Note: This is the second installment in a series discussing Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. For other posts in this series see:

the new jim crow

Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is fast becoming a favorite on my Kindle shelf. I’ve been slowly making my way through each chapter, researching her citations, and sharing my notes as I go.

In Chapter 1, Alexander argues that America’s “War on Drugs” and “tough on crime” legislation emerged as a new form of racial control, directly opposing the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. She presents compelling evidence to back up her claims, starting with the history of reconstruction, working through the Civil Rights Movement, and then examining the major political movements that followed. Here are a few major talking points that stood out from Chapter 1:

  1. America has a history of using crime control to oppress the black community.

Our first major prison boom occurred during Reconstruction as a way to put black people “back in their place.” Legislators across the U.S. began redefining certain activities as “criminal” and disproportionately enforcing such laws against black people. During Jim Crow, everything from “mischief” to “insulting gestures” suddenly became criminal. Vagrancy laws were resurrected and levied against black people at alarmingly high rates. Such methods allowed states to continue to enslave black people using a different set of codified language. They weren’t enslaving black people. They were just “putting away” the “criminals.” When the definition of “criminal” is tailor-made to suit the needs of those in power, there is no limit to the people you can oppress.

“The criminal justice system was strategically employed to force African Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come.” – David M. Oshinksky (see Worse than Slavery below).

December 22 The New Jim Crow Chapter 1 Incarceration Graph 3Source: The Imprisoner’s Dilemma

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  1. Calls for “law and order” emerged as methods to undermine the Civil Rights Movement. Opposition to racial reform was directly connected to “tough on crime” measures.

Those who opposed racial reform during the 1960s were also most receptive to calls for “law and order.” “Law and order” became a permanent pillar in the effort to undermine the Civil Rights Movement. Public debate shifted from “segregation” to “crime,” and those who formerly opposed Civil Rights legislation showed the strongest support for aggressive measures against crime.

“Votes cast in opposition to open housing, busing, the Civil Rights Act and other measures time and again showed the same divisions as votes for amendments to crime bills. Moreover, those members of Congress who voted against civil rights measures proactively designed crime legislation and aggressively fought for their proposals.” – Vesla M. Weaver (see Frontlash below).

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Racial attitudes among white voters was directly connected to their support for anti-welfare measures and “tough on crime” legislation. Those most opposed to racial reform were also those most concerned with “crime,” even though their rates of victimization were no higher.

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  1. Our current systems of justice were built upon intentionally veiled racial pathologies.

Nixon’s campaign deliberately employed a racial strategy and intentionally veiled it as a campaign against crime. Nixon’s chief of staff wrote in his personal diary that Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks” (see Smoke and Mirrors below). Nixon himself, following his own advertisement on “law and order,” remarked “[H]its it right on the nose. It’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there” (see The Unsteady March below). Racial pathologies began to emerge blaming black culture for rising crime and poverty. So strong was the veiled racial rhetoric of the time, that by 1969, 81 percent of those surveyed by Gallup agreed that “law and order” had broken down and “Negroes and Communists” were to blame.

“It’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.” – Richard Nixon (see Smoke and Mirrors below)

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Reagan also had a history of opposing civil rights legislation. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, opposed fair housing legislation, opposed a holiday honoring MLK, and opposed busing for school integration. During his presidency, he opposed extending the Voting Rights Act, vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act, refused to support opposition to Apartheid in South Africa, and frequently invoked veiled racial stereotypes (such as “welfare queens”) in order to support “tough on crime” policies. The Reagan administration shifted attention away from white-collar criminals and declared a “War on Drugs,” even though less than 2 percent of Americans rated drugs as the most important issue facing the nation at the time. Funding for harsh responses to drug use exploded into the billions while funding for drug treatment, prevention, and education was sharply cut. Poor black communities were impacted the most.

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Clinton’s $30 billion “three strikes and you’re out” law continued to escalate the drug war. It created dozens of new federal capital crimes (eerily similar to the creation of new crimes under reconstruction), mandated life sentences for three-time offenders, and expanded state prison grants with more than $16 billion. It resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. Though seeming to be fiscally conservative by reducing the “welfare state,” Clinton’s measures did not reduce the amount of money being spent on poor neighborhoods. They simply took funds away from programs designed to help the poor, especially poor people of color, and gave them to the penal system. So drastic were Clinton’s measures that one scholar has described his administration as “effectively making the construction of prison’s the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor” (see “Class, Race, and Hyperincarceration” below)

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  1. America’s “War on Drugs” and “tough on crime” legislation allowed the U.S. to systematically lock up its poorest and most vulnerable citizens at unprecedented rates. The majority of those imprisoned were people of color.

Crack cocaine swept through poor black neighborhoods at a time when the country was poised to punish, not help. As the U.S. government responded with more and more punitive measures, countries such as Portugal responded to the needs of their own people with treatment programs, prevention strategies, education, and economic development. Even so, the U.S. put its citizens behind bars at ever increasing rates.

The rhetoric against drugs was so sensationalized that concerns over the “crack epidemic” soon replaced concerns over the needs of failing schools and impoverished neighborhoods. By the mid-1980s, public housing authorities could legally evict tenants for any drug-related activity. Legislation soon eliminated federal benefits for anyone convicted of a drug offense, expanded the use of the death penalty for serious drug-related crimes, and imposed 5-year and 10-year mandatory sentences for possession of cocaine, even for first-time offenders. Such severity was unprecedented in U.S. history. The majority of those arrested, convicted, and imprisoned under these new laws were poor people of color.

December 22 The New Jim Crow Chapter 1 Incarceration Graph 2Source: Yes, U.S. Locks People Up at a Higher Rate than Any Other Country

December 22 The New Jim Crow Chapter 1 Incarceration Graph 4Source:The Meteoric, Costly, and Unprecedented Rise of Incarceration in America

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Some Lingering Questions

Alexander mentions the increasing severity of punishments for drug-related crimes. I’m surprised she did not touch on the disparity between severity of punishments for black people compared to white people. Black people are punished more severely for the same exact crime under the same exact conditions compared to white people. In my mind, this highlights the strong racial nature of America’s “tough on crime” stance. Maybe it will come up later?

A Few Thoughts for Discussion

Just what exactly is the difference between “criminal” and “non-criminal” behavior? During Reconstruction as well as Jim Crow, legislators redefined criminality to include very specific behaviors, then disproportionately enforced these laws against people of color. The definition of “criminal” was not at all objective during these decades. Alexander challenges us to consider whether the definition of “criminal” has been redefined, once again, to the detriment of Black people in our country.

The insidious nature of the language surrounding calls for “law and order” makes it very difficult to prove that “tough on crime” measures are racially discriminatory. As long as we are calling for “law and order,” no one can say we support segregation. As long as we are fighting “crime,” no one can say we are oppressing poor communities. As long as we are locking up the “criminals,” no one can say we are racist. Yet the devastation that such “colorblind” rhetoric has caused for poor communities of color is undeniable.

Alexander also challenges us to reconsider the virtually unquestioned acceptance of drug war propaganda for so many decades. Just what exactly is it about drugs that justifies such punitive measures compared to other strategies? Why is it taken for granted that all drug offenders deserve the harsh treatment that they receive? Do they really deserve it? Does it really work? Or have we simply bought into the political rhetoric of our day, without even questioning its logic?

As the heroine crisis becomes increasingly more visible in white communities, people have begun questioning its logic. The irony is not lost on the black community. As heroine has become more and more publicized in white communities, the calls for more merciful treatment have increased. The message we are sending is clear. When black people use drugs, they should be punished. When white people use drugs, they should be helped. One person is a criminal. The other a victim.