The Creation of an American Undercaste: Reading The New Jim Crow


This is a book I have been meaning to read for a while. Several of my friends and acquaintances who I consider intelligent and well-read have recommended it as a very important work. The author, Michelle Alexander, admits that the book is not for everyone: it is written for those who are concerned about race relations in the US and about the marginalization of the black population here. It is, at times, a gut-wrenching read – the sort of thing that makes you feel angry and helpless at the same time. Luckily, Alexander’s writing is clear and moves quickly along, which makes this book easier to read without getting too fatigued.

The New Jim Crow was written back when Barack Obama was still president, before Black Lives Matter became a movement. Perhaps at that time it could have been easy to think that, as a country, we were moving swiftly upward on a steadily improving trend for race relations. Alexander knows differently. It is no secret that our prisons are filled with black men, that black neighborhoods are impoverished, and black families are often fractured. With a quick glance, some are tempted to blame African Americans as individuals or as a culture for their own marginalization in society. Without looking deeper at what brought us to the present day, however, we would come away from our musings tragically misled. Alexander shows throughout the book how mass incarceration is the tool used in America to continue oppression of African Americans after Jim Crow was ended, just as Jim Crow laws were used to maintain an underclass of black people after slavery was abolished.

Prior to reading this book, I assumed that discrepancies in arrests or conviction rates were due entirely to unconscious bias – the “intuitive” assumption that a black man is a “thug” skewing the perception of cops, juries, prosecutors, and judges. For example, I know a number of black people who all have admitted to being stopped for “driving while black” – that is, doing nothing wrong other than looking too suspicious due to the color of their skin. While that certainly plays a big role and contributes to the continued problems of mass incarceration, I was unaware of much of the intentional racism bred into many laws at their inception, and how those laws continue to affect communities today. No matter whether we actively promote these racist systems or simply ignore them in the vain hope that racism can disappear if we are only “colorblind,” by neglecting to fight these systems, we are perpetuating them. The problem is, colorblindness in the face of racial discrimination is just plain blindness.

– – –

One thing central to the New Jim Crow is the rescinding of voting rights for people who are felons. It is a situation more unique to the United States than I had previously realized that we do not allow felons to vote – even after release from prison in many states. That is, even after they have “paid their debt to society” their freedom to vote or even work is restricted which, in combination with excessive sentencing and drug laws, works together to create an undercaste of people without rights or resources to rectify their situation. It is this undercaste that Alexander examines: how it was created and how we perpetuate it.

Since slavery ended, certain people have fought to keep being free and black illegal – even if not in so many words. American slavery itself – in its practice of only enslaving people of one ethnicity – was specifically purposed to keep the lower class from rising up by keeping a racial divide between slaves and poor whites. Our very constitution is structured to preserve this divide. So, for white supremacists who bought into the delusion of “all men are created equal – and blacks and natives aren’t truly human” something else was needed to keep blacks down after the abolition of slavery. This, as we know, took the form of the Jim Crow laws which emerged as a response to the Reconstruction. These laws were gradually stuck down during the Civil Rights Movement, which lead to another crisis for those who wanted to maintain a racial hierarchy. Their tactic this time was to generate opposition to the Civil Rights Movement by demanding “law and order” and by characterizing protests as criminal rather than political. This eventually gave rise to the “Southern Strategy,” which appealed to racists by using polarizing language to pull people away from the Democratic party of the time and buffer the Republican Party by drawing on all those who were disgruntled by reform. Nixon used this discontent as a wedge; one that grew and grew with the framing of black people as lazy and violent… and then Reagan declared the War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs was a way to round up people during a time of inner-city collapse and imprison them – or even assign the death penalty. Minimum sentences were much harsher for crack (associated with blacks) versus powder cocaine (associated with whites.) Although it is far more dangerous than private use of illegal drugs, drinking and driving is still met with much easier punishments, designed to keep the person “functional and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling.” Meanwhile, crack offenders are removed. Why the difference? Drunk drivers are predominately white and male. We can even see the change in marijuana laws as it became less associated with blacks and Mexicans over time. Yet, “toughness” increased, and the federal government continued to pour more money into the war on crime and to militarize police departments which could show higher numbers of drug arrests. Now people with drug offenses could be denied housing… Temporary Assistance to Needy Families for food could be denied for a drug offense… By creating an underclass of felons and ensuring they were largely black, we have ensured the continued legal discrimination against the black man.

Between 1985 and 2000, imprisonment for drug offenses rose 1,100%. Many of these were simply for possession, or for selling very small amounts. It is worth noting that both Democrats and Republicans have supported the War on Drugs and the Tough on Crime approach. There is no party that is free from entrenching themselves in support of excessive punishment for drug crimes. In fact, imprisonment of black men was at a record high during Clinton’s years.

Although the 4th Amendment is supposed to prevent against arbitrary searches under general suspicion, slowly its protections were rolled back in case after case in the interest of the War on Drugs until cops are now permitted to repeatedly stop and frisk innocent person after innocent person in order to find the one needle in a haystack who actually, by coincidence, has the drugs they were looking for. They are incentivized to find that needle with more money and more military equipment provided proportionally to drug arrests. This is supposedly for hostage situations yet is often used even when the person could simply have been arrested or searched even without a paramilitary raid. The heartbreaking reality is that when SWAT teams are called into homes and communities, innocent people die. Babies and grandmothers and unarmed parents are killed in front of their family, in their own homes without warning, and without apology.

Once arrested, even if dubious tactics were used to gain the arrest, many people do not get the legal counsel to which they are supposed to have a right. The morass of the legal system is such that many of those trying to defend themselves on their own or with insufficient assistance may end up in very severe situations. Prosecutors can deliberately charge in such a way that many people plead guilty to a lesser offense – even when innocent – to avoid a minimum sentence for the harsher crime with which they are being charged. And so they become a felon, become part of the undercaste, become someone to look down on.

Many people are unaware of the true effects of being labeled a felon – even as part of a plea deal. As a result of conviction, a person may be ineligible for programs including food stamps, public housing, and educational assistance. They may be ineligible for certain employment and professional licenses, including non-permission to enter the military. They may lose the right to vote. These very consequences make it more difficult for a person to re-enter society. As one woman said, when faced with her eventual release to society: “What do you do with all these millions of people that have been in prison and been released? I mean do you accept them back? Or do you keep them as outcasts? And if you keep them as outcasts, how do you expect them to act?”

It turns out that many people realize they are kept outcasts by a series of obstacles designed to keep them away from society. Firstly, people leaving prison must have to figure out where they will stay; but discrimination in housing is legal against felons, or even suspected criminals. So what is a person to do without a home? For parents, loss of a home also means losing your children. In means homelessness (which of course opens up a person to be subject to all sorts of vagrancy laws designed to target the homeless, which then leads a person to be re-incarcerated.) It doesn’t stop there, however – a person can even be evicted for the behavior of family members or caregivers. Is there any more effective way to ensure a community is destroyed? To break up a family? And then where is a person supposed to turn?

Secondly, once a person does have a place to sleep, they are required to maintain gainful employment – in some places, if they fail, they may be considered in violation of parole and end up with yet more prison time. However, employers can discriminate against persons with convictions – or even against persons with arrests who were never convicted. The sad thing is, even if an applicant is not required to check a box, identifying whether they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, an employer is more likely to discriminate (whether consciously or unconsciously) against black men, based on expectations that black men are more likely to be criminals. Thirdly, if a person is able to find a job which will hire them, they must be able to get there. Due to limitations on finding housing and employment, travel time or cost is sometimes so prohibitive that the job is no longer viable.

Finally, a person may be stuck with fees, costs, and fines which, after accounting for bills, et cetera, a person may never be able to effectively pay off, and so be kept in poverty in perpetuum. Worse, their wages may be garnished even 100% for certain fines. And then, even after all this, this person is not permitted to vote or serve on a jury and is left voiceless in the effort to participate in the governance of their home, powerless to participate in their civic duty, and powerless to make improvements in their community or for their own situation. As one woman struggling to find housing after an arrest 4 years prior said: “I’m trying to do the right thing. I deserve a chance. Even if I was the worst criminal, I deserve a chance. Everybody deserves a chance.”

Most people you ask will say they do not support segregation… people not only don’t want to be thought of as racist – they don’t want to be racist. However, the current system of control depends far more on racial indifference than on racial hostility. We are able to ignore the mass incarceration of black men because we know our prisons are not 100% black – if they were, the “veil of colorblindness” would be lifted. As it is, we repeatedly excuse away the very real fact that black men are imprisoned at a much higher rate than any other group.

As a community, we have not elected to nurture black neighborhoods – we have elected to gradually eliminate them. Although we have moved over the years from exploitation to marginalization, it is a chilling thought that historically, “ethnic cleansing” has been traceable to extreme marginalization and stigmatization of racial and ethnic groups. As john a. powell said, “It’s actually better to be exploited than marginalized, in some respects, because if you’re exploited presumably you’re still needed.”

Alexander says we cannot simply legislate or sue our way to equality – we must have a movement. If we only get rid of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, something else will arise to keep black people down. In short, we cannot be colorblind in the resolution of this problem, otherwise we will be blind to any new consequences that arise.

– – –

I found this book very engaging and well-constructed. For those who are interested in criminal justice or race relations in the United States, I highly recommend it. One book cannot give a complete picture of any social or political situation – and Michelle Alexander fully admits that this book has an intended audience – but it is a good component of what is hopefully a broader self-education for all of us. The New Jim Crow may not be a light read, but it is a rewarding one.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2

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