Book notes: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander book summary review and key ideas.

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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander


“Seldom does a book have the impact of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Since it was first published in 2010, it has been cited in judicial decisions and has been adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads; it helped inspire the creation of the Marshall Project and the new $100 million Art for Justice Fund; it has been the winner of numerous prizes, including the prestigious NAACP Image Award; and it has spent nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times best seller list.

Most important of all, it has spawned a whole generation of criminal justice reform activists and organizations motivated by Michelle Alexander’s unforgettable argument that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it”. As the Birmingham News proclaimed, it is “undoubtedly the most important book published in this century about the U.S.”” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

I saw this book pop up on if you must read book lists during the start of the BLM movements earlier this year. I read a couple of other books so far, but I definitely want to keep learning about this topic of systemic racism and history of America and its relationship with it. I saw this book has been out for a while and has a lot of good reviews, so I’m sure a lot of other people would be interested in the notes for this 

Key notes:

  • The argument citing black-on-black violent crime she says is merely a tactic by anti-reformists to divert attention to a relatively small number of individuals who cause harm, thus shielding from critique an entire system that inflicts incalculable harm on millions
    • She felt like the time was overdue for public attention to be focused on state violence rather than violence committed by individuals in impoverished, segregated communities suffering from economic collapse
  • The author explains that the argument that “half of the prison population is comprised of violent offenders” is misleading
    • This is because this is only a snapshot of the makeup of a prison. In reality, most people or sent to jail throughout a set period of time will be overwhelmingly majority of non-violent offenders with shorter prison sentences
  • Our system is not designed to keep people safe from violence. It is designed and primarily concerned with the perpetual control and marginalization of the dispossessed
    • The system of mass incarceration multiplies rather than remedies the harm of violent crime
  • The term mass incarceration refers not only to the criminal justice system, but also to the web of rules, laws, policies, and customs that control those legal criminals both in and outside of prison
    • Once released, former prisoners enter into a hidden underworld of legalized discrimination and permanent social exclusion
    • They are members of America’s new undercast and it’s caste system
  • She argues that it is the prison label not the prison time that matters most if we are to understand the true scope and impact of mass incarceration
    • In this parallel social universe these people enter into, they may be denied the right to vote and may be subject to legal discrimination in employment, housing, and basic public benefits for the rest of their lives
  • An arrest, even without a conviction, can have serious consequences
    • A criminal conviction of any kind, even if probation rather than imprisonment is imposed, can really get someone to a permanent second class status
  • The War on Drugs more than any other government program or initiative lead to mass incarceration
    • The declaration and escalation of the war on drugs marked a moment in our past where a group of people defined by race and class was viewed and treated as the enemy
      • A literal war was declared on a highly vulnerable population
    • The war mentality resulted in the militarization of local police departments and billions invested in drug law enforcement at the state and local levels
      • It also contributed to astronomical expenditures for prison building for people convicted of all crimes and the slashing of billions from education, public housing, and welfare programs as well as a slew of legislation authorizing legal discrimination against millions of people accused of drug offenses, denying them access to housing, food stamps, credit, basic public benefits, and financial aid for schooling
    • This war did not merely increase the number of people in prisons and jails. It radically altered the life course of millions, especially Black men who are the primary targets in the early decades of the war
  • People of color in this land of the free forged through slavery and genocide are regularly viewed and treated as the problem
    • Once human beings are defined as the problem in the public consciousness, their elimination through deportation, incarceration, or even genocide becomes nearly inevitable
  • White Nationalism at its core reflects the belief that our nations problems would be solved if only people of color could somehow be gotten rid of or at least better controlled
  • In short, mass incarceration and mass deportation have less to do with crime and immigration than the ways we’ve chosen to respond to those issues when black and brown people are framed as the problem
    • Slavery didn’t end, it evolved
  • The author says this book is not for everyone, but she has a specific audience in mind: people who care deeply about racial justice but who for any number of reasons do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration
  • Mass incarceration in the United States had in fact emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow
  • Although there is no hard evidence, it’s strange that the drug and crack cocaine crisis started after the war on drugs was declared by the Reagan administration
    • In less than 30 years, the prison population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase
  • There’s overwhelming evidence that these institutions of criminal justice and prisons create crime rather than prevent it
  • The current system of control depends on black exceptionalism. It is not disapproved or undermined by it in this era of colorblindness
  • Ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have succeeded in creating new caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum
    • This feat has been achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American totem pole

Chapter 1: the rebirth of cast

  • As the systems of control have evolved and new caste systems are born when the old ones crumble, they become perfected, arguably more resilient to challenge and thus capable of enduring for generations to come
  • African slaves were seen as the most ideal means of free labor in comparison to native people who have the means to fight back and other immigrants who were in short supply
    • In order to prevent a rebellion an alliance of black slaves and poor whites, the planter class created incentives and gave positions of authority to the poor whites in order to drive a wedge between them and reduce the risk of rebellion
  • The racial caste system was predicated on slavery
    • The degraded status of Africans was justified on the ground that Blacks, like Native Americans, were an uncivilized lesser race
    • The notion of white supremacy rationalized the enslavement of Africans even as whites endeavored to form a new nation based on the ideals of equality liberty and justice for all
      • Before democracy, chattel slavery in America was born
  • It’s impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society
    • The structure and contents of the original constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system, slavery, while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites especially propertied whites
    • The southern slaveholding colonies would agree to form a union only on the condition that the federal government would not be able to interfere with the right to own slaves
  • Federalism, the division of power between the states and the federal government, was the device employed to protect the institution of slavery and the political power of slaveholding states
    • Even the electoral college was specifically developed with the interest of slaveholders in mind
    • Upon this racist fiction written in the constitution about slaves being 3/5ths of a whole person rests the entire structure of American democracy
    • It justified the economic and political system of slave labor in which white plantation owners acquired land and great wealth through the brutality, torture, and coercion of other human beings 

Readers note: It seems like white supremacy and this idea of Africans being lesser people was just the ideology needed to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between the poor treatment of blacks and having a slave system amongst a competing ideals of freedom and equality but for whites only

  • The terrorist campaigns from the Ku Klux Klan and Redemption Era came swiftly after the brief Reconstruction Era, a period of advancement for black Americans
    • During this period, tens of thousands of African-Americans were arbitrarily arrested and hit with high court fees and ticket fines which they could not pay off. They were then sold to the highest bidder as forced labor to pay off those debts
  • At the peak of the civil rights movement, activists began to turn their attention to economic problems, arguing that socio-economic inequality interacted with racism to produce crippling poverty and related social problems
The birth of mass incarceration
  • The rhetoric of “law and order” was first mobilized in the late 1950s as southern governors and law enforcement officials attempted to generate and mobilize white opposition to the civil rights movement
  • Segregationists distanced themselves from an explicitly racist agenda
    • They developed instead the racially sanitized rhetoric of “cracking down on crime” that is now used freely by politicians
  • The Nixon campaign admitted that the key was to devise a system that recognizes the problem is black people while not appearing to
    • The political strategy was to label the social pathology of the poor and adaptations to poverty, such as illegal drug use and street crime, be redefined as character failings that caused poverty in the first place
  • Reagan echoed white frustration in race neutral terms through implicit racial appeals
    • His colorblind rhetoric on crime, welfare, taxes, and state rights was clearly understood by white and black voters as having a racial dimension
  • Critics of the war on drugs claimed that crack had become a scapegoat distracting them public’s attention from the true causes of our social ills
    • Blaming crime on crack means our politicians are off the hook. Forgotten are the failed schools, maligned welfare programs, desolate neighborhoods, wasted years
  • In the 1970s, researchers found that racial attitudes, not crime rates or likelihood of victimization, are an important determinant of white support for tough on crime and anti-welfare measures
  • The Clinton administrations tough on crime policies resulted in the largest increases in federal and state inmate populations of any president in American history 

Chapter 2: The Lockdown

  • Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the ongoing War on Drugs
  • Effective use of consent searches by police depends on the ignorance and powerlessness of those targeted
    • Clearly the rules of the drug war game are designed to allow for the round up of an unprecedented amount of Americans
  • State and local law-enforcement were financially incentivized by the federal government to make drug related arrests
  • The root problem of property seizure and drug forfeiture laws is the profit motive in drug law enforcement
    • Drug busts motivated by the desire to seize cash, cars, homes and other property are still perfectly legal
    • It is still allowed through revenue-sharing agreements with the federal government to keep seized assets for their own use
  • Once arrested, one’s chances of ever truly being free of the system of control are slim
    • Defendants are typically denied meaningful legal representation, pressured by the threat of a lengthy sentence into a plea bargain, and then placed under formal control in prison or jail, on probation or parole
    • Nearly all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining in exchange for some form of leniency
  • The prosecutor is the most powerful law enforcement official in the criminal justice system. They hold the cards and the keys to the jailhouse doors
    • Prosecutors routinely admit that they routinely charge people with crimes for which they technically have probably cause but which they seriously doubt they could ever win in court
    • They load up defendants with charges that carry extremely harsh sentences in order to force them to plead guilty to lessor offenses and even obtain testimony on a related case
  • The value of a mandatory minimum sentence lies in its value as a bargaining chip
  • In the rest of the world, life sentences for first time drug offenses are unheard of
  • Reducing prison terms does not have an impact on the majority of people in the system. It is the badge of inferiority, the felony record, that relegates people for their entire lives to second class status 
    • Because of this, it increases their chances of rearrest for relapse or minor offenses
    • Their lives are governed by additional rules that do not apply to everyone else, combined with various requirements and fees which create opportunities for arrest

Chapter 3: the color of justice

  • Prison populations are disproportionate against Blacks and Latinos despite a similar rate of drug trafficking and usage by people of varying socio economic backgrounds
  • Violent crime is not responsible for mass incarceration, and studies have shown that the two rates have little to no correlation
    • Even as violent crime rates are at historically low levels, incarceration rates continue to climb

Reader’s note: This section is talking about implicit racial bias and our cognitive biases when it comes to correlating Black people with crime, and white people with not crime. It reminds me of the book Blink and Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell in which he goes into the studies on this topic in depth

  • The Supreme Court had made it virtually impossible to challenge racial bias in the criminal justice system under the 14th amendment. And it has barred litigation of such claims under federal civil rights laws as well 
    • One judge declared that the presumption of innocence is a legal myth
    • The 100:1 ratio of crack vs powdered cocaine coupled with mandatory minimum sentencing provided by federal statute has created a situation that reeks of inhumanity and injustice
  • Numerous studies have shown that prosecutors interpret and respond to identical criminal activity differently based on the race of the person charged with the crime
    • Whether a kid is perceived as a dangerous drug-dealing thug or instead is viewed as a good kid who is merely experimenting with drugs and selling to a few of his friends has to do with the ways in which information about illegal drug activity is processed and interpreted in a social climate in which drug dealing is racially defined
  • Legal precedent shields biased decision making from judicial scrutiny for racial bias
    • Prosecutors are well aware that the exercise of their discretion is unchecked, provided no explicitly racist remarks are made, as it is next to impossible for defendants to prove racial bias
    • The system is well designed to ensure racial biases and stereotypes are given free reign while at the same time appearing on the surface to remain color blind
  • The court system allows prosecutors to name any silly or superstitious reason, no matter how irrational or absurd it seems, to explain a pattern of strikes, or dismissing jurors, that appear to be based on race
  • Although prosecutors have the greatest power in the criminal justice system, police have the greatest discretion
    • This discretion is amplified in drug law enforcement
    • Unbeknownst to the general public, Supreme Court has actually authorized racial discrimination in policing rather than adopting legal rules banning it
    • Racially-biased police discretion is key to understanding how the overwhelming majority who gets swept into the criminal justice system in the war on drugs turn out to be black and brown
  • One prosecutor admitted it is easier to put your policing resources into the poor and vulnerable communities rather than white communities where there are potentially politically powerful people
  • Racially segregated ghettos were deliberately created by federal policy, not impersonal market forces or private housing choices
    • The enduring racial isolation of the ghetto poor has made them uniquely vulnerable in the War on Drugs
  • Many law-enforcement officials acknowledge that the demand for illegal drugs is so great and the lack of alternative sources of income so few in ghetto communities that taking one dealer off the street only causes them to be relaxed within the hour
    • Another predictable consequence of breaking up one drug ring is a slew of violence as others fight for control of the previously stabilized market
    • These realities and the past few decades of endless war suggest that the drug war is doomed to fail
  • The circular illogic of racial profiling: law enforcement officials often reference the racial composition of prisons and jails to justify targeting racial minorities, though empirical evidence suggests the opposite
    • The disproportionate imprisonment of people of color was in part a product of racial profiling, not a justification for it

Chapter 4: the cruel hand

  • Today, a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights and arguably less respect than a freed slave or a black person living free in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow
  • In the hidden world of accepted hatred toward criminals, discrimination is perfectly legal
    • Punishment for the original offense is no longer enough. One’s debt to society is never paid once labeled as a criminal
  • The systemic housing discrimination can also have detestation effects on a family as it can lead to parents losing custody of their children
    • Housing exclusions can be based simply on arrests, not convictions, which makes these communities more vulnerable as the target of the War on Drugs
    • Housing policies also allow tenets to be evicted even if they were unaware of a guest committing a crime on their property such as possessing or smoking marijuana
    • These polices particular affect poor people and racial minorities who disproportionately rely on public assistance
      • As a result, many families are reluctant to allow their relatives, particularly those who were recently released from prison, to stay with them, even temporarily
  • Work is so deemed so fundamental to human existence in many countries around the world that it is regarded as a basic human right
    • Deprivation of work, particularly among men, is strongly associated with depression and violence
  • Not only are African Americans far more likely to be labeled criminals, they are also more likely to be affected by the stigma of a criminal record
  • In the days after the Civil War, people convicted of crimes were effectively enslaved in perpetuity as they were unable to pay off their debts after being slapped with heavy fines
    • Today, the prison system mirrors this as incarcerated people work in prisons earning far less than minimum wage
  • No other country in the world disenfranchises people who are released from prison in a manner even remotely resembling the United States
  • Even many people who were eligible to vote were reluctant to do so because the fear of registering to vote and dealing with a government agency might attract attention to them and land them back in jail
  • The formal mechanisms of exclusions are not the worst of it. The shame and stigma that follow you for the rest of your life are the worst

“Felony is the new N-word”

  • Studies indicate that the biggest problem the black community might face today is not shamelessness, but rather the severe isolation, distrust, and alienation created by mass incarceration
  • Pluralistic ignorance = psychological phenomenon in which people misjudge the norm
    • Communities will underestimate the extent of incarceration within their communities exacerbates their sense of isolation by making their imprisonment of their family members more abnormal than it truly is
  • There is absolutely nothing abnormal or surprising about a severely stigmatized group embracing their stigma
    • Psychologists observe that when people feel hopelessly stigmatized, a powerful coping strategy, often the only apparent root to self-esteem, is embracing one’s stigmatized identity
    • Embracing one’s stigma is also a political act, an act of resistance and defiance in a society that seeks to demean a group based on an inalterable trait
  • Gangsta rap, while it may amount to little more than a minstrel show in today’s media, has its roots in the struggle for a positive identity among outcasts

Chapter 5: The New Jim Crow

  • The media frenzy and racialized rhetoric on crime and drugs is no longer needed. Mass incarceration has been normalized and all of the racial stereotypes and assumptions that give rise to the system are now embraced or at least internalized by people of all colors, in all walks of life, in every major political party 
  • The book States of Denial examines how institutions and individuals, victims perpetrators and bystanders, know about yet deny the occurrence of oppressive acts
    • They see only what they want to see and wear blinders to avoid seeing the rest
    • This has been true about slavery, genocide, torture, and every form of systemic oppression
  • Denial is facilitated by persistent racial segregation in housing and schools, by political demagoguery, by racialized media imagery, and by the ease of changing one’s perception of reality simply by changing television channels
    • Our understanding of racism is shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly, and sometimes with genuinely benign intent when it is in bedded in the structure of a social system

Reader’s note: The author is referencing the birdcage theory that was also in mentioned Stamped from the Beginning or White Fragility. Basically, if you examine an individual wire by itself, it doesn’t explain why the bird is trapped. Only by analyzing the pieces working together as a whole can you see the significance of each piece of the system.

  • This new racial caste system may prove to be more durable than its predecessors because the new system is not explicitly based on race and therefore it is easier to defend on seemingly neutral grounds
    • And while all previous methods of control have blamed the victim, the current system invites observers to imagine that those who are trapped in the system we’re free to avoid second class status or permanent banishment from society simply by choosing not to commit crimes
  • It’s far more convenient to imagine that a majority of young African-American men in urban areas freely chose a life of crime than to accept the real possibility that their lives were structured in a way that virtually guaranteed their early admission into a system in which they could never escape
    • Most people are willing to acknowledge the existence of a cage but insist that the door has been left open
  • The system itself is structured to lock them into a subordinate position
  • Race has always influenced the administration of justice in the United States
  • A parallel between Jim Crow and math incarceration is they are both legalized discrimination
    • Another parallel is that prison populations of a majority Black people count towards the electoral voting power of rural white areas, though none of the prisoners are not able to vote. This is reminiscent of the 3/5ths rule that gave slave states more voting power
  • Racial segregation rendered black experience largely invisible whites, making it easier for whites to maintain racial stereotypes about black values and culture. It also made it easier to deny or ignore their suffering
    • Most prisons are built in rural areas out of sight and out of mind of the general population. In a sense, imprisonment is a far more extreme form of physical and residential segregation then Jim Crow segregation
  • The white poor have a vastly different experience in America than do poor people of color as they are rarely relegated to racially segregated urban areas characterized by intense poverty
  • The myth of choice says that Black people choose to be criminals which results in higher incarceration rates for them
    • In reality, African-Americans are not more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct
    • In fact, studies suggest that white professionals may be the most likely of any group to have engaged in illegal drug activity in their lifetime. Yet they are least likely to be made criminals 
  • In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer permissible to hate Blacks, but we can hate criminals. Indeed, we are encouraged to do so 
  • The racial violence once associated with brutal slave masters or the Ku Klux Klan has been replaced to some extent by violence perpetrated by the state
    • Racial violence has been rationalized, legitimated, and channeled through our criminal justice system
      • It is expressed as police brutality, solitary confinement, and the discriminatory and arbitrary imposition of the death penalty
  • This system of control depends far more on racial indifference, defined as a lack of compassion and caring about race and people belonging to certain racial groups, rather than racial hostility
  • The inclusion of some whites in the system of control is essential to preserving the image of a colorblind criminal justice system and maintaining our self image as fair and unbiased people
  • Studies show that joblessness, not race or black culture, explains the high rates of violent crime in poor black communities
  • The reason some black people support systems of control is mostly because of complicity

Reader’s note: The author is now talking about uplift ideology which really reminds me about the book Stamped from the Beginning as it goes in depth into this topic in American history.

  • Studies suggest that most Americans violate drug laws in their lifetime. Indeed most of us break the law not once but repeatedly throughout our lives. Yet only some of us will be arrested, charged, convicted of a crime, branded a criminal or felon, and ushered into a permanent under cast

Chapter 6: the fire this time

  • It was understood that any effort to challenge racial discrimination, the litigant and the litigants family had to be above reproach and free from any negative trait that could be used as justification for unequal treatment
  • Poverty and unemployment statistics do not include people who are behind bars
    • People in prison are literally erased from the nation’s economic picture
  • Dismantling prison systems wouldn’t only cause panic in rural communities with people being released, but also hundreds of thousands of jobs in that sector would disappear
  • In the absence of a fundamental shift in the public consciousness, the system as a whole will remain intact
  • The current system is better designed to create crime and a perpetual class of people labeled criminals rather than to eliminate crime or reduce the number of people under the systems control
  • Why are people across the political spectrum attached to the ideal of color blindness?
    • Conservatives believe colorblindness is linked to the ideal of individualism
    • For liberals, the ideal is linked to the dream of racial equality 
  • As a group in many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when MLK was assassinated and riots swept in inner cities across America
    • Child poverty rates and unemployment rates are not much better than before and that is with affirmative action
  • Racism is so entrenched that without government intervention, there would be a little progress to boast about
  • If the prison label imposed on them can be blamed on their culture, poor work ethic, or their families, then society is absolved of the responsibility to do anything about their condition. This is where black exceptionalism comes in
    • Highly visible examples of black success are critical to the maintenance of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness
  • Martin Luther King jr. give stern warnings that racial justice requires the complete transformation of social institutions and the dramatic restructuring of our economy
  • While the color of police chiefs has changed across the country, the role of police in our society has not

Reader’s note: I like this idea of cosmetic diversity and it makes a lot of sense. The author is saying how making the argument of black police officers and police chiefs should solve the problem is like saying having black plantation owners and slave drivers would solve the problem of slavery

Closing thoughts:

I thoroughly enjoyed this read. This book does a fantastic job covering the new racial caste system in America, aka the system of control that replaced slavery and Jim Crow. The author breaks down a lot of the key historical ideas and turning points that led to where we are today.

I highly recommend this book for any reader who wants to understand why and how our system is designed to create second-class citizens out of it’s minorities, particularly Black men, and how these systems work together to make it hard to fight against.

I would highly recommend paring this book with the books Stamped from the Beginning and White Fragility. They discuss the same issue but from different perspectives.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

My one takeaway from this book isn’t necessarily something to apply, but it’s definitely the biggest idea I got from the book.

  • Highly visible examples of black success are critical to the maintenance of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness

I think this is a solid counter point when those in favor of maintaining the current system of control point to black exceptionalism as evidence of a colorblind society. In reality, this is far from the case.


The fabricated war on drugs and racially skewed criminal justice system is the single biggest contributor to modern mass incarceration. This was the evolved system of control used to keep Blacks as 2nd class citizens in the post-slavery era of the United States.

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Rating: 4 out of 5.


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