A Review of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York: New Press, 2010.

​[1] The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world; more people are incarcerated in this country, as a percentage of the population, than in any other nation.[1] The prison population in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1980.[2] Currently, 2.2 million people are incarcerated in prisons and jails in the U.S.[3] In terms of racial disparities, recent data reveal that our nation’s prison population is 34% Caucasian, 38% African American, and 23% Hispanic.[4] These percentages are completely out of proportion, compared to the percentages of the U.S. population that each group comprises. How do we explain these staggering numbers?

[2] In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander has written a powerful and provocative analysis of mass incarceration in the United States. It is important to note that Alexander uses the term “mass incarceration” broadly, to refer “not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison” (13). Her goal “is to stimulate a much-needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States” (16). Given how widely read and discussed her book has become, in very diverse circles, I’d say that she has achieved that goal.

[3] Let me begin with a brief introduction of Michelle Alexander. She is a civil rights advocate, lawyer, and currently an associate professor at the Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. For several years, she directed the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, which led a national campaign against racial profiling in law enforcement. Alexander also directed the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School, where she was an associate professor. After graduating from Stanford Law School, she clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court.

[4] Alexander’s thesis in The New Jim Crow is essentially that mass incarceration and the negative consequences of being labeled a felon have replaced Jim Crow segregation, and slavery before it, as a comprehensive though largely invisible mechanism of racialized social control. Rather than ending “racial caste” in the U.S., we have simply reshaped it. “A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind – discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. Those labeled criminal can even be denied the right to vote.” (138)

[5] The seeds of this current system of racialized control were sown in the “law and order” rhetoric that characterized opposition to the Civil Rights Movement beginning in the 1950s. Alexander describes, for example, how Richard Nixon made “law and order” a central theme of his 1968 presidential campaign, essentially equating civil rights activism with lawlessness, and playing on racial fears and hostilities to attract southern Democrats to the Republican party.

[6] I see three key parts to Alexander’s analysis. First, she convincingly argues that the current system of mass incarceration in the U.S. has been driven primarily by the “War on Drugs.” In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration declared this war and to justify it, launched a media campaign including sensationalized coverage of the effects of crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods. Law enforcement efforts to control drug use and sales have been focused mainly on poor communities of color, despite the fact that “people of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates” (97). Federal grants and asset forfeiture laws have made it lucrative for law enforcement agencies to participate in the War on Drugs, and Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Florida v. Bostick) have undermined Constitutional protections in the War on Drugs. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have created excessive sentences for drug offenses. It is drug-related offenses, not violent crimes, that have been primarily responsible for dramatic increases in incarceration rates in recent decades; violent crime has declined steadily since the early 1990s, while incarceration rates have soared. Recent data show that 48% of individuals serving time in federal prisons and 17% of individuals in state prisons are incarcerated for drug offenses.[5]

[7] Second, Alexander describes how Supreme Court decisions have essentially “closed the courthouse doors” to appeals based on claims of racism. In McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), for example, McCleskey, a black man, challenged his death sentence, arguing that racial bias existed in the imposition of the death penalty in Georgia, and that the 8th and 14th Amendments were thereby violated. The Supreme Court accepted as valid the statistical evidence of racial discrimination in the use of the death penalty in Georgia. But it rejected McCleskey’s claim, arguing that, unless McCleskey could show conscious racial bias in his own case, unequal treatment under the law was not proven (pp. 107-108). Alexander presents several examples of how Supreme Court decisions have failed to offer protections to those harmed by racial biases in the criminal justice system.

[8] Third, Alexander identifies “collateral consequences” of being labeled a felon and describes how the rights currently taken from individuals convicted of crimes are eerily reminiscent of the rights taken from African Americans during Jim Crow segregation. There are numerous examples. In many states, convicted felons lose their right to vote, sometimes for the rest of their lives. The federal government and 31 states prohibit felons from serving on juries – for life (119). “Checking the box” on job applications, indicating felony conviction, prevents many former offenders from obtaining work. Anyone convicted of a felony is ineligible for public housing assistance for at least five years (141). Individuals convicted of drug offenses are ineligible for federal student loans and other federal financial assistance for education.

[9] The new system of racialized control that Alexander describes is perhaps even more destructive and dangerous than Jim Crow segregation in two ways. First, because the current system of mass incarceration is not explicitly based on race and is supposedly colorblind, it is difficult to combat on the grounds of racial bias. Second, under Jim Crow segregation, African Americans could not be blamed for their plight. But under the racialized system of mass incarceration, convicted felons typically are blamed for their fate, because they “chose” to engage in crime. And if we can blame individuals – their culture, poor work ethic, etc. – for their place in the criminal justice system, “then society is absolved of responsibility to do anything about their condition” (235).

[10] In the final chapter of the book, “The Fire This Time,” Alexander describes what she thinks is necessary to successfully challenge our current system of mass incarceration and the “flawed public consensus” (222) that has given rise to it. Her conclusions are sometimes surprising. Alexander argues, not surprisingly, that we must end the War on Drugs – through repeal of mandatory drug sentencing laws, changes in the culture of law enforcement, greater provision of drug treatment services, and so on. But she also argues, rather unexpectedly, that affirmative action has actually been detrimental because it has contributed to the perception that personal and cultural traits, rather than structural factors, are responsible for racial inequality in the U.S.; has helped to make the new system of racialized control largely invisible; and has diverted resources and energy away from dismantling the structures of racial inequality. Alexander also urges us to resist colorblind approaches to the problem of mass incarceration because they prevent us from speaking openly and honestly about race. To successfully challenge the system of mass incarceration, “…we must admit, out loud, that it was because of race that we didn’t care much what happened to ‘those people’ ” (225). In her conclusion, Alexander writes, “…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, . . . the collapse of mass incarceration will not mean the death of racial caste in America” (245).

[11] There are numerous strengths to the way that Alexander frames her analysis. A remarkable feature of this book is the way in which Alexander draws together so many factors – federal funding initiatives in the War on Drugs, targeted law enforcement and militarized policing practices, mandatory minimum sentences, Supreme Court decisions that make it nearly impossible to successfully claim racial bias in the criminal justice system, invisible punishments that continue to plague former offenders long after their release from prison, etc. – to craft a thorough and coherent argument about how the current criminal justice system operates as a system of racialized social control.

[12] Another important piece of her argument is her discussion of implicit racial bias. Racial prejudice today is more subtle and insidious than the overt racism and bigotry of the Jim Crow era. Alexander does not argue that individuals who work within the criminal justice system or who construct the laws that determine who is swept up into that system act in deliberately prejudiced ways. Rather, she argues that individuals often make decisions and act based on racial schemas that operate automatically, without conscious awareness or intent. Judges, for example, might say race doesn’t factor into their decisions at all, and they may genuinely believe that to be true, yet fail to realize how racial schemas affect their decisions. Research shows racial disparities in sentencing, even after offense seriousness and defendant’s criminal history are taken into account.[6]

[13] One day in class, my students and I were discussing how media representations contribute to cognitive distortions of race and crime. One student reluctantly admitted that she had not previously realized that, when information about the race of defendants was omitted from crime stories in the news (which typically focus on “street crime”), she tended to assume black defendants. This is precisely the type of implicit racial bias that Alexander describes, and she presents studies that provide evidence of how this bias infuses various parts of the criminal justice system. Alexander’s discussion of implicit racial bias is important to her argument. In its absence, we would be left with an implausible, rather conspiratorial view of why racial disparities exist in the criminal justice system, created by explicit racial biases. Alexander writes, “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” (178).

[14] My primary critique of Alexander’s book concerns the issue of intent. I have read The New Jim Crow multiple times, and the answer to this question still eludes me: Is Alexander arguing (1) that the current system of mass incarceration arose intentionally as a mechanism of racialized control, or (2) that the current system was never consciously intended to function in this way, but has essentially arisen piecemeal over time in such a way that it now functions quite effectively as a mechanism of racialized control? She seems to make both arguments, at various points in the book. When I shared this question with a colleague familiar with Alexander’s book, he agreed with the critique, but added that ambiguity regarding the issue of intentionality does not undermine her argument. Whether or not mass incarceration was intended to replace Jim Crow segregation as a mechanism of racialized control, it has. I would have preferred less ambiguity, but I recognize that an explicit argument that the current system arose intentionally would have been difficult for Alexander to support and perhaps for readers to accept.

[15] As it stands, Alexander presents a compelling argument – one that deserves attention from anyone troubled by the racial disparities of our criminal justice system and the alarmingly, indefensibly high incarceration rates in this country.

[1] Roy Walmsley, World Prison Population List 9th ed.; (London: International Centre for Prison Studies, 2011).

www.idcr.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/WPPL-9-22.pdf (accessed 6/8/13).

[2] The Sentencing Project, “Trends in U.S. Corrections” http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/inc_Trends_in_Corrections_Fact_sheet.pdf (accessed 6/10/2013).

[3] E. Ann Carson and William J. Sabol, “Prisoners in 2011,” Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 2012). http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/p11.pdf (accessed 6/8/2013).

[4] Carson and Sabol, “Prisoners in 2011.”

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Samuel Walker, Cassia Spohn, and Miriam DeLone, The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2012).

Dawn Jeglum Bartusch

Dawn Jeglum Bartusch is associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Valparaiso University.