Civil Rights advocate Michelle Alexander argues that the Jim Crow system is still alive in her book, The New Jim Crow. The system has, however, taken a new shape in the form of mass incarnation. The author uses the unbiased nature of the modern criminal justice system to show the inequality that minorities face. Her main argument is that United States’ criminal justice system is inclined to discriminate against minorities from the lower classes. The modern system in America is a replication of the Jim Crow system because the punitive nature of the criminal justice system strips Blacks people of their freedom, access to government programs, and voting rights unjustly.
Alexander refers to the Supreme Court verdicts that have acted as a reinforcement to America’s racially prejudiced system. Law enforcement officers have the discretion to stop and search almost any person they suspect of drug-related offense, and internalized racial biases make officers to target minorities unjustly. Alexander elaborates the current state of affairs and explains the different court decisions, policies, and laws that led the country to this point (15). The various decisions, policies, and laws must be reversed to enable African Americans to have justice. This is hard and it begins by acknowledging that a problem of mass incarceration exists in the U.S.
The author argues that America’s inclined system is similar to the caste system. She describes caste as a “stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom” (Alexander 12). She states that Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. The word caste is usually associated with special division system used in Hindu society. It is a rigid framework of social groupings whereby each caste has its limitations and entitlements. These features are passed on by inheritance between different generations. The Jim Crow system is like caste since it discriminates and segregates a particular racial group, African Americans, who were barred from using public transportation and spaces and discriminated against concerning employment policies. She persuasively argues that there is a novel caste system in the United States. She discusses her belief that institutions like Jim Crow and slavery seem to fade away but are renowned according to the political and social setting of the time (Alexander 21). She leans on her experiences in the discipline of civil rights advocacy and litigation, particularly in the sectors of racial profiling by police officers and gender and racial discrimination to develop a book with noteworthy details as well as a logical discussion of multifaceted political, social, and legal issues.
Alexander uses various terms and concepts to demonstrate this new form of discrimination. First, the glamorization of law enforcement in mass media through news stories that depict the War on Drugs as safeguarding society from offenders thus leading to a degree of acceptance of the harsh system of control both in the streets and in prison (Alexander 63). As such opportunists use the idea that individuals have an extreme need for safety and the need to secure both private and public spaces. The justification for incarcerating people is that the rate of crime is too high. This reason has been used since the era of chattel slavery when it was crucial to return stolen property to the owners. The second concept that the author uses is to elaborate the tools used in the new Jim Crow system. Such tools include retributive punishment like lengthy prison sentences, harsh and rigid parole rules when a person is released, and the fact that once an individual has been referred to as an offender, he/she loses most benefits and rights like the right to vote, receive food stamps, subsidized housing, public housing, or serve on juries. The third tool is broad discretion handed to prosecutors in regards to queries of who gets charged with what offense, shuffling of juries and cases, plea bargaining, and entire set of techniques that go unchecked and are not under any scrutiny and review. Overall, the goal of using such mechanisms enables the author to demonstrate a perfect storm developed to relay subtle racial prejudices. By using these concepts, Alexander effectively shows the prevalence of the New Jim Crow system in modern America. A significant percentage of Black men are legally barred from voting. They are also put through legalized discrimination in the form of education, housing, public benefits, jury service, and employment, just like their ancestors once were (Alexander 66). The objective of such references is to depict the elements of the present system and associate it with the period of the old Jim Crow and chattel slavery.
Alexander’s narration is targeted at civil right activists who desire to work for racial justice. Her goal is to convince the audience that there is a novel caste system in the U.S. in this modern age. She starts by narrating her personal experience. She states that there was a point when she was rushing to catch a bus to her workplace before spotting a bright orange poster inviting community members with the slogan, “The Drug War is the New Jim Crow.” Alexander dismisses the suggestion on this banner as nonsense largely since she is a successful Black woman with a job as a lawyer and lives in a nice neighborhood (30). However, upon further reflection and research, Alexander comes to understand that Jim Crow was successfully substituted by the stigmatization of minorities, especially males, due to the “War on Drugs” executed virtually in the impoverished communities in which minority groups live.
Her narration aims to demonstrate how isolated the upper- and middle-class groups are from the horrors of the daily lives of impoverished people existing in the inner city. Alexander is calling onto activists to understand that the war on drugs is a multifaceted chain with many intersecting and interlocking variables created to work in favor of law enforcement. She illustrates how the war is executed in setting of a highly ghettoized society, in which Whites and successful Blacks in the middle-class such as herself have virtually no contact with minority groups (Alexander 52). The drug raids are enforced in areas that most people in society cannot notice hence no one will issue complaints. The stop, search, and frisk protocol has become so prevalent in the ghetto neighborhoods that minority men voluntarily stop and follow the protocol as police vehicles pass them in these neighborhoods. Alexander believes that if a similar program was deployed in the middle-class neighborhoods, there will be huge outrage. As such, law enforcement is familiar with this fact and leverages it to their advantage. The author’s goal here is to show how poor citizens from minority groups are perceived differently in the eyes of the law compared to individuals who enjoy the advantage of being in the middle-class group.
The strength of Alexander’s argument is that she shows that the new Jim Crow has adapted to the modern sensibilities of society to downplay the obvious racial biases and take advantage of the fear of crime as offenders are one of the few groups in society that people can hate with no regards of their rights. She demonstrates that whereas it can be asserted that the war on drugs is a benevolent effort by the state to mitigate the increasing problem of drug abuse, this assertion is not reinforced by statistics. The War on Drugs is largely based on the social stigma surrounding Black people, and this restrains them to the fringes of society as they lack access to mainstream society. A weakness of Alexander’s argument is that she fails to discuss the historical factors that have left Black people on the fringes of society. It would have been useful to demonstrate why most minorities are confined to impoverished inner city neighborhoods as a consequence of historical injustices. Such a viewpoint would have reinforced her argument regarding the New Jim Crow and how it is amplifying the historical injustices that Black people have endured. Nonetheless, even without this perspective, Alexander’s argument remains strong and convincing as she makes practical references to the current nature of the criminal justice system.
The assertions made by Alexander are supported by Stuart Hall in “Spectacle of the Other.” Hall refers to ethical and racial differences and how they are represented in the modern media (230). His ideas can be applied to show why these presentations reinforce the development of the new Jim Crow system. Hall presents theories that pertain stereotyping and the practice of showing difference in the media; whether it can be changed to counter negative images and transform them into a more positive representation of minorities (250). His examination shows how representation of difference in the media can induce emptions, attitudes, and feelings and develop anxiety and fear in the audience. The media largely presents Black people as offenders and that the origins of the drug issue in America is the impoverished city neighborhoods. This acts to reinforce the idea that these neighborhoods should be invaded by law enforcement officials to rid society of the drug problem. Stuart also shows that the new Jim Crow system is supported by the misconception that is the War on Drugs.
The essay has analyzed Alexander’s text to support her argument that the modern system in America is a replication of the Jim Crow system because the punitive nature of the criminal justice system not only strips Black people of their freedom unjustly but also limits their access to government programs and their voting rights. The modern society has developed some sort of caste system in which minority groups from poor neighborhoods are unfairly targeted by law enforcement officials. As a result, these people live on the fringes of society and lack access to basic privileges that they deserve as citizens. The modern society has placed them in a perpetual cycle of injustice that was experienced by their forefathers.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2012.
Hall, Stuart. “The Spectacle of ‘The Other’. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices.” (1997): 230-90.