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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


by Michelle Alexander

Book Summary by Brian T. Murphy

Michelle Alexander offers a full assault on the system of mass incarceration in the US. At one point she mentions a theorist, Iris Marion Young, describing the entrapment of blacks in the US as being stuck in a birdcage: no one wire was responsible for the bird being trapped, rather the combination of wires formed a system of entrapment. Alexander opines “In the system of mass incarceration, a wide variety of laws, institutions, and practices–ranging from racial profiling to biased sentencing policies, political disenfranchisement, and legalized employment discrimination–trapped African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage.” The War on Drugs is a mechanism to force people into that cage in three phases: roundup/arrest, conviction, release and discrimination. 

Major concepts.


  • “When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinary comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color–people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prisons, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination. Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits–and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt–these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families. They were chastised for succumbing to depression and anger, and blamed for landing back in prison. Historians will likely wonder how we could describe the new cast system as a system of crime control, when it is difficult to imagine system better designed to create–rather than prevent–crime.” p 176

  • “As a society, our decision to heap shame and contempt upon those who struggle and fail in a system designed to keep them locked up and locked out says far more about ourselves than it does about them. There is another path. Rather than shaming and condemning an already deeply stigmatized group, we, collectively, can embrace them–not necessarily their behavior, but them–their humanness…This is not a mere platitude; is a prescription for liberation. If we had actually learned to show love, care, compassion, and concern across racial lines during the Civil Rights Movement–rather than go colorblind–mass incarceration would not exist today.” p 176-177

  • A theorist Iris Marion Young described the entrapment of blacks in the US as being stuck in a birdcage: no one wire was responsible for the bird being trapped, rather the combination of wires formed a system of entrapment. “In the system of mass incarceration, a wide variety of laws, institutions, and practices–ranging from racial profiling to biased sentencing policies, political disenfranchisement, and legalized employment discrimination–trapped African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage.” The War on Drugs is a mechanism to force people into that cage in three phases: roundup/arrest, conviction, release and discrimination. p 184-186

  • Pages 185 and 186 summarize the pipeline designed to almost effortlessly shuffle black men into mass incarceration. “The War on Drugs is the vehicle through which extraordinary numbers of black men are forced into the cage. The entrapment occurs in three distinct phases…The first stage is the Roundup. Vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color. They are rewarded in cash–through drug forfeiture laws and federal grant programs–for rounding up as many people as possible…The conviction marks the beginning of the second phase: the period of formal control. Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty whether they are or not…Once convicted, due to the drug war’s harsh sentencing laws, drug offenders in the United States spend more time under the criminal justice system’s formal control…than drug offenders anywhere else in the world…The Final stage has been dubbed by some advocates as the period of invisible punishment…that operates largely outside of public view and takes effect outside the traditional sentencing framework…These laws operate collectively to ensure that the vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society.” p 185-186

  • “Imprisonment, they say, now creates far more crime than it prevents, by ripping apart fragile social networks, destroying families, and creating a permanent class of unemployables. Although it is common to think of poverty and joblessness as leading to crime and imprisonment, this research suggests that the War on Drugs is a major cause of poverty, chronic unemployment, broken families, and crime today.” p 236-237

  •  “Mass incarceration–not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil rights enforcement–is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the civil rights movement.”

  • “…racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Junior warned more than 45 years ago.” p 14

  • Summary: Reagan pioneered the War on Drugs policies and the public relations campaign; Bush continued them based on engineered public support; Clinton greatly escalated the drug war and stole ‘tough on crime’ attitude from Republicans with the ‘three strike’ policy.

  • Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in United States.

  •  “Today’s lynching is a felony charge. Today’s lynching is incarceration. Today’s lynch mobs are professionals. They have a badge; they have a law degree. Felony is a modern way of saying ‘I’m going to hang you up and burn you.’ Once you get that F, you’re on fire.” P164

  •  “Historians will likely wonder how we could describe the new caste system as a system of crime control, when it is difficult to imagine a system better designed to create–rather than prevent– crime.” p 176

  • As outlined gratuitously in the book, creating, rather than preventing crime was the ultimate result of the War on Drugs. Race-based policies have infected nearly every aspect of Black lives – housing, imprisonment, employment, education, even identity, which may stand as the greatest act of terrorism against an entire race of human beings.

  • Alexander provides strong arguments for the dissolution of the family unit in Chapter 5, arguing that the targeting of black males via racist drug policies, and the consequent demotion into second-class citizen status have resulted in generations of children growing up in single homes, more so than in the 1850s before the Civil War. p 180-181 provide powerful summaries.

  • Alexander exposes the new and safe way to hate: “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer permissible to hate blacks, but we can hate criminals.” p 199

  • There is a common counterargument: those in jail chose to break the law, so they get what they deserve. Yes, we all make mistakes. But one race is punished infinitely more for these mistakes, and the negative consequences are compounding, affecting generations of young blacks in the US. A Black American that is pulled over for a traffic violation is likely in more danger than a white American who is caught in possession of a drug. 




  • “Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination–employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service–are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” p 2

  • “In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase.” p 6

  • In some major cities, “…as many as 80 percent of young African-American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.” p 7

  • Alexander argues that it is not entirely correct to say that blacks lack the opportunity to progress in society, rather in many cases they are “barred by law from doing so.” “The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions, but it functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control.” p 13



  1. The Rebirth of Caste.


  • Even as far back as the 1770s, poor whites and black slaves were pitted against each other, despite their common financial interests. p 25

  • P 29 highlights Black America’s advances during Reconstruction (1863-1877): 13th Amendment (abolition of slavery); Civil Rights Act of 1866 (African Americans granted full citizenship); 14th Amendment (a State cannot deny citizens due process and equal protection under the law; 15th Amendment (the right to vote cannot be denied on the basis of race).

  • P 32 documents the development of Jim Crow as a response to gains by African Americans, particularly in the south: the use of prison labor as a replacement of slavery (and conveniently a mass increase in prison population). The thought was, if slavery was illegal, simply jail Black Americans first, then put them to work.

  • The prior policy continued. In response to desegregation, particularly to the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the south was forced to desegregate and there was a major backlash. In the years following the decision, “…five southern legislatures passed nearly 50 new Jim Crow laws.” Then came the reemergence of the KKK, resulting in continued terrorism toward Black Americans. p 36-37

  • “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 formally dismantled the Jim Crow system of discrimination in public accommodations, employment, education, and federally financed activities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 arguably had even greater scope, as it rendered illegal numerous discriminatory barriers to effective political participation by African Americans and mandated federal review of all new voting regulations so that it would be possible to determine whether their use would perpetuate voting discrimination.” Despite these political victories, activists worried that the lack of economic reforms would leave many black families in poverty. p 38

  • Alexander describes a major conservative backlash to Dr. King’s fight for equality. The political strategy was to label Civil Rights protesters as criminal as opposed to political: “They developed instead the racially sanitized rhetoric of “cracking down on crime”– rhetoric that is now used freely by politicians of every stripe. Conservative politicians who embraced this rhetoric purposefully failed to distinguish between the direct action tactics of civil rights activists, violent rebellions in inner cities, and traditional crimes of an economic or violent nature. Instead, as Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project has noted, ‘all of these phenomenon were subsumed under the heading of ‘crime in the streets’ ’.” p 43.

  • Alexander claims the prevailing notion–that the War on Drugs was launched as a response to rampant crack/cocaine use in inner-city neighborhoods–is false. Reagan announced the War on Drugs in 1982, before crack became a problem in neighborhoods. It was Nixon’s policy advisor himself, a major architect of the wildly successful “Southern Strategy”, who admitted that the War on Drugs was a sham designed to steal the southern white vote from the democrats and reinvigorate the Republican Party. Note: The interview with Nixon aide John Ehrlichman happened in 1994 and was revisited in 2016 in Harper’s Magazine, and was picked up by major news outlets again. This should have resulted in a revolution. p 44-45

  • The 1960s and 1970s offered two philosophies to explain black poverty and social status: it was not race that related to poverty, it was culture: “particularly black culture.” See Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on the black family. This was likely a well-intentioned report where liberals called for more policy action to alleviate race-based inequality, though since the focus of the report was on the Black family unit, conservatives rationalized that only “racial self-help” and not legislation could fill this inequality gap. p 45

  • Reagan mastered the ability to exploit racial tension without making direct reference to race. He launched the War on Drugs in October of 1982. At this time, “less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation.” This was accompanied by a major PR campaign that sensationalized the emergence of drugs in the community. This was bad timing for black communities, as this coincided with an economic collapse within these neighborhoods (due to the many factors Alexander describes) allowing for substance abuse to sweep through. By 1989 more than half the nation viewed drugs as being the major issue plaguing our country. This provides strong evidence for an engineered problem, fueled by “carefully orchestrated political campaigns”. p 48-51, 55

  • “Practically overnight the budgets of federal law enforcement agencies soared. Between 1980 ends 1984, FBI antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million. Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,026 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to $181 million. By contrast, funding for agencies responsible for drug treatment, prevention, and education was dramatically reduced. The budget of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, for example, was reduced from $274 million to $57 million from 1981 to 1984, and antidrug funds allocated to the Department of Education were cut from $14 million to $3 million.” p 49-50

  • Taxpayers funded putting Black Americans in jail. Budgets for drug enforcement agencies logarithmically increased, while budgets for treatment centers decreased. As budgets increased, so did prison populations. Self-fulfilling prophecy ensued. This was done with our money. Many examples are given on p 49-50.

  • 1986 marked the beginning of mandatory minimum sentencing, which treated cocaine (affluent white users) differently from crack (poor black users), despite them being the same substance.  p 53

  • In 1994 the Clinton Administration endorsed the $30 billion “three strikes and you’re out” bill: “The bill created dozens of new federal capital crimes, mandated life sentences for some three-time offenders, and authorized more than $16 billion for state prison grants and expansion of state and local police forces. Far from resisting the emergency of the new caste system, Clinton escalated the drug war beyond what conservatives have imagined possible a decade earlier. As the Justice Policy Institute has observed, ‘the Clinton Administration’s ‘tough on crime’ policies resulted in the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.’…During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent).” p 56-57

  • “More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first-century, and millions more were relegated to the margins of mainstream society, banished to a political and social space not unlike Jim Crow, where discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education was perfectly legal, and where they could be denied the right to vote. This system functions relatively automatically, and the prevailing system of racial meanings, identities, and ideologies already seemed natural. Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were or black or Latino, yet 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. The new Jim Crow was born.” p 58

     2. The Lockdown.


  • “Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in United States. Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise of state prisoners between 1985 and 2000. Approximately a half million people are in prison or jail for drug offenses today, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980 – an increase of 1,100%.” p 60

  • “…most people in prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity…arrests for marijuana possession…accounted for nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s.” This is startling, considering this substance is now legal in many states. p 60

  • “In two short decades, between 1980 in 2000, the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans–or one in every 31 adults– were behind bars, on probation, or on parole.” p 60

  • Alexander describes law enforcement tactics that violated the Fourth Amendment and led to huge increases in prison populations: “the police are free to use minor traffic violations as a pretext to conduct drug investigations, even when there is no evidence of illegal drug activity.” “Officers learn, among other things, how to use a minor traffic violation as a pretext to stop someone, how to lengthen a routine traffic stop and leverage it into a search for drugs, how to obtain consent from a reluctant motorist, and how to use drug-sniffing dogs to obtain probable cause.” p 68-70

  • “The number of annual drug arrests more than tripled between 1980 and 2005, as drug sweeps and suspicionless stops and searches proceeded in record numbers.” p 72

  • The Reagan Administration persuaded police to make drug-enforcement a priority by offering cash (violation of the 4th Amendment). In the same way that the NIH can drive how much research is performed on a certain disease, the Reagan Administration offered large grants to police departments willing to fight drugs on a large scale and fill in the numbers. Again, self-fulfilling prophecy. This also began the era of militarized police. “In order for the war to actually work–that is, in order for it to succeed in achieving its political goals–it was necessary to build a consensus among state and local law-enforcement agencies that the drug war should be a top priority in their hometowns. The solution: cash. Huge cash grants were made to those law enforcement agencies that were willing to make drug law enforcement a top priority. The new system of control is traceable, to a significant degree, to a massive bribe offered to state and local law enforcement by the federal government.” p 73

  • “By the early 1980s, there were three-thousand annual SWAT deployments, by 1996 there were thirty thousand, and by 2001 they were forty thousand. The escalation of military force was quite dramatic in cities throughout the United States. In the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, for example, its SWAT team was deployed on no-knock warrants thirty-five times in 1986, but in 1996 that same team was deployed for drug raids more than seven hundred times.” p 75

  • Drug arrests were incentivized. Police department budgets increased as their drug arrests increased. This is akin to incentivizing researchers to produce positive results. It had disastrous effects on communities of color. “The size of disbursements was linked to the number of city or county drug arrests. Each arrest, in theory, would net a given city or county about $153 in state and federal funding. Non-drug-related policing brought no federal dollars, even for violent crime. As a result, when Jackson County, Wisconsin, quadrupled its drug arrests between 1999 and 2000, the county’s federal subsidy quadrupled too.” p 78

  • Civil forfeiture was born. This disgusting policy grants law enforcement agencies the right to keep possessions seized during drug arrests, including cash and property. This led to huge departmental and personal profits for local police. Items could be seized based on mere suspicion of illegal drug activity. No probable cause was needed. No hearing. No need to charge someone with a crime. And attorney costs to fight these cases are huge, which explains why 80% of forfeitures went uncontested. “…the Reagan Administration provided law enforcement with yet another financial incentive to devote extraordinary resources to drug law enforcement…state and local law enforcement agencies were granted the authority to keep, for their own use, the vast majority of cash and assets they seize when waging the drug war. This dramatic change in policy gave state and local police and enormous stake in the War on Drugs–not in its success, but in its perpetual existence. Law enforcement gained a pecuniary interest not only in the forfeited property, but in the profitability of the drug market itself.” p 78-79, 83

  • “Property or cash could be seized based on mere suspicion of illegal drug activity, and the seizure could occur without notice or hearing, upon an ex parte showing of mere probable cause to believe that the property had somehow been ‘involved’ in a crime. The probable cause showing could be based on nothing more than hearsay, innuendo, or even the paid, self-serving testimony, of someone with interests clearly adverse to the property owner. Neither the owner of the property nor anyone else need to be charged with a crime, much less found guilty of one.” p 79

  • “The overwhelming majority of forfeiture cases do not involve any criminal charges, so the vast majority of people who have their cash, cars, or homes seized must represent themselves in court, against the federal government…This helps to explain why up to 90 percent of forfeiture cases in some jurisdictions are not challenged.” p 83

  • “Tens of thousands of poor people go to jail every year without ever talking to a lawyer, and those who do meet with a lawyer for a drug offense often spend only a few minutes discussing their case and options before making a decision that will profoundly affect the rest of their lives.” p 84

  • “Nearly all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining–a guilty plea by the defendant in exchange for some form of leniency by the prosecutor…The pressure to plead guilty to crimes has increased exponentially since the advent of the War on Drugs.” Alexander continues “… mandatory minimum statutory schemes have transferred an enormous amount of power from judges to prosecutors. Now, simply by charging someone with an offense carrying a mandatory sentence of ten to fifteen years of life, prosecutors are able to force people to plead guilty rather than risk a decade or more in prison.” p 88

  • “Almost no one ever goes to trial.  Nearly all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining– a guilty plea by the defendant in exchange for some form of leniency by the prosecutor.” Since penalties for drug convictions are so harsh, prosecutors can force people to plead guilty to avoid a decade (or longer) sentence.  p 87-88

  • Gist: “The real point here, however, is not that innocent people are locked up. That has been true since penitentiaries first opened in America. The critical point is that thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence. The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch. Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time. And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences–sentences from minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murderers. This is the way the roundup works, and it works this way in virtually every major city in the United States.” p 89

  • “Once a person is labeled the felon, he or she is ushered into a parallel universe in which discrimination, stigma, and exclusion are perfectly legal, and privileges of citizenship such as voting and jury service are off-limits…As of 2008, there were approximately 2.3 million people in prisons and jails, and a staggering 5.1 million people under ‘Community correctional supervision’–i.e., on probation or parole.” p 94


     3. The Color of Justice.


  • “Although the majority of the illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” Alexander goes on to detail several studies that cite that whites are more frequent users of drugs than blacks. p 98

  • This is one main take away of the book: “Human Rights Watch recorded in 2000 that, in seven states, African-Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men. In fact, nationwide, the rate of incarceration for African American drug offenders dwarfs the rate of whites.” Between the mid-1980s and 2000, prison admissions for African Americans increased “more than twenty-six times the level in 1983.” Parallel numbers are a rate of twenty-two times for Latinos and eight times for whites. “Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” p 98

  • “…black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than 13 times higher than white men. The racial bias inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men.” p 100

  • McCleskey v. Kemp decision: This was really important. Essentially the Supreme Court decided that when an officer uses his discretion, there are inherent biases present. Thus, all biases are allowed because they are expected to be there. And discretion is a necessary part of the criminal justice system. “Racial discrimination, the court seemed to suggest, was something that simply must be tolerated in the criminal justice system, provided no one admits to racial bias.” To date no one has successfully challenged this. p 111

  • Alexander brings our attention to harrowing youth incarceration statistics: “A study sponsored by the U.S. Justice Department and several of the nation’s leading foundations, published in 2007, found that the impact of the biased treatment is magnified with each additional step into the criminal justice system. African American youth account for 16 percent of all youth, 28 percent of all juvenile arrests, 35 percent of the youth waived to adult criminal court, and 58 percent of youth admitted to State adult prison.” p 118

  • Alexander brings our attention to a review of juvenile sentencing reports from Washington state: “Blacks committed crimes because of internal personality flaws such as disrespect. Whites did so because of external conditions such as family conflict.” p 118

  • Alexander discusses that the Supreme Court essentially legalized use of race-based discrimination by police in the United States v. Brignoni-Ponce. Police have used this case to stop people based on race, so long as race is not the sole factor in the stop. “In New Jersey, the data showed that only 15 percent of all drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike are racial minorities, yet 42 percent of all stops and 73 percent of all arrests were of black motorists–despite the fact that blacks and whites violated traffic laws at almost exactly the same rate.” In Maryland, “African Americans comprised only 17 percent of drivers along a stretch of I-95 outside of Baltimore, yet they were 70 percent of those who were stopped and searched. Only 21 percent of all drivers along that stretch of highway are racial minorities (Latinos, Asians, and African Americans), yet those groups comprised nearly 80% of those pulled over and searched.” These are not isolated instances, but systemic racial biases. These are patterns of racial discrimination that affect African Americans on a massive scale–economically and psychologically. p 133-135

  • “By 2008, the NYPD was stopping 545,000 in a single year, and 80 percent of the people stopped were African Americans and Latinos. Whites comprised a mere 8 percent of people frisked by the NYPD, while African Americans accounted for 85 percent of all frisks.” Fewer than 1 percent of these resulted in guns being found, despite that it was a major justification for the program. p 135-136

  • Alexander v. Sandoval: “…the Supreme Court eliminated the last remaining avenue available for challenging racial bias in the criminal justice system.” This decision “virtually wiped out racial profiling litigation nationwide.” p 137

  • Alexander describes discrepancies in dealing with crack versus powdered cocaine: “Under the new law, it takes 28 grams of crack cocaine to net a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, while it still takes selling 500 grams of powder cocaine to net the same sentence.” p 139


     4. The Cruel Hand.


  • Describes Clinton’s ‘One strike and you’re out” rule that barred one-time drug offenders from public housing (among other things). This was devastating. This is similar to restrictive covenants during Jim Crow. Think about how devastating this is: 65 million Americans have criminal records. p 145-146

  • “When a defendant pleads guilty to a minor drug offense, nobody will likely tell him that he may be permanently forfeiting his right to vote as well as his right to serve on a jury–two of the most fundamental rights of any modern democracy.” p 142

  • Alexander describes the consequences of becoming a felon: “You are no longer part of ‘us,’ the deserving. Unable to drive, get a job, find housing, or even qualify for public benefits, many ex-offenders lose their children, their dignity, and eventually their freedom–landing back in jail after failing to play by rules that seem hopelessly stacked against them.” p 143

  • “Many states utilize ‘poverty penalties’–piling on additional late fees, payment plan fees, and interest when individuals are unable to pay all their debts at once, often enriching private debt collectors in the process…Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee, and Florida allows private debt collectors to tack on a 40 percent surcharge to the underlying debt.” p 155

  • “A black minister in Waterloo, Mississippi, explained his outrage at the fate that has befallen African Americans in the post-civil rights era. “it’s a hustle,” he said angrily. “‘Felony’ is the new N-word. They don’t have to call you a nigger anymore. They just say you’re a felon. In every ghetto you see alarming numbers of young men with felony convictions. Once you have that felony stamp, your hope for employment, for any kind of integration into society, it begins to fade out. Today’s lynching is a felony charge. Today’s lynching is incarceration. Today’s lynch mobs are professionals. They have a badge; they have a law degree. Felony is a modern way of saying ‘I’m going to hang you up and burn you.’ Once you get that F, you’re on fire.” p 164

  •  “As a society, our decision to keep shame and contempt upon those who struggle and fail in a system designed to keep them locked up and locked out says far more about ourselves than it does about them…If we had actually learned to show love, care, compassion, and concern across racial lines during the Civil Rights Movement–rather than go colorblind–mass incarceration would not exist today.” p 176-177


     5. The New Jim Crow.


  • “More African American adults are under correctional control today–in prison or jail, on probation parole–than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. The mass incarceration of people of color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.” p 180

  • “Young black men today may be just as likely to suffer discrimination in employment, housing, public benefits, and jury service as a black man in the Jim Crow era– discrimination and that is perfectly legal, because it is based on one’s criminal record. This is the new normal, the new racial equilibrium.” Alexander goes on to tie the previous chapters together, describing how the system designed to put black people–men especially–in jail is nearly automatic, and requires little to no maintenance. Whites won’t even realize that it exists. It’s the new normal, “as normal as separate water fountains were just a half century ago.” 180-181

  • Debilitating Illinois drug statistics on p. 189: “About 90 percent of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense in Illinois are African American. White drug offenders are rarely arrested, and when they are, they are treated more favorably at every stage of the criminal justice process, including plea bargaining and sentencing.” p 189

  • “The total population of black males in Chicago with a felony record (including both current and ex-felons) is equivalent to 55 percent of the black adult male population and an astonishing 80 percent of the adult black male workforce in the Chicago area…From the Chicago region alone, the number of those annually sent to prison for drug crimes increased almost 2,000 percent, from 469 in 1985 to 8,755 in 2005.” p 189

  • “More than 70 percent of all criminal cases in the Chicago area involve a class D felony drug possession charge, the lowest-level felony charge.” p 189

  • “As of June 2001, they were nearly 20,000 more black men in the Illinois State prison system than enrolled in the state’s public universities. In fact, they were more black men in the state’s correctional facilities that year just on drug charges than the total number of black men enrolled in undergraduate degree programs in state universities. To put the crisis in even sharper focus, consider this: just 992 black men received a bachelor’s degree from Illinois state universities in 1999, while roughly 7,000 black men were released from the state prison system the following year just for drug offenses.” p 190

  • Alexander explains why poor whites are not subject to similar effects as poor blacks: “The white poor have a vastly different experience in America then do poor people of color. Because whites do not suffer racial segregation, the white poor are not relegated to racially defined areas of intense poverty.” p 196

  • “Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: Black people, especially black men, are criminals. This is what it means to be black.”

  • Thought experiment: Talk to someone about “white crime” and watch their reaction. Now try “black crime.” One exists, and one doesn’t. p 198

  • Alexander argues that the inclusion of some whites into the War on Drugs imprisonment system alleviates accusations of racism. She points out that if 100 percent of those arrested for drug offences were black, we would be outraged. But somehow we’re OK with 90 percent. p 204

     6. The Fire This Time.


  • Alexander argues that Civil Rights organizations became too top heavy with lawyers, and although lawyers are critical to certain successes (those that can be won through litigation and the court system), they have not been effective in fighting the mass incarceration of people of color. p 226

  • Poverty and unemployment numbers often do not reflect the prison population, and this distorts the perception of the health of the black community. p 229

  • The end of mass incarceration of the black community is inevitably tied to the end of the War on Drugs. They cannot be separated. “The drug war is largely responsible for the prison boom and the creation of the new undercaste, and there is no path to liberation for communities of color that includes this ongoing war. So long as people of color in ghetto communities are being rounded up by the thousands for drug offenses, carted off to prisons, and then released into a permanent undercaste, mass incarceration as a system of control will continue to function well.” p 232

  • Alexander cites a long list of reforms required to end mass incarceration (p 232-233):

    • Remove financial incentives to arrest blacks for drug offenses, particularly in poor communities

    • End federal grant money for drug enforcement

    • Remove all drug forfeiture laws

    • End racial profiling

    • End the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement

    • Police must do better than “community policing” and adopt more humane, compassionate approaches to law enforcement based on trust and partnership with communities

    • Mandate the collection of data on police and prosecutors nationwide to assure the absence of prejudice

    • Fund public defender offices at the same level as prosecutor’s offices

    • End Mandatory Minimum laws

    • Legalize marijuana (possibly other drugs)

    • More programs that focus on prisoner re-entry into society: education, training, job placement

    • Need for drug treatment programs for all Americans on demand (“a far better investment of taxpayer money than prison cells”)

    • End barriers to re-entry such as laws that discriminate against released prisoners


  • “Imprisonment, they say, now creates far more crime then it prevents, by ripping apart fragile social networks, destroying families, and creating a permanent class of unemployables.” p 237

  • “Colorblindness, though widely touted as the solution, is actually the problem…colorblindness has proved catastrophic for African-Americans. It is not an overstatement to say the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States would not have been possible in the post–civil rights era if the nation have not fallen under the spell of a callous colorblindness.” p  240-241

  • “Seeing race is not a problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem.” p 244

  • Alexander poses the question: was affirmative action a counterproductive idea? Did it offer too few benefits to African Americans while letting whites off the hook for more egregious offenses and more fair payback? “The question posed here is whether affirmative action has functioned similarly, offering relatively meager material advances but significant psychological benefits to people of color, in exchange for the abandonment of the more radical movement that promised to alter the nation’s economic and social structure. p 244-245

  • “Highly visible examples of black success are critical to the maintenance of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness. Black success stories lend credence to the notion that anyone, no matter how poor or how black you may be, can make it to the top, if only you try hard enough…Mass incarceration depends for its legitimacy on the widespread belief that all those who appear trapped at the bottom actually chose their fate.” p 248

  • Alexander closes the book with a quote from James Baldwin, p 261: “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…It is their innocence which constitutes the crime…This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it is intended that you should perish.”

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