the struggle for a positive identity among outcasts” (175). But it only serves to perpetuate the problem: “embracing criminality,” Alexander says, “is inherently self-defeating and destructive” (171).
Near the end of the book, Alexander even questions the functionality of affirmative action itself. She argues how it has actually been counter-productive in many ways. Her arguments differ from those of the typical conservative (coming from a radically different perspective), but I found her stance surprising—and, to a degree, convincing. She also spends a bit of time drawing the link between affirmative action and mass incarceration (which would take too much time to explain here).
When it comes to modern-day racialized social control, there are few political groups that can claim innocence. Nevertheless, Alexander says, “The general public’s collective denial is fairly easy to forgive—if not excuse. . . . The awkward silence of the civil rights community, however, is more problematic” (223).
The Failure of the Civil Rights Community
The inaction of the civil rights community is where Alexander focuses her sights at the latter end of her book. Her insight here is helpful, clarifying just why the civil rights community has failed to address a problem they’ve been acutely aware of:
Challenging mass incarceration requires something civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to do: advocacy on behalf of those labeled criminals. Even at the height of Jim Crow segregation—when black men were more likely to be lynched than to receive a fair trial in the South—NAACP lawyers were reluctant to advocate on behalf of blacks accused of crimes unless the lawyers were convinced of the men’s innocence. (226)
This problem goes all the way back to the days of slavery, during which abolitionists focused as much as possible on telling horror stories most likely to find sympathy with a white audience. This happened—and still happens—most successfully when the stories told are about black people who “defy racial stereotypes” and are “easily understood by mainstream whites as ‘good’ and ‘respectable’” (227).
A famous example of this phenomenon is that of Rosa Parks. What most people don’t know is that two other black women, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, had previously refused to give up their seats on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. However, civil rights advocates decided not to use either of them to make a national stand against racial discrimination. Colvin, a teenager at the time, was rejected because she got pregnant out of wedlock by an older man. Smith was rejected because her father was a rumored alcoholic. Activists knew that their litigant, as well as the litigant’s family, needed to be “above reproach and free from every negative trait that could be used as a justification for unequal treatment” (227).
Rosa Parks was selected because she was more likely to evoke sympathy from a white audience: she was cultured, civil, religious, dignified, and only partially black. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “Mrs. Parks was ideal for the role assigned to her by history” (227).
With the War on Drugs in particular, helping victims of racial discrimination has become quite the conundrum:
Why champion the cause of the despised when there are so many sympathetic stories about racial injustice one could tell? Why draw public attention to the “worst” of the black community, those labeled criminals? Shouldn’t we direct scarce resources to battles that are more easily won…? (227)
As an aside, I would add another point that Alexander does not: part of the reason why it is hard for civil rights advocates to find sympathetic black victims is our culture’s—and even the church’s—loose grasp on the reality that people of all colors, creeds, and credentials are made in the image of God. Too often in discussions of alleged racial discrimination, the victim’s worth is directly tied to his or her past mistakes or sins (whether large or small). Instead of valuing human dignity across the board, we feel a collective excuse to demote the downfall of those who “had it coming” or who are nothing but “thugs.” This rejection of the Imago Dei in others reveals a rejection—even if only slight, subtle, and subconscious—of God himself.
Perception vs. Reality
Today, decades after the beginning of the War on Drugs, it is considered a given that drug use and abuse are predominantly a problem within the black community. The emphasis of police patrols in urban communities speaks to this fact. But with drug use among whites being higher than that of blacks (see, for example, these stats related to college drug use), Alexander asks her readers to reassess this perception:
Who becomes a social pariah and excommunicated from civil society and who trots off to college bears scant relationship to the morality of crimes committed. Who is more blameworthy: the young black kid who hustles on the street corner, selling weed to help his mama pay the rent? Or the college kid who deals drugs out of his dorm room so that he’ll have cash to finance his spring break? Who should we fear? The kid in the ’hood who joined a gang and now carries a gun for security, because his neighborhood is frightening and unsafe? Or the suburban high school student who has a drinking problem but keeps getting behind the wheel? Our racially biased system of mass incarceration exploits the fact that all people break the law and make mistakes at various points in their lives and with varying degrees of justification. (216)
For at least some on the far left, hateful attitudes and language toward white people is tolerated, if not accepted or celebrated. This is an obvious problem. Does Alexander demonstrate a propensity for this same racist, anti-white rhetoric? The answer, I am glad to say, is no.
It may surprise some that, near the end of the book, Alexander expresses concern over how whites—especially poor white people—have also been hurt by the racial caste system. Her closing arguments don’t carry even a hint of bitterness or hatred for the majority culture. In fact, the last section of the book puts a large portion of the blame on the modern-day civil rights movement (as mentioned above).
Especially based on the closing section of the book, I have a hard time imagining Alexander as a bigoted anti-racist who hates whites. That’s not how she comes across. Not being familiar with her writing outside this book, it is possible she has developed even more hardline positions, and is more in line with current far-left anti-racist extremism. But that’s not how I would characterize The New Jim Crow in particular.
Blinded by Bias
While Alexander has a liberal bias, it obviously isn’t a totalizing bias. Otherwise, she wouldn’t point fingers of blame toward Democratic presidents and progressives within the Civil Rights movement. And if there’s a common theme among liberal critiques of The New Jim Crow that I’ve read, it’s that Alexander isn’t liberal enough. That, to me, is a good sign.
That being said, her passion for the topic of this book, and the overall quality of book itself, is tainted by her willingness to twist the facts in favor of maximum pathos. As an example, consider her treatment of death row inmate Ricky Rector. In order to garner her readers’ sympathy for Rector (whose execution was overseen by President Clinton), she describes the prisoner as “a mentally impaired black man who had so little conception of what was about to happen to him that he asked for the dessert from his last meal to be saved for him until the morning” (56). While none of that is inaccurate, it is also incomplete.
Rector’s mental state was, in fact, self-inflicted: after committing the heinous crimes he was later convicted of, he botched a suicide attempt in an effort to avoid prosecution. Instead of killing himself, he destroyed his frontal lobe, rendering him mentally incapacitated. Alexander’s choice to paint him in such a simplistic manner fails to adequately address all the facts.
To be fair, in our hyper-partisan culture, ideological bias is a fault shared by just about anyone writing on just about any political issue. For example, some of my fellow conservatives demonstrate a felt need to paint pro-choicers in the most negative light possible, even to the degree of distorting reality (just like Alexander does above), in order to prove the inalienable rightness of the pro-life cause. Sadly, there are some right-to-life news sources that I automatically fact check because of their penchant to sensationalize their information.
None of that excuses Alexander’s deceptive deck-stacking, of course. I only point it out to show how these underhanded tactics aren’t unique to her, or to those of her political leanings.
Unfortunately, Alexander’s problems go beyond mere bias. The impressive breadth of her cited sources is undermined by how she sometimes wields those sources. I came across one particularly egregious citation by accident.
My interest in one of her cited sources led me to borrow that particular source from my local library: Dead on Delivery: Inside the Drug Wars, Straight from the Street. This book is written by Robert M. Stutman, the former chief of the DEA’s New York Office. Here is Alexander’s quote from that book (color coded to help compare it to the block quote a few paragraphs below):
The agents would hear me give hundreds of presentations to the media as I attempted to call attention to the drug scourge. I wasted no time in pointing out its [the DEA’s] new accomplishments against the drug traffickers. . . . In order to convince Washington, I needed to make it [drugs] a national issue and quickly. I began a lobbying effort and I used the media. The media were only too willing to cooperate, because as far the New York media was concerned, crack was the hottest combat reporting story to come along since the end of the Vietnam War. (52)
Alexander makes it seem as though Stutman took an active role in the government’s efforts to enlist the aid of the news media in promoting its clandestine agenda. However, anyone actually reading Stutman’s book would quickly recognize that, at the time, Stutman himself believed he was addressing a legitimate problem, not creating a fake one.
What’s more, Alexander actually doctored the quote. Here are Stutman’s actual words, taken directly form his book:
In the months ahead, the agents would hear me give hundreds of presentations to the media as I attempted to call attention to the drug scourge. Still fresh from the success of Massachusetts, I set out to prove that it could be replicated nationally. With my office on the road to running smoothly, I wasted no time in pointing out its new accomplishments against the drug traffickers and using those cases to illustrate the full scope of the drug abuse problem. (147, 148)
You will notice that Alexander not only omitted critical components of his quote, but she added three new sentences to the end. Whether these new sentences were invented by Alexander herself or taken from another source is unclear.
The New Jim Crow has a total of 584 endnotes. I ended up fact-checking nine of them. Of those nine quotes/sources, one of them (the Stutman quote above) was wildly off-base, three were off by just one word, and five were accurate. That leaves 576 endnotes unexamined.
It is theoretically possible, of course, that I stumbled across the only instance in which Alexander heavily edited a quote, but there’s no way to tell for sure without going through each endnote—something for which I do not have the time. In any case, that Alexander would be willing to stoop to such a level even once sheds a shadow of suspicion on everything else she cites.
This is both a tragedy and a shame, as Alexander makes several legitimate points throughout the book. The New Jim Crow isn’t a compilation of mere fabrications. It expresses genuine concerns worth considering, and it contains some keen observations on our culture’s current state.
That’s actually part of the reason for the length of this review. I wanted to disseminate some of the book’s more helpful sections to a larger audience—especially since most conservatives are reticent to read the book themselves. (And for the record, all the book excerpts above that contain quotes from other sources have been vetted for accuracy.)
It may be helpful to put it this way. For the sake of argument, let’s assume 75% of The New Jim Crow is irreparably tainted by sensationalism. Even if such an uncharitable assumption proved to be the case, the remaining 25% of the book, as dense as it is, still contains enough evidence to be appropriately alarming.
I remain thankful for having read the book myself. After all, reading works outside one’s ideological circles can help you develop a fuller understanding of others’ perspectives—and develop a most robust perspective of your own. Becoming more familiar with our country’s transition from slavery to the Black Codes to Jim Crow laws has helped me make more sense of our nation’s current state. Seeing some basic patterns from the past has helped me recognize how some of those patterns are being repeated today. I share a certain level of agreement with Alexander regarding how “something is eerily familiar about the way our criminal justice system operates, something that looks and feels a lot like an era we supposedly left behind” (xiii).
In the end, it may be best to liken The New Jim Crow to Wikipedia—as a source of basic information with some questionable scholarship that can nonetheless be helpful in two regards: 1) giving a basic-level understanding of topics one might heretofore be unfamiliar with, and 2) acting as a jumping off point in directing readers toward more reliable sources, which can either confirm or deny what it has said.
UPDATE: If you skipped to the end because you have neither the time nor the patience for a 4,500-word review, you can see my 1,500-word review (condensed and revised—with some new material) at the following link: Pride, Prejudice, and the Zombie of Jim Crow.
Header photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash