Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow

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Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, paints a startling portrait of racism continues to stunt the civil liberties of African Americans in today’s American society. Alexander seeks to prove that we still have so far to go to move towards any notion of equality. One of the culprits that perpetuate racism in our modern era is the justice system, which in some cases only serves to make it more difficult for African American males in particular to reach social equality to their white male counterparts. The first chapter, “The Rebirth of Caste,” explains how the legal system has influenced racism from the time of Jim Crow laws, through the Civil Rights Movement, to today, proving that the laws and language of racism has changed, but unfortunately not the reality and prevalence.

What surprised me most about Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is how the justice system can actually act unjustly on closer examination. We are all aware of the atrocity of slavery in this country’s earlier years and the horrors of racial discrimination in the years hence; however, given the laws and legal system that allowed for such barbarous practices, as Alexander shows, it seems like we are still in denial of how young black males are haunted by the same fundamental racism that continues to debilitate such a large portion of the young black males in this country.

For example, the Segregation Laws that have since been written out of law, are still covertly practiced via the so-called justice system that does not allow for equality. Alexander describes these laws that are outdated, yet still felt in society:

Segregation Laws were proposed as part of a deliberate effort to drive a wedge between poor whites and African Americans. These discriminatory barriers were designed to encourage lower-class whites to retain a sense of superiority over blacks, making it less likely that they would sustain inter-racial political alliances aimed at toppling the white elite. (Alexander 34)

While many would like to think that the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States is proof of American freedom and equality, if this were true, we would not still have such a delineated racial “caste system,” as Alexander calls it. When we look at the numbers of young black males being incarcerated today, it becomes clear that for those living at the lower-class caste level, a life of crime and incarceration is almost predestined due to lack of opportunity, including even the right to vote in America.

One of Alexander’s most starling ideas is the likening of the racial caste system in America to that of the Third Reich. She writes, “the blatant contradiction between the country’s opposition to the crimes of the Third Reich against European Jews and the continued existence of a racial caste system in the United States was proving embarrassing, severely damaging the nation’s credibility as a leader of the ‘free world’” (Alexander 36). With this analogy, Alexander is referring to the hypocrisy surrounding racism in the early to mid twentieth century that led to the perceived end of the Jim Crow era. The Supreme Court was pressured into changing laws that upheld segregation, calling such practices “unconstitutional” in an effort to save face and the American reputation as a country of freedom, justice, and equality. Brown v Board of Education was probably the most monumental stride in “dismantling Jim Crow,” however, in many ways the outrage as a result of this case only created a more permanent rift in educational inequality and the still-present racial caste system (Alexander 37).

One of Alexander’s other major topics from this chapter includes “The Birth of Mass Incarceration,” which we come to find out is essentially at the heart of The New Jim Crow (41). Alexander explains that this was a movement that happened parallel to the Civil Rights Movement. While the “law and order” scheme that would later account for judicial racism that still exists today is often overshadowed during the 1950s and 1960s by the bravery of Civil Rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr., it makes sense in retrospect that there would be a backlash in our legal system that would counter-effect any progress toward equality. Alexander’s book provides evidence of how the law and the language of law may seem to show progress towards the end of a racial caste system in America, the fact that mass incarceration of lower-class, black young men is happening on such a large scale points to a serious gap between theory and practice of any sense of equal rights being upheld by the law; in fact, it seems the judicial system is always finding new ways to uphold the same social order.

Michelle Alexander’s first chapter is only a glimpse of how history is essentially repeating itself in terms of social inequality in America. “Racially sanitized rhetoric,” as Alexander calls it, is a new brand of racism (43). Colorblindness, or the theory of that race plays no part in a sociological sense, proves to be only an ideal and a tactic by which the judicial system comes up with ways to ensure that the poor African American population has no choice but to perpetuate a life of crime as means of survival due to the lack of social mobility that the Civil Rights Act attempted to create. Race has always been and continues to be a heavily political and judicial tool by which the caste system in America continues to operate under the guise of a free country.

Work Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. NewYork: The New Press, 2012.