The New Jim Crow

March 17th, 2010, byMICHELLE ALEXANDER

This post was first published at TomDispatch.

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.” Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.

Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit, yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.

Most people don’t like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In the “era of colorblindness,” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:

* There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

* As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

* If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

Excuses for the Lockdown

There is, of course, a colorblind explanation for all this: crime rates. Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime. We’re told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades — they are currently at historical lows — but imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the War on Drugs. Drug offenses alone account for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population and more than half of the increase in the state prison population.

The drug war has been brutal — complete with SWAT teams, tanks, bazookas, grenade launchers and sweeps of entire neighborhoods — but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought. This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth. Any notion that drug use among African Americans is more severe or dangerous is belied by the data. White youth, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, African Americans comprise 80%-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.

This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded that black men have higher rates of violent crime. That’s why the drug war is waged in poor communities of color and not middle-class suburbs. Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell. It has nothing to do with race; it’s all about violent crime.

Again, not so. President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising. From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially-coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing and affirmative action. In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicizing inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores and drug-related violence. The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.

The plan worked like a charm. For more than a decade, black drug dealers and users would be regulars in newspaper stories and would saturate the evening TV news. Congress and state legislatures nationwide would devote billions of dollars to the drug war and pass harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes — sentences longer than murderers receive in many countries.

Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs. In President Bill Clinton’s boastful words, “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.” The facts bear him out. Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the “new Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labeled a felon.

Facing Facts

But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn’t the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found? The answer is yes: in made-for-TV movies. In real life, the answer is no.

The drug war has never been focused on rooting out drug kingpins or violent offenders.  Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses. What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests. To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80% of the cash, cars and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.

The results have been predictable: people of color rounded up en masse for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses. In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five for sales. Most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity. In fact, during the 1990s — the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war — nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities as in the inner city.

In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time, a new Jim Crow system. Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.

Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers — not to mention president of the United States — causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come.

Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. Nearly a quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line today, approximately the same percentage as in 1968. The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries. And that’s with affirmative action!

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colorblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure — the structure of racial caste. The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.

This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. This is not the promised land. The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.

Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and the former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU in Northern California. She currently holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.

  • Deb

    So true, but good luck getting a majority of white America to look past it’s privilege.

  • Anitra Johnson

    Thank you so much for informing me of the “New Jim Crow Laws”. I’m raising a 17 year old Black young man in the “South”. I will definitely inform him of these new laws and other family members. As a people, we have come so far. It is apparent that we have even further to go.

  • Proud Haitian Democrate or Ph.D

    “Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.”
    I don’t believe this statement nor anybody I know believe it. I feel its the upper escholon of our society that would rather think that we are the unknowing Africans waiting on the African Coast to be shipped to American to keep Massa’s house.
    I think african americans have gotten smarter and its the so call black leaders who have gotten stupid enough to believe their own hype. Wow !


    President Obama has been in office for 15 months! He has been tackling the areas that affect all Americans. Since black people are Americans, therefore, health care reform, education reform, and jobs, will benefit African-Americans as well.
    The Recovery Act is a job creating program. African-American leaders who are concerned about jobs in black communities should be holding ‘How to Workshops’ to show church leaders, non-profit organizations, leaders and individual business men and women how to access the Recovery Act funds to provide jobs for their communities.
    Remember Governor Sanford, who at first refused to accept Federal Stimulus funds?
    There are now 819 Stimulus projects in South Carolina, costing $5.75 billion dollars!
    Remember, Joe Wilson, the South Carolina House member, who called President Obama a liar?
    He represents Aiken county in South Carolina.
    Aiken county now has 143 federally funded projects, costing an astronomical sum of $602, 417, 847! The white population is 71%
    Charleston, has 99 federally funded projects, costing a mega sum of $279, 904, 220! The white population is 66%!
    Black majority counties in South Carolina are not receiving their fair share of federally funded Stimulus projects.
    Allendale (71%) black has just (2) federally funded projects at a miserly cost of ($2,573,307)
    In fact, in 11 black majority counties in South Carolina, there are less than 70 Stimulus projects!
    There should be fewer ‘talking shops’ on President Obama, and more “How to Apply for Federal Funds’ workshops to help the black communities in South Carolina and around the country to get their fair share of federally funds, that President Obama created!
    Black leaders, like Tavis Smiley, should stop criticizing President Obama, and use his influence to assist the Black community to access the system.

  • Zina

    Interesting, I am watching and listening to feed back after President Obama signed the Health Care Reform bill. The president is now being called “Leader of the party.” It appears to me with or without the black community’s support President Obama will be labeled. I don’t hear anyone crying foul. I’m not hearing, he’s the President of America. But when it comes to African Americans applying pressure on all leaders by commanding accountability, some act as if the world has come to an end. Perhaps they are right the world of dismissal, you don’t count, you don’t matter has come to an end. Why not get your fair share and lean toward the side of justice?

  • T Lennear

    Wow! The article posted by Michelle Alexander is quite interesting. I would not go so far as to dismiss Ms. Alexander’s views, but I definitely believe that we, African Americans, need to stand up and be accountable for our actions, our life’s circumstances, and our destiny. I am a married woman with two children, one of which is a 14 year-old male. I have one brother and we grew up with our father in the home. I do not know anyone who is in jail, I work everyday, and I recently went back to school and I am currently working on my master’s degree. My father, nor my brother or my husband have ever spent time in jail. I defintely know that racism exists as they have all been harassed as Black men at one time or another; however, they all have an education, work for a living (my Dad is now retired), and all are contributing members in our society.
    My point is that life is about choices. Yes, life can be unfair at times, but we each have the ability to choose how we respond to the circumstances before us. How often do our men choose to drop out of school? How often do our men choose to have children out of wedlock? How often do our men choose to have children with multiple partners? How often do our men choose to “get over” on the system? How often do our men choose crime over legitimate methods of gaining income, i.e. legal employment? How often do our men teach their sons to love the Lord, respect their elders and authority? How often do our men teach their sons the value of education and of hard work? Please know that I am well aware that there are Black men who do all of these things and more.
    Ms. Alexander, I respectfully ask you if the group of people you discussed in your article responded to my questions, what do you think they would say?
    T. Lennear

  • Teion G. Williams

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!! I live in Jamaica but always keep my senses glued to the world’s stage, and I use the conditions of black people in first world countries to understand the state of the people in third world countries such as mine. I was never convinced that Black people actually advanced, not with the decrease in health, wealth, education and awareness of our people. However seeing that the television is our peoples main source of education we have been mis-educated and blatantly LIED to or subtly deceived into believing we have stepped forward from the days of X, Dr. King, and the others who fought for our rights and equality. I thank you once again for not trying to cover up the mess but instead keep the stink of our regression kicking, so as to eventually awake a ‘drugged’ people.

  • B. Parks

    Michelle Alexander,
    Thank you for your viewpoints and the accurate depiction of Black America, its history, and America as a whole. Criminal activity is criminal activity however, the punishment for crimes should be administered equally and in the Black and Mexican communities it clearly is not as you have clearly explained and shown. Slavery is abolished in America except for the convicted felon. If you can’t vote in elections that govern your community and country, how can you be considered free? An ex-felon pays taxes, pays his debt to society, yet has no say in their own community. While the many that have gone to jail for drug related issues have had choices to do the right thing with their lives the big issue is how drugs come into the United States and why the source is never eliminated. It’s for purely economic and some political (really the same issue) reasons. It’s Economic for poor countries that only have cocaine as a cash crop or their economy would crash and political as having a large population in the prison system (prisons are big business these days) is good for business as it costs California $248,000 for each imprisoned youth per year in California which is the biggest expenditure per group from within the prison systems, while an education for 4 years at UCLA is around $116,000! Politicians know these facts yet if a college education was free for the “80% to 90% percent of all drug offenders sent to prison” the savings would far outstrip the cost to the bottom line, the community would have educated contributors to society and the Black family would have education as a proponent to success not a lofty ideal for the privileged.

  • Natalie

    @ T Lennear
    I used to work at a non-profit that worked on finding employment for 17-24yr old low income youth. They were required to have a HS diploma or GED. Having worked with hundreds of these young men (and women) who have grown up in communities where many people are in jail, or un/underemployed and may have records themselves I have firsthand knowledge of their issues. Many have to do with generations of lack of employment opportunities, housing discrimination (so people couldn’t move to where the jobs are), and poor education.
    Every day I met with many young men and women who wanted nothing more than to work but didn’t have people in their communities to teach them the process of getting a job. Many had never heard of a resume let alone created one. Even those who had finished school possessed low reading and math proficiency. The percentage of our students who scored at a 12th grade level was shockingly dismal. Some had records for criminal offenses far milder than things I saw on a daily basis at the small private liberal arts college I had the privilege of attending. I promise you those kids at my college didn’t go to jail, they didn’t even get kicked out of school. So these young people pounded the pavement day after day, with out help, and some were able to find jobs, some found jobs that turned into careers. Many were unsuccessful and not always for lack of trying.
    Did they make some bad decisions, sure. At the same time, they are kids who see in the media that their communities are broken, what isn’t acceptable or productive behavior becomes the norm. They look for love and success where they can find it and often end up with children out of wedlock. The list goes on and on. I guess what I think (some of) them would say is “we’re trying, we’re trying hard.”

Last modified: February 2, 2013 at 10:43 pm