In this powerful work of scholarship and social critique, Ohio State University Law Professor and former director of the Racial Justice Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Michelle Alexander, provides an unparalleled look into the system of mass incarceration in the United States. Her analysis proceeds with a particular eye towards the deeply racialized elements of mass incarceration, of which she contends comprises a new and complex system of “racial caste” (12). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess (The New Press, 2010) provides a compelling case for Alexander’s challenge to the widespread belief that American society, with its Barack Obama presidency and pervasive “colorblind” ideology, has finally achieved racial equality (11). Alexander takes readers through the criminal justice system in the United States, showing how racial inequality and race-based discrimination is ubiquitous at every step.
Tracing how the racialized system of mass incarceration grew out of the remnants of slavery and Jim Crow, as well as a series of discriminatory governmental policies and court decisions, Alexander shows us that far from ending racial caste in America, the powerful elite have merely found a clever way to redesign it. Tucking the new racial caste system away within the confines of a “legitimate” institution—the well designed American prison-industrial complex—functions to render it invisible, as well as resistant to change. The New Jim Crow is both a response and a challenge to the systematic invisibility of the racial dynamics of the American criminal justice system, as well as a call to action for racial justice advocates to take on the task of ending mass incarceration as their crucial aim. Alexander calls for a radically new approach to racial justice—one that puts a focus on ending mass incarceration at its center and rejects the deeply ingrained commitments to “colorblind” ideology (whereby individuals claim not to “see race” or that policies are “race neutral” when indeed they disproportionately affect people of color in practice).
Alexander’s work traces the development of race relations in America through the rise and fall of the previous racial caste systems, namely slavery and Jim Crow segregation policies. She then proceeds to illustrate how upon the decline of Jim Crow, a new racial caste system has filled the void, functioning to maintain the racial hierarchy in the United States. That system, the mass incarceration of black bodies, uses the Reagan-era induced “War on Drugs” as its engine, locating an alleged justification of the mass incarceration of black individuals in social stereotypes of black people as “criminals” generally, and drug users specifically (41). The reinforcement of these images and stereotypes in the social imagination functions to legitimize the system of mass incarceration of black bodies, by framing it as a means of overall social protection. Alexander shows how this system relies on myths, and gives a plethora of unsettling statistics to reflect how this system disproportionately targets people of color. In particular, Alexander draws on a variety of sources, both philosophical and empirical (psychological studies and sociological data), as well as surveys developments in American political ideologies and the various Supreme Court decisions that have shaped the criminal justice system into a well-oiled machine that effectively maintains and reinforces the racial hierarchy.
While the systems of mass incarceration (policing, prosecution, plea bargaining, sentencing, jury selection, imprisonment) are racially neutral on the surface, Alexander presents a forceful picture of their discriminatory implementation in practice, and how these practices end in tragic consequences for black individuals and black communities (98, 104-130). This is because mass incarceration as a system of racial caste relies less on the amount of time actually spent in prison, and more on the prison label which tracks individuals throughout the rest of their lives, keeping them locked in a status of second class citizenship. Alexander shows how once the prison label is attached to an individual, they might remain tied to the system formally (parole, probation), or informally through a variety of consequences that result from the stigma associated with having a prior criminal history (housing discrimination, employment discrimination, debt burdens, ineligibility for food stamps or other social benefits and welfare programs, and the loss of voting rights or the right to serve on a jury). In these ways, those who are targeted and treated as criminals are systematically locked out of participation in society and the “democratic” processes that shape it, rendering them unable to do much to challenge their social position or to get ahead in life (140-158). Given the power of the prison label to effectively hold people of color in a second-class citizenship and bar them from participating in or influencing society, mass incarceration functions as a tool for reinforcing racial hierarchies that oppress people of color and maintain white supremacy (197-200). Furthermore, mass incarceration is a powerful meaning-making device—it reinforces the symbolic conflation of blackness with criminality, and thus provides self-justification for the continuation of the system (200).
The power of the “prison label” to keep individuals locked into second class status lends itself to a range of harmful, tangible consequences for those identified and labeled as “criminal” and their families alike. The “collateral consequences” (143) of the prison label (unemployment, housing discrimination, loss of public benefits) can have far reaching side effects. When one is systematically locked into conditions of poverty, with unstable housing and employment, their health (and often the health of their families) are put at risk, and often the economic means for obtaining adequate health care and maintaining healthy eating and lifestyle habits are put out of reach. Additionally, the prison label often leads to a variety of “informal exclusions” by neighbors, friends, and even family members of former prisoners, which adds to the shame and stigma surrounding those who have recently been released from prison or are under some form of criminal justice control (166). The stress associated with being shamed and stigmatized can compound the previously mentioned difficulties, amplifying stress-related health concerns and widening the racial margin in health. While Alexander does not develop this point explicitly (to do so sufficiently would be beyond the scope of her project), the consequences of mass incarceration are likely to (directly and indirectly) multiply the racial health disparities faced by people of color.
Given the seriousness of the consequences of racialized mass incarceration, and the power of its relative invisibility within American society, Alexander calls upon all those who are committed to racial justice in the United States to place mass incarceration at the center of their focus. Doing so, Alexander suggests, requires first and foremost tackling the stronghold that mass incarceration has on the social imaginary, and society’s general complicity with the systems that maintain it. Mass incarceration works as a largely invisible form of racialized social control precisely because so many have, at least implicitly, accepted the imagery that the system itself has created, viz., that blackness necessarily equates to criminality.
All those who are committed to ending mass incarceration, Alexander contends, must first challenge the “catastrophic effects” of colorblind ideologies (240), and to realize that racial indifference is just as problematic as racial hostility, given its tendency to maintain quieter forms of structural violence and less explicit forms of racial domination. Following Martin Luther King Jr., Alexander calls upon all of us to be “emboldened…by the fierce urgency of now” and to begin the radical project of ending mass incarceration and ensuring that a new form of racial caste does not develop in its place (260).
The New Jim Crow is a must read for activists, scholars, and the general reader alike. While offering a powerfully insightful scholarly critique of the racial dimensions of the American criminal justice system that will surely be of use to advanced academic readership, she also offers tools for activists to critically engage with how the problem of mass incarceration is woven into other racial justice efforts. Additionally, Alexander has presented her case in a way that is incredibly accessible and easy to follow, such that it can serve as an introductory text for those who are new to issues in racial justice, or to reading about politics, Supreme Court rulings, or the complexities of the criminal justice system. Alexander’s work should serve as a launching pad for further scholarly and activist work on the problem of mass incarceration.
Heather Stewart is a current Masters student in Bioethics at the University of Louisville, and will be joining the MA program in Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the fall. Upon completion of the MA, Heather hopes to enter the PhD program in Philosophy. Her interests are in bioethics, feminist philosophy (ethics, epistemology), philosophy of psychiatry, and social and political philosophy.