« Split Missouri Supreme Court finds limits retrospective application of state sex offender restrictions | Main | NBA star Arenas charged with felony gun possession and already talking about a plea »

January 14, 2010

"The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness"

1617_cover The title of this post is the title of this terrific new book by my colleague Michelle Alexander that is just out from The New Press.  Here is a snippet from the text along with the the publisher's description of the work:

Jarvious Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Klu Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole. —FROM THE NEW JIM CROW

As the United States celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life.  Although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status — much like their grandparents before them.

In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it.  Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness.  The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community — and all of us — to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.

January 14, 2010 at 03:36 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness":


Note that Cotton's ancestors were barred from voting because of who they were, while Cotton was barred because of what he did.

Big difference.

You can't help who you are. But you can help what you do.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 14, 2010 4:00:32 PM

Like most "bold and innovative" arguments, Alexander is short on causation and substantiation and long on speculation and inference.

One of her sensational statistics-African Americans are up to 57% more likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes than whites-warrants further scrutiny and explanation. African Americans were largely responsible for establishing the "open-air drug market" in many of the downtrodden parts of our urban communities. The concept of making illegal drug sales to strangers on the street during the daylight hours was not exactly a "eureka moment". There was clearly more risk of arrest-but many felt the outsized profits were worth the risk.

White drug dealers were not as entrepreneurial and stuck with the tried and true method of distributing contraband-indoor sales to others who were known or were vouched for.

Is there any question which group will be overrepresented in arrest statistics?

Posted by: mjs | Jan 14, 2010 5:50:00 PM

mjs --

If the number 1157 has meaning to you, I think I'll have the communication problem solved shortly.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 14, 2010 5:55:24 PM

I have to agree with Bill here. While the racial disproportionality of the crack/powder sentencing scheme is a national disgrace that I will continue to mention every chance I get, and we have a long way to go before racial disparity is a thing of the past (mostly now DUE to Booker), a person who chooses to sell drugs and/or carry weapons is vastly different from a law-abiding citizen who is refused his or her civil rights.

To compare the two is to demean the struggle of the latter. This sort of thing is totally disingenuous pandering to pure racial politics. The criminal as social martyr is nothing but pathetic ivory-tower crap and the realm of comfortable professionals that live far, far away from the conditions created by criminals. Whether the criminal involved is Jack Abbott or the thug that periodically shows up in the alley behind my house to sell his wares there is nothing heroic about their "struggle for civil rights" to anyone but blinkered privileged fauntlaroys.

Posted by: Ferris Bueller | Jan 14, 2010 5:57:14 PM

Nervy. The Democrat lawyer runs the KKK. The Democrat lawyer immunizes genocidal mass murder and excluding black folks from voting for 100 years. Then it destroys the black family, and explodes the rate of bastardy, a major cause of criminality. To generate lawyer jobs, it incarcerates at least 20% of the males at some point, ruining their futures. It protects the black criminal to generate massive criminality, where it was once average or below average.

Then the left wants these folks to vote, to engorge the rolls of the Democrat party.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 14, 2010 10:47:58 PM

Actually Clod, it was the Republican rent-seeking lawyer who exploded the working class of all races by undermining organized labor, encouraging de-industrialization through tax policy, NAFTA-style agreements, and "deregulation" of industries far and wide. It's this that has created a static urban underclass of low skill workers that will never find gainful employment no matter how many fast food joints open up.

Posted by: Ferris Bueller | Jan 14, 2010 11:39:35 PM

Ferris: Again, it was the Democrat lawyer that attacked and defunded manufacturing, and drove it to anywhere else but the USA. Thank the lawyer, again for devastating our economy. One would have to be a suicidal moron to even hire an employee in the USA, thanks to the land pirate. The term, land pirate, is clearer than the obsolete one, rent seeking, and its medieval baggage. Thank Ralph Nader for the look of Detroit in Eight Mile.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 14, 2010 11:46:55 PM

Clod: Manufacturing wasn't de-funded, it was off-shored to collect more profit by lowering labor costs. While Nader is a convenient scapegoat, only apologists for multinationals (and Nader himself) think he's that important.

We're all complicit. We want to pay pennies at Walmart and the grocery store, get a tax break, keep our outsized habits, and then wonder why 15-20% of our unskilled population have nothing to do because corporations prefer using slave labor in China to paying a livable wage to American workers. We crush the middle class for a chance at brass ring, live beyond our means, and then wonder why the cities and towns are filled with aimless, skilless, hopeless people.

It's no mystery.

Posted by: Ferris Bueller | Jan 15, 2010 10:03:04 AM

Ferris: You deride a lot. This time it is the productivity of the American worker. All prices are the same around the world. So, a worker accepting $5 a day, is worth a hundredth in productivity as one demanding $500 a day. Anyone who has given work to East Asian workers will confirm that from personal experience. There are no bargains.

What the lawyer has done is to add an insurmountable cost of doing business in the US, no matter to what elevated height the productivity of your genius workers reaches.

This is straightforward jacking by land pirates. Unemployed workers should come to understand the cause of their plight is not the unproductive foreign worker. It is the busy land pirate traitor to our country.

There is full moral and intellectual justification for far more active retaliation the unlawful, self-dealt immunities of these internal traitors.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 15, 2010 8:00:16 PM

I never understood why in the land of the free once a person is considered a felon it is a label for life, and it is OK to discriminate against that person in employment, housing, certifications, etc.

Every one of us makes mistakes. However if all of us were trapped for life paying for the consequences of our past mistakes, we'd be in a sorry state of affairs. Yet that is precisely what is happening. Just walk into any parole and probation correctional institution and you will get an eye fool of how the system really works. These correctional institutions don't do anything but create a culture of criminality. It is NOT to correct people's behavior, it is NOT help the person get a job, housing, education. It is NOT any of those things.
But there's money to be made in these tacky, ugly, dehumanizing places by these so-called probation officers who probably need to be re-educated in how to treat people, especially of their own race or culture.

Posted by: Jorge Reyes | Feb 20, 2010 12:41:01 PM

Freelance writer

Posted by: Jorge Reyes | Feb 20, 2010 12:41:52 PM

I wholeheartedly subscribe to the 'fact' that there is a continual and ongoing commodification of poor young Black males to fuel economically the justice system and it's collaterals, prisons, the privatization of some prisons, the DEA, those who built prisons, and etc.

With non-violent drug crimes and first offenses, why is a youth subjected to being processed and tallied into the justice system and therefore accounted for, controlled, and treated as a 'criminal' for a soft crime that occurs in every white suburb and celebrated within the media ... among whites of course. Who has not smoked some weed? (Or been exposed) Come on!

Why is it that a country with the capacity to spot bomb a spider hole some 6,000 miles away, cannot detect and stop a shipment of crack, from coming into an economically depressed neighborhood (ghetto)?

You can arrest a youth but not the guy who organizes the pick-up, the drop and reaps the greatest profit?

Furthermore, the financial crisis continues to disrupt many of the world's economies and destroy the futures of millions of investors and those who saved for a lifetime is an acute example of our misplaced priorities and who really are the danger to our future?

Comedian Wanda Sykes joked that she did not mind being robbed of her purse but to be robbed of her future would be devastating.

"It is white America that has made being black so disconsolate an estate. Legal slavery may be in the past, but segregation and subordination have been allowed to persist. Even today, America imposes a stigma on every black child at birth." Andrew Hacker

To tell you the truth, I expect to see the stock symbol in the near future for this commodity
(if it does not already surreptiously exist)
"NYSE:PYBM -The New Cotton."az

Posted by: Adrienne Zurub | Mar 10, 2010 3:34:12 PM

There are plenty of problems with both the premise of the book and the comments on this blog. I tell this from the perspective of a criminal defense attorney who also runs a business outside the legal field. My first concern is that of being stigmatized for life resulting from a felony conviction. As an employer I would be extremely wary of hiring someone with a felony record, regardless of race, for several reasons. First, assuming the felony record is for a drug offense, the felony drug offenses are almost exclusively for the use of hard, highly addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin. Use of these drugs suggest VERY serious substance abuse problems and all the lack of productivity, lying, cheating and stealing that go along with them. As an employer, I would want to know if someone has a serious enough drug problem that they have been convicted of a felony.

Also, expungement is usually available for first time offenders. People are usually given second chances for first offenses, either through reduction to misdemeanors, drug court or diversion programs. If they are convicted of a low level felony the first time around, they can usually get it expunged. If they can't get it expunged, it is usually because they are a repeat offender, suggesting they are more of a problem than would be convenient for the premise of this book.

Criticism of Barack Obama for "indicting" black dead beat dads is misplaced. Fathers should take care of and mentor their children. Most of my clients with felony records grew up without a father or with a convicted felon father or both. Bill Cosby was accused of being elitist for similar comments to Obama's. It is not elitist to expect people to actually raise their children or to set good examples. It is a defect in culture, and it should be addressed. The reform has to be embraced by individuals before there can be large scale change.

To suggest that the system is actually designed to incarcerate more black people or that incarceration is actually a form of slavery looks far beyond the purpose of a criminal justice system, and it is particularly disturbing that a law professor at a top tier law school could see it that way and spread this lie. Her statistics are correct, but her conclusions are not. More police presence is needed in high crime neighborhoods, and that does lead to a certain amount of unbalanced enforcement. However, the solution is not to stop enforcing crime in high crime areas.

That leads me to the one point I agree with: more treatment options are absolutely necessary. I believe those options would help at least some, but the only low-level drug offenders I see go to prison are those who absolutely refuse to cooperate with court-ordered treatment or those who are repeat offenders (usually not for drug possession, but for theft-related crimes to support their habits).

What I see from Professor Alexander's book is an effort to take any blame away from individuals or cultures and place the burden on society as a whole to fix the problem. This effort only makes the problem worse, as it directs people away from the actual problems and the actual solutions and places blame on those who are not at fault at all. I hope Ms. Alexander will at some point realize that her concerns are genuine, but her efforts to help merely take all personal responsibility away from individuals. With that thinking, the problem will only get worse.

Posted by: a defense attorney | Nov 24, 2010 12:25:38 PM

I am a professional in the arena of research and writing. I have been looking at some of the problems with mass incarceration of African Americans and the Department of Justice. What one need to observe is, the "1914 Narcotic Act" and the "Thirteenth Amendment" to the United States Constitution. and then follow through on other laws, draw an analysis and back that analysis up with research.
However, the labeling theory hapotheszes, that the labels applied to individuals, has a tendency to, influence their behavior...for instance, the labels of "criminal" and "felon", tendency is to promotes deviance; as a result, this deviance then becomes a self fulfilling prophecy: because most, if not all individuals, with these labels, have almost no choice but to conform to the label.
Second, I do not understand why African-American males choose to sell drugs illegal on street corners; because it is not something that should be a part of their program....Although, there are many problems in need of being addressed by the Criminal Justice System when it comes to disparity.
Third, the key word when it comes to employment and the lack of employment is "competition." For instance, with the label of "criminal" and 'felon" employment becomes null and void, which mean less competition, and the revolving door syndrom.

Posted by: Ann-Belinda Honablezh | Jan 18, 2011 12:18:42 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB