Sunday, March 18, 2012

Alexander - The New Jim Crow

Although the validity and attainability of the American Dream has been debated, the fact that the idea itself exists, that people believe it to be true, is undeniable. By the American Dream, I am referring to the understanding that in the United States, socio-economic mobility is not only an inherent right of American citizens, but it is also widely feasible. Further, the degree to which the American Dream can be achieved is based on a person's "discipline and drive" and "failure to move up reflects on one's character" (13).

Michelle Alexander challenges this notion of the American Dream in the introduction of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by citing the existence of a clear "underclass" in American society today (12). This "underclass" is "a group so estranged from mainstream society that it is no longer in reach of the mythical ladder of opportunity" (13).

 My first reaction was to question Alexander's qualifications for deeming this marginalized group unable to get to the alleged ladder. What makes someone entirely ineligible for the American Dream, as opposed to it just not being realistically feasible? For example, a common example regarding the ways in which poverty prohibits a person from obtaining certain rights as a citizen is the method for calling on potential jurors. The list of potential  jurors is often taken directly from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Therefore, if a person does not have a license (presumably because he or she is too poor even for the potential of car ownership), he or she will not be chosen as a potential juror, which is the right of American citizens. In this case, a person's change to serve on a jury is not technically impossible, in the sense that they do have the ability to register at the DMV, it is just not realistic.

However, Alexander clearly differentiates what she calls the "underclass" from all other members of society, including the lowest of the lower-class. The "underclass" or "undercaste" are "permanently barred by law or custom from mainstream society" (13). The important distinction here is that the "underclass" has been LEGALLY marginalized by the United States Government, prohibited from an array of social, economic and political rights. These rights include, but by no means are limited to, access to public housing, welfare, employment, right to vote, right to be a juror, etc.

According to Alexander, the creation of a second class of citizens denied certain rights inherent to all Americans is implemented through the American criminal justice system. Contrary to many people's understanding of the American penal system, this marginalization is maintained well beyond a person's status as a prisoner: once a person is labeled a criminal, he or she has lost his or her rights even after release from prison. According to Alexander, "the system of mass incarceration is based on the prison label, not prison time" (14).

The reason, though, that Alexander equates this issue of the ramifications of mass incarceration with the likes of Jim Crow is that the overwhelming majority of those who are made criminals in the United States are African American. According to Alexander, "Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group largely defined by race" (13).

It is important to understand, however, the fact that this intention of the subordination of African Americans is no longer explicitly stated. Rather, this racism is masked by new "race neutral language" (40). This rhetoric uses the concept of the criminal to persecute African Americans, essentially creating "preservation through transformation," as articulated by Reva Siegel (21). According to Alexander, "proponents of racial hierarchy found they could install a new racial caste system without violating the law or the new limits of political discourse, by demanding 'law and order' rather than 'segregation forever'" (40).


  1. According to Michelle Alexander, “the concept of race is a relatively recent development” (Alexander, 23). It is a socially constructed term meant to highlight the difference between groups of people, and allow a hierarchy and in-group/out-group effect to be established. Alexander argues that skin color has become a defining characteristic for imprisonment in the since Jim Crow was legally abolished. In fact, she argues that, “the American penal system has emerged as a system for social control unparalleled in world history” (Alexander, 8). The two concepts are intertwined because “in some cities more than half of all young adult black men are currently under correctional control” (Alexander, 9). These are staggering statistics. These numbers are especially appalling when looked at in relation to the harmful social and mental effects as a consequence of incarceration. Many of the prisons in our country are, by their very nature, systematically torturing US citizens (who are largely black). In “supermaxes-facilities designed to isolate prisoners from social contact”, prisoners undergo extremely long period of solitary confinement. Bobby Dellelo was sentenced to twenty-three hours of solitary confinement a day after escaping from prison, and eventually “started to lose his mind” (Gawande, 7). His descriptions of the mental taxation of such punishment are eerily similar to descriptions by John McCain of the torture he underwent while he was a POW in Vietnam. What does this say about not only the penal system in our country, but also our government for condoning it? Furthermore, what responsibility do I have as a white female to do something about the violence that is inherently done to black males? Like in our previous units, this reading raises very uncomfortable and frustrating questions about my responsibility as an American and an individual reaping the benefits of this kind of caste system.

  2. In her post Rachel explains the fact that our current political system has allowed for the creation of inherently racist legislation, yet “this racism is masked by a new ‘race neutral language’” (Alexander, 40). I found this idea particularly interesting in the context of Alexander’s discussion of the War on Drugs, and in specific, the emphasis on the elimination of crack. Alexander explains that through the declaration of a War on Drugs and through the sensationalizing of the presence of crack in inner city (primarily black) neighborhoods, “conservatives found they could finally justify an all-out war on an ‘enemy’ that had been racially defined years before” (Alexander, 52). This movement to use the elimination of drugs in order to further marginalize blacks in particular had far-reaching political implications. Not only were politicians able to justify their racial discrimination through this “war,” but politicians also set up a system where they were “off the hook” when it came to other important national issues such as educational reform, failing welfare programs, and general poverty (Alexander, 53). The fact that politicians knowingly manipulated the American people into believing that crack was the most important issue to tackle is an astonishing and deeply troubling issue for me. Through using the media to perpetuate black stereotypes and their associations with crack in order to implement racist policies, the government clearly left out valuable information that the American public deserved to know. While this resulting racial discrimination is wholly unethical, I think the fact that politicians used this “war” in order to circumvent tackling other issues is perhaps even more troubling. In theory, Americans elect politicians to maintain and improve all of our social/national institutions (such as schooling, welfare, social security, etc.), but there is clearly a huge flaw in our system if politicians are deliberately finding ways to evade confronting these issues, which is their specific assigned job. If lawmakers are not putting valuable time and effort into improving our institutions and undertaking prevalent issues, then is there any hope for societal progress? By neglecting to address all of our national issues politicians are simply adding to our society’s inherent racism, because as we have seen throughout our readings, certain races are almost always at a disadvantage in our current system and in its existing institutions.

  3. The first chapter of Alexander's book starts off with a quote from W.E.B Du Bois "The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again towards slavery." This quote couldn't describe our political and justice system any better. For a majority I was blind to the fact that racism and Jim Crow Laws still exist. I have an adopted brother who happens to be African-American and through his experience with the justice system I can see that racism really does still exist. Once he was arrested for literally being a black man driving a green SUV. He was brought down to the police station and questioned for an armed robbery that happened hundreds of miles away from where we lived. He eventually was released because He had an alibi which was that he was on his way to football practice with nothing but workout clothes in his car. This anecdote was one of the first times in my life that I had to ask myself if i had ever been questioned for being a white male? The answer was no and that was eye opening. So where does this mass incarceration and all eyes on the black man phenomenon stem? Well for southern conservatives it all stems back to the civil rights movement (40-41). Vice President Richard Nixon once said the increasing crime rate "can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them." (41) My response to VP Nixon would be this, if the laws and rights promoted in our country were actually fair and just then there would be no need for a civil rights movement or "disobedience of laws" (41). "Early on, little effort was made to disguise the racial motivations behind the law and order rhetoric" (42). For a majority of my life i believed the "disguise" about cracking down on crime and that there were no racial motivations behind it. But as i have realized through both anecdotes like those of my brother and research on incarceration rates it is pretty clear that race is a big issue. The "War on Drugs" was an interesting part of this chapter to me. Though i can't take Alexander's word for absolute truth she brings up some interesting arguments. It was almost as if the Reagan Administration was trying to solve the end problem and not look at what lead to this vast growth in crack-cocaine in black inner-cities. With no blue-collared jobs left and schools that are grossly underfunded what do you expect the people of that community to do? Whatever they can do to survive. Now I am in no way advocating for selling drugs as a living but what I am saying is that the people in that community needed a solution to the real problem not just locking up all the black drug dealers in the city. I enjoyed how Alexander brought up and challenged the societal norms and the next couple of chapters should be pretty interesting.

  4. I find that Liz raises an important question in her post when she asks, “What [do these works] say about not only the penal system in our country, but also our government for condoning it?” and it inevitably connects the past unit to this unit. In the same way the government condones actions of torture in war, they condone actions of torture and social oppression in society, as made clear in Alexander’s extensive discussion of the introduction and creation of the new Jim Crow. I find the connection in the Gawande reading and the Alexander reading to be how solitary confinement plays into the overall status of African American’s in society and furthermore how solitary confinement in prison seems to mirror the inevitable “confinement” African Americans, and in particular African American males, are subject to in society when they are released from jail. I think to some extent we could push this one step further to say, this confinement to lower “castes” in society, is a form of torture as John McCain reported, “social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered (Gawande, 2009, p. 4).” These African-American male criminals are pushed into social isolation when they re-emerge into society as they have less rights than everyone else. In a sense, the politics and the ways the laws have been written essentially legalize “torture” when criminals, which are predominately African-American males as made clear through Alexander’s work, re-enter society. They are forced into a position in society in which social interaction and regular life are no longer capable. This social isolation leads them into poverty and makes it hard to gain access to things that most people consider to be innate rights as humans and citizens of the United States. This mirrors the effect solitary confinement takes on inmates, as they find it hard to re-enter mainstream prison or society because they are no longer to effectively engage in social interactions. Therefore it seems as though society has created a constant “solitary confinement” for African-American male criminals and when they have no resources they are forced into situations in which they commit crimes and find themselves in jail again, much like how the conditions of solitary confinement in prison push the prisoners to act out and extend their time in confinement. Therefore the question I have at the end of these readings connects to our previous unit as well. If we are torturing our own citizens in prisons, solitary confinement, and all of society when they are released from jail as they are pushed into a different sort of social confinement, how do expect to counter torture of people that are not our own? And furthermore, does this exemplify American society as being built on torture and a system of oppression in which we exert power over particular people to maintain our status? This seems to be what is happening in our own country as well as the wars we forge with others.

  5. I would like to build off of Ally’s post when she discussed the “War on Drugs” as one that employs a race-neutral and color-blind language to mask the race driven motives.
    What is interesting is that there did not exist a crack-cocaine problem until the “War on Drugs” was declared. However, this “war” was able to begin and continue because it made something other than race focus of the war. Furthermore, to me, colorblind language seems not to be politically incorrect but in fact racist. It allows people to blame societal downfalls on anything BUT race, covering up racial issues. It is how the “War on Drugs” is able to continue on even though simple statistics show how prejudice it is and blatantly harms the specific category of black males. This ignorance certainly does not improve racial problems, and probably makes them worse as demonstrated by Alexander’s analysis of our prison system.
    I also found it disturbing how this “New Jim Crow” system is able to make many black men take on the same legal positions as slaves. They are imprisoned for doing nothing wrong. They are denied the right to vote, they are essentially denied American citizenship and democracy fails them. And this type of restriction only further amplifies the problem. The voting demographic becomes even whiter, making it even harder for black to voice their opinion. This only serves to discourage eligible black voters to vote as their demographic diminishes, again perpetuating the problem. Without the right to vote, with the fear that complaints, even if they are innocent, will land them in jail, how can they expect or have the strength to fight for themselves? This problem needs not to be looked at on an individual level. That is what got us here in the first place. It needs to be analyzed on a structural one.
    I am perplexed as to why this “War on Drugs” and increase in imprisonment continues to go on when looked at from an economic perspective. This war is expensive, and keeping more and more people in prison mean that tax payers will have to pay higher and higher taxes. However, it seems the most plausible reason is that these practices allow the rich, white, male population, those who are in charge of these systems, to continue to remain on top without the threat of lower class and racial assimilation.

  6. Alexander’s main point throughout this reading relates to the idea that those who have been involved in the penal system at one time or another are forever placed into a certain class of citizens within American society. After incarceration those men and women are labeled as criminals, have their rights limited or removed entirely, and are degraded to the “undercaste.” As Alexander writes, “the system of mass incarceration is based on the prison label, not prison time” (14). This is a very compelling argument; that those men and women who are exposed to the penal system are forever limited by the system and their previous actions. They never again become full citizens in the eyes of American society. They cannot escape the label designated to them.
    This is then made even more problematic by the fact that “in some cities more than half of all young black men are currently under correctional control;” that “one in three young African American men will serve time in prison if current trends continue” (9). Alexander is arguing the idea that a majority of black men within the American population are being caught in the penal system for whatever reason and cannot find their freedom after their time has been served. They are forced into the lowest class of American citizens. These black men almost entirely make up this caste; they are our bottom rung of society and do not have the ability to elevate their status, forever forcing them into a position of inferiority.
    I do, however, find it difficult to accept Alexander’s idea that the political/white world used the war on drugs as a means of establishing racial segregation. Maybe I’m not as cynical or just too naïve with regards to my trust in the American people, but I find it an incredible conspiracy theory; a theory that Alexander does not provide a lot of reliable evidence for. There are injustices carried out within the judicial and penal system; this is undeniable, but I do not want to believe or choose to believe this “new Jim Crow” was established intentionally as a means of oppressing the black population.