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The New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow is a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement.


The Bottom Line

If Jim Crow laws — designed to oppress newly freed slaves after the Civil War — were an effective means to control the black population, then modern mass incarceration, Alexander argues, is its successor.

I. Introduction

In 2008, with the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president of the United States, many Americans celebrated what they believed would be the start of a golden era of race relations.

ACLU lawyer Michelle Alexander, who at the time was working on her new book, The New Jim Crow, was less hopeful. While she deeply wanted to believe that Obama’s election would end discrimination, her experience as a civil rights lawyer and her study of racist systems of oppression throughout the country’s history made her wary.

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander identifies mass incarceration as the latest of these systems designed to oppress Black people. “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it,” Alexander writes. She argues that having disproportionately high numbers of Black people in the nation’s prisons is not a passing occurrence or accident. Rather, our justice system has been devised to target Black and brown people while appearing race neutral.

Alexander’s book was published in 2010. In 2020, the protests against the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor prompted calls to reform and even defund the police. Twelve years after Obama’s election, the movement Alexander had been hoping for may finally get its start.

II. Mass Incarceration Is a Descendant of Slavery

III. Unequal and Unbridled Law Enforcement

IV. The War on Drugs Demonizes Black Americans

V. The Punishment Continues After Prison

VI. Mass Incarceration Is Today’s Jim Crow

VII. Dismantling a Criminal Caste System Requires a New Social Movement

The Takeaway


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