Michelle Alexander’s book is not just eye-opening, it is soul-wrestling stuff. I think everyone in the country ought to read it and know how mass incarceration affects the lives of millions of our countrymen, and why grassroots movement is needed to undo much of what has been done to the black community since the Reagan era.

Instead of telling how great this book is (and it is), I will tell you the things I learned that shook me:

What is The New Jim Crow?

Alexander delves into the roots of mass incarceration, from slavery, to convict leasing, and Jim Crow. Convict leasing was particularly vicious, since “Convicts had no meaningful legal rights at this time and no effective redress. They were understood, quite literally, to be slaves of the state.”

How this relates to mass incarceration is the birth of the ‘New South’ and the Southern Strategy. Elite whites always planned to hold on to their economic and political power. The Southern Strategy was the Republican party’s way of exploiting racial antagonism and polarizing poor whites in particular. By the late 60s, race replaced class as an organizing principle to wedge groups against each other. And crime, which had risen, was used to scapegoat poor urban blacks.

Changes in American Life

The American economy underwent the kinds of shifts that both the rural poor and the urban poor were unprepared for- the shift from manufacturing to computer based and service technologies. In inner cities, underfunded neighborhoods, schools, and lack of opportunity  hurt the African-American community disproportionately.

By the 1980s, the crack epidemic hit urban black America like a blight. But instead of viewing a drug epidemic as a health problem, the United States reacted differently.

Some countries faced with rising drug crime or seemingly intractable rated of drug abuse and drug addiction chose the path of drug treatment, prevention, and education or economic investment in crime-ridden communities.

Our country chose to criminalize drug use and the sale of minor amounts of any drug.

The Drug War

The drug war is one of the greatest failures of 20th century life and the major cause of mass incarceration.Drug law enforcement has been part of the political strategy to hurt the black community. Whether you acknowledge that truth or not is based on your ability to grasp the reality of how the drug war is enforced.

Whites and blacks have about equal rates of drug usage but:

  • Police enforcement centers mainly on neighborhoods where people of color live
  • The targets of stops are primarily young men of color even though young white people are more likely to be guilty of possession and sales
  • Rates of drug crime are similar, but African-Americans constitute 80-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.

That last fact is particularly horrific. Alexander goes into great detail to answer: Why?

1) The majority of people targeted are in urban neighborhoods

2) Police forces are paid and have been encouraged by the federal government to make drug law enforcement a priority even at the expense of looking into more serious crime like rape, assault and murder

3) The legal system is structured against poor blacks.

Legal System

Michelle Alexander is a lawyer and scholar and the sections that deal with both drug enforcement and then the legal system are very detailed. She goes into how prosecutors treat white and black defendants differently. White defendants are dismissed or sent to treatment, while black defendants are encouraged to plead guilty. The penalties for even being near a drug sale are serious and life altering.

Her analysis of the Supreme Court’s refusal  to acknowledge racial disparities (e.g. in seven stated 80-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison are African-American) is eye-opening.

What Does Mass Incarceration Mean for America?

Mass incarceration means the loss of potential and the destruction of lives unnecessarily.  It is a vicious cycle.

  • We lead the world in mass incarceration
  • Drug convictions account for the growth of our penal system;
  • The US imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the time of apartheid
  • There are 2.3 million people in prisons and jails and 5.1 million under community correctional supervision.
  • The vast majority of these ‘crimes’ are not violent and even those arrested for sales are small-time dealers
  • Arrests for marijuna account for nearly 80% of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s- that is utterly ridiculous and a huge waste of our resources

In short, mass incarceration means that an entire section of our people are unfairly caged and locked up for minor drug crimes.

What does Mass Incarceration Mean for the Black Community?

Mass incarceration has been a disaster for the African-American community and a true injustice. Instead of investing in resources to improve communities and make jobs and education the main focus, the governments of this country- both federal, state, and local, decided to create crimes of public health matters.

The stigma of being a felon is real. Felons can be legally discriminated against for housing, for employment, and are cut off from many programs. In many states, felons are never allowed to vote- which mimics so much the Jim Crow era that it is hard to swallow that they aren’t related. Basic citizenship rights can be taken away from you for the mistake of carrying pot.

Black children are less likely to know their fathers and be raised with them because they are locked up.

And then there is the shame. Shame erodes the bonds of community and makes a meaningful movement to stop mass incarceration and change our legal system more unlikely. On some level, many people feel that the jail time is ‘deserved’ even though this is not how most countries in the world handle their drug offenders.

What is Next?

The radical unfairness and lack of compassion in our legal and criminal systems are hard to undo.  It will require a mobilization that mirrors the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  Leaders will have to build bridges with other communities. For mass incarceration to end, the advocates of racial justice will have to make a major grassroots push.


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