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The New Jim Crow (Reading Reflections, Part 1)

A group of us at Open Door are moving through a Circle focused on the black-white race divide in the East Bay.

One of the resources offered to provoke thought and conversation is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. As I read through it, I’ll be posting some of the thoughts, quotes, and questions I encounter.

First, some foundational terminology:

Jim Crow: Historically, the series of laws and policies allegedly implemented to maintain social and economic order (“separate but equal”) in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction

Undercaste: “a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society” (13)

Racial caste system: “a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom” (12)

Mass incarceration: – Broader than our physical prison system, Alexander talks about mass incarceration as encompassing the “larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison” (13).

And some quotes from the Introduction and Chapter 1:

“The plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so.” (13)

“The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.” (53)

“Once again, in response to a major disruption in the prevailing racial order – this time the civil rights gains of the 1960s – a new system of racialized social control was created by exploiting the vulnerabilities and racial resentments of poor and working-class whites. More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century…banished to a political and social space not unlike jim Crow… The mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate.” (56-57)

A few thoughts:

Though Alexander harshly criticizes Republican policies (driven to extremities by the rhetoric and posturing of campaign politics), she also labels Clinton as “more than any other president” responsible for creating “the current racial undercaste” (56).

This book is not playing the game of partisan politics/ideology so much as critiquing the entire enterprise of empire as it’s played out throughout American history. It’s a pretty scathing assessment and I’m unsure (and eager to see) how Alexander proposes solutions and steps forward in the midst of a system that is seemingly being described as irreparably broken.

Thoughts? Questions? Oversights? Objections?


6 thoughts on “The New Jim Crow (Reading Reflections, Part 1)

  1. Richard says:

    Thanks for taking this on, Dave…..Obviously, we as a world ( Nation ) have a long way to go in this tragic disparity between haves (whites) and have nots (blacks)….
    However, can you spell ” s-t-r-e-t-c-h ” ….as in stretch to try to prove a point?
    Seems like there are many, black and white, who attempt to define issues by making pretty big leaps in logic; cause and effect……I have not read this book, but so far it sounds like a well worn series of constant blame related to a very true and sometimes sad reality regarding culture……Part of the sadness is that by continually defining a problem in terms of it’s past, it becomes hard/impossible to move on from that past….The other part of the sadness is that blaming and shaming are not very constructive ways to move forward….They tend to keep us focused on our differences and continuing the divide…pushing us further apart….
    Can we instead focus on how to reach out and really get to know one another


    • Appreciate the thought and look forward to more conversation on this.

      I may have not picked the right quotes to correctly describe the book; this book is not about how the past (slavery + Jim Crow) is to blame for current racial tension and/or inequalities. It’s about *current* systems and policies that work together to create what the author describes as the racial caste system that is alive and well in 2014. The statistics she points to (about housing, imprisonment, etc.) would suggest that it would be very difficult to reach out and get to know each other, so I’m not sure if the solution can be as simple as that (and I realize saying that that real relationship and “Getting to know each other” is in itself a very high challenge, and a risky one…and I think that has to be part of the solution!)


  2. How come the word “plight” is applied only to African Americans? Does the reality of mass incarceration not produce a “plight” — a lack of freedom — on those who do the incarcerating, who pay taxes to pay the bills of this system, for whom the “other” becomes invisible because the other is caged and put away? This regime affects us all. We are all trapped in it and can’t find our way out. What happens when it breaks?


  3. Richard says:

    Stretch; is a word I would use to jump from the current data to the apparent conclusions reached in the book…..Can there be other conclusions like “criminal behavior leads to incarceration time” and “the war on drugs is really a war on peoples choices to abuse drugs and their detrimental consequences? Is it a stretch to try to put hidden meaning into the reading of the stats?
    The stats are real, but we need to be careful about coming up with analysis that
    prevents us from dealing with the actual fundamental issues behind the stats….
    Is there a culture in America that has a problem with avoiding criminal behavior?
    Is there a culture in America that makes bad choices in the use and abuse of illegal drugs? Of course there is…..Is it all about skin color or race? Of course it isn’t…..
    Continually looking to blame white America is to ignore the many people of racial minorities that have, in fact, chosen to take advantage of the doors open to all of us
    in this Country…Might we consider why some avoid the pitfalls? Breakdown in family structure, failure to take advantage of educational opportunities, dependance on government, etc. could easily produce the same data resulting in mass incarceration and drug use….Maybe working on these
    realities might produce better results than continuing to blame one cultural group for the problems in another cultural group…


  4. Pingback: The New Jim Crow (Reading Reflections, Part 2) | dave kludt

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