Rising with the might of the United States of America’s economic, industrial, and militaristic gains since the end of World War II is a pervasive level of racial iniquity. In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander highlights the social structures that have retained a high level of contemporary racial injustice. A civil rights advocate, Alexander creates a timeline of events in American history that connects the disproportionate amount of black and Hispanic prisoners to the days of legalized slavery. Her primary thesis underpins misconceptions of modern-day racism by pointing out that the successes of prominent African Americans is not indicative of true racial desegregation, and instead she focuses on the rising percentage of minorities arrested and jailed as a perpetual and ongoing form of racism. This issue has gained a national stage with newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his push to stop the New York City Police Department’s controversial Stop-and-Frisk policy. The disbanding of Stop-and-Frisk may have significant reverberations on the popular conceptions of mass incarceration of minorities, but as Alexander lays out, the problem is rampant, misunderstood, and widely ignored.
Racism is a prominent part of American history. In The New Jim Crow, Alexander begins by creating a narrative of racism in the social context of that history. The resulting argument ends on mass incarceration of America’s minority citizens as a problem of racism that remains just as destructive to the health and wellbeing of a national society as it was three hundred years ago. Alexander brings about her argument by establishing reemerging patterns of a contemporary racial caste system that was widespread in the immediate days following the end of legalized slavery. Recent successes of African Americans like President Barack Obama do not indicate a breakdown of this racial caste system as “the superlative nature of individual black achievement today in formerly white domains is a good indicator that the old Jim Crow is dead, but it does not necessarily mean the end of racial caste” (Alexander, 2010, p. 12). Such a derogatory system is seen more easily in the scope of the American prison system.
With increased federal power the American prison system has grown to be a facet of American society. A disproportionate amount of blacks and Hispanics within that system, Alexander argues, is a serious threat to the future of American society. The War on Drugs, started in 1982, is a major reason for the large numbers of black and Hispanic prisoners, and the racial prejudice within the criminal justice system has been pushed by conservative politicians in former slave states who have “systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order” (Alexander, 2010, p. 24). Law and order, it seems, is a rallying cry for civic order disguised as covert racism.
A problem with the American criminal justice system that The New Jim Crow highlights is that racial inequity can easily be used as a naïve belief in the fact that increased incarceration of blacks and Hispanics means these individuals are deserved of the punishments their crimes afford. Alexander supports this claim by citing the many problems that slip through the cracks of large bureaucracies. “Full blown trials of guilt or innocence rarely occur,” she explains, using the widespread occurrence of plea deals as a format to discuss how severe penalties, inadequate legal representation, and prior criminal history force innocent people into guilty judgments (Alexander, 2010, p. 35). The resulting lives that criminals in America hold place them into society as second-class citizens. She cites the many restrictions placed on convicted felons, such as the inability to vote, as a problem that affects much larger social implications within communities that are primarily black or Hispanic. The formal stigmatization of felons is a common principle of punishing serious criminal activity, but when one group of people is overtly targeted for such crimes the entire community is affected. Alexander cites the large proportion of black professional women who remain unmarried, and the conception that black men are bad fathers as indicators of ignorance within popular American culture. The War on Drugs may have started with popular support against the ravages of drug addiction, and that support remains prevalent within a society that fails to see the domestic collateral damage of such a “war.” Alexander (2010) points out that the War on Drugs has imposed unfair penalties and that “drug offenders in the United States spend more time…in jail or prison, on probation or parole” than drug offenders in any other country in the world (p. 87). The War on Drugs has imposed a formal level of racial inequity that disrupts minority communities.
Alexander concludes The New Jim Crow by establishing a set of standards civil rights proponents should embrace to continue their struggle for a society that judges its members objectively, ideals set forth within the documents that created the United States. She reaffirms her argument that popular gains in Affirmative Action focus simply on a small number of high-performing minorities, and that the current criminal justice system’s focus on drug crimes is inherently prejudiced as drug consumption is fairly prevalent within all racial groups. “The prevailing public consensus affects everyone,” she states “including civil rights advocates” (Alexander, 2010, p. 109). Pushing public opinion is a difficult undertaking, but Alexander lays out a framework for accomplishing an important level of social change that affects all Americans equally.
While racial inequity within the American criminal justice system pervades the country as a whole, New York City has been the laboratory for the War on Drugs. First started in 1982, the War on Drugs focused on an increasing influx of cocaine and its highly addictive form crack cocaine. As a response to the prevalence of cocaine-related crimes, New York City Police Department enacted a policy of Stop-and-Frisk in which police officers are legally obliged to stop any citizen and search their person for illegal substances. The constitutional provision for such a policy was set during the latter half of the 20th century in which both a person’s suspicious behavior and geographic proximity to high-crime areas warranted reasonable suspicion (Gelman, Fagan, and Kiss, 2007). The Stop-and-Frisk policy that resulted in New York City is commonly cited as a major reason for social constraints in minority communities and the increased number of blacks and Hispanics within the New York State prison system.
While Alexander’s arguments are founded in her belief that popular culture does not see a problem with mass incarceration of minorities, many studies have confirmed that blacks and Hispanics are stopped and searched on a much larger scale than whites. In the largest study evaluating the condition of New York City’s Stop-and-Frisk policy, Gelman et al. (2007) found that of the 125,000 Stop-and-Frisk stops between January 1998 and March 1999, 51% were black despite making up only 26% of the population. Further supporting Alexander’s arguments in The New Jim Crow, Gelman et al. (2007) found that “stops of blacks and Hispanics were less likely than those of whites to lead to arrest” (p. 821). Such findings are indicative of racial prejudice within the New York City Police Department.
It is fair to counter these statistics with the argument that a high proportion of minorities arrested means a high proportion of minorities commit crimes, and that a Stop-and-Frisk policy is validated. Racial profiling in New York isn’t confined to New York City’s Stop-and-Frisk policy, however. In a look at Onondaga County, the county surrounding Syracuse, it was found that 41% of arrests in 1999 were of blacks despite making up a miniscule 9.4% of the population, and 56% of adults sentenced to prison terms were black (Rosenthal, 2001). Similarly, in New York City Gelman et al. (2007) found that there were extremely high rates of minority stops in predominantly white precincts, and high rates of white stops in minority neighborhoods. While it is easy to assume that these stops were justified, Gelman et al. (2007) also cite that only 72% of Stop-and-Frisk stops actually required reporting by police officers. This means that 28% of Stop-and-Frisk stops remained at the private discretion of police officers already implicated in a formal structure of racial prejudice.
The state of the New York prison system during the 2000’s supports Alexander’s claims that the popular understanding of the American criminal justice system is lacking. Early in that decade the New York prison system was comprised of 50% blacks and 34% Hispanics while these racial groups made up 15.9% and 15.1% of the state population, respectively (Rosenthal, 2001). Data published by the New York State Department of Corrections for the 2010-2013 Fiscal Years states their own popular misconception. Citing a reduction in the number of incarcerated individuals the New York State Department of Corrections celebrated a 4% decline between 2012 and 2013, and followed with “during the same period, the proportion of inmates with mental illness, prior arrests and admissions, or other hard-to manage characteristics has increased” (Schiro, 2014). It seems that the New York State Department of Corrections is content with increasing the concentration of individuals with prior issues, something Alexander highlighted as a common characteristic of the minority prisoner.
The problems associated with Stop-and-Frisk in New York City are not wholly ignored. Such staggering statistical evidence for racial inequity within the Stop-and-Frisk policy has been identified by the recently elected Mayor Bill de Blasio. Running on a social justice-oriented political platform, de Blasio won with wide support for his push to drop New York City’s appeal to a U.S. District Court ruling that would have abolished Stop-and-Frisk. Shortly after winning the mayoral race de Blasio underlined the cry of hypocrisy within the criminal justice system by civil rights advocates. He stated that the judicial faction of the democratic process is “supposed to bring up the truth of what’s happening in our society, and oftentimes truths that are being ignored” (Weiser & Goldstein, 2014, p.1). While this supports Alexander’s push to increase the amount of public dialogue on racial inequity within the criminal justice system, it begs questioning whether de Blasio will be true to his word.
New York City’s Stop-and-Frisk policy is indicative of the racial prejudice rampant within the American criminal justice system. Alexander’s primary thesis that such racial inequity on such a large scale affects significant problems within minority communities speaks to the importance of its demise. Alexander concluded The New Jim Crow with a set of goals civil rights advocates should strive to attain. Increasing the public debate on mass incarceration of minorities is at the forefront of her book, and much of that argument may be bolstered by the changes being implemented within the New York City Police Department. A monitoring system is set to be installed in which new procedures for police action are developed, and new forms of data entry are established (Gelman et al., 2007). Mayor de Blasio has also laid out plans to tap an independent New York Police Department inspector general, change police training materials found to be racially misleading, revise general arrest policies, and create a police camera pilot program aimed at increasing individual officer accountability (Weiser et al., 2014). The numerous studies that confirm racial prejudice within the New York Police Department have bolstered the legitimacy of civil rights proponents, and the measures that will replace the Stop-and-Frisk policy are certainly necessary. Public policy and society-wide popular understanding are two entirely different things, however. Important changes in the American criminal justice system are necessary for minority communities to thrive, and as Alexander reminds us the health and wellbeing of minority communities means the health and wellbeing of American society as a whole.
Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
Gelman, A., Fagan, J., & Kiss, A. (2007). An analysis of the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy in the context of claims of racial bias. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 102(479), 813-823.
Rosenthal, A. (2001). A Report to the NAACP Syracuse/Onondaga Chapter on Racial Disparities in the Local Criminal Justice System. Syracuse, NY: Center for Community Alternatives.
Schiro, D. B. (2014). Fiscal Year 2013 Mayor's Management Report. New York, NY: City of New York Department of Corrections.
Weiser, B., & Goldstein, J. (2014, January 30). Mayor says New York City will settle suits on stop-and-frisk tactics. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/31/nyregion/de-blasio-stop-and-frisk.html?_r=0