America’s Jim Crow gulag

September 10, 2010

Michelle Alexander argues that there's nothing "colorblind" about the U.S. criminal justice system. Ken Richardson reviews her important new book.

THE UNITED States is a country that was built on a foundation of racism. Historically, racism has taken many forms and served different purposes for those at the top of U.S. society. Whether it was chattel slavery or Jim Crow segregation, structural and overt racism have been a major feature of American life for many generations.

Chattel slavery was defeated by the Civil War, and Jim Crow was defeated by the civil rights movement, but even with these monumental victories, racism is alive and well in today's so-called "post-racial" society.

The criminal justice system and especially the so-called "war on drugs" are the tip of the iceberg of racism in today's U.S. society. Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness makes the argument that mass incarceration is a modern system of control that has many similarities to Jim Crow, a system of racist, segregationist laws developed in the post-Civil War South that relegated African Americans to second-class status.

Shackled prisoners are led outside to begin a day of labor
Shackled prisoners are led outside to begin a day of labor

ALEXANDER DOCUMENTS the birth of mass incarceration in the U.S., beginning with the "law-and-order" rhetoric of populist bigot George Wallace and later Republican President Richard Nixon, who declared drugs "public enemy number one."

Reacting to pressure from the civil rights movement and shifting social opinions, racist politicians began to distance themselves from an overtly racist agenda. According to Alexander:

Although law-and-order rhetoric ultimately failed to prevent the formal dismantling of the Jim Crow system, it proved highly effectively in appealing to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were opposed to integration and frustrated by the Democratic Party's apparent support for the civil rights movement.

The Nixon administration consistently and consciously used coded racial language in an attempt to appeal to racist, white voters--the "Southern Strategy"--but the Reagan administration perfected this tactic. Under Reagan, incarceration rates skyrocketed, and the main vehicle for the dramatic increase was the "war on drugs." Alexander explains:

In his campaign for presidency, Reagan mastered the "excision of the language of race from conservative public discourse," and thus built on the success of earlier conservatives who developed a strategy of exploiting racial hostility or resentment for political gain without making explicit reference to race.

Condemning "welfare queens" and criminal "predators," he rode into office with the strong support of disaffected whites--poor and working-class whites who felt betrayed by the Democratic Party's embrace of the civil rights agenda...His "colorblind" rhetoric about crime, welfare, taxes and states' rights was clearly understood by white (and black) voters as having a racial dimension.

A few years after Ronald Reagan was elected, his popularity dropped as a result of an economic recession, which had disproportionately affected inner cities. Alexander writes, "In the early 1980s, just as the drug war was kicking off, inner-city communities were suffering economic collapse. The blue-collar factory jobs that had been plentiful in the 1950s and 1960s had suddenly disappeared."

Against this economic backdrop, the Reagan administration revved up the "war on drugs," and within a few years, federal funding for anti-drug enforcement increased astronomically. According to Alexander, "Between 1980 and 1984, FBI anti-drug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million. Department of Defense anti-drug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991."

Drugs and anti-drug enforcement, however, were important issues to only a small number of Americans. So the Reagan administration had to legitimize its massive federal funding of anti-drug enforcement by launching one of the most racist media offensives in modern times. Alexander writes:

Determined to ensure that the "new Republican majority" would continue to support the extraordinary expansion of the federal government's law enforcement activities and that Congress would continue to fund it, the Reagan administration launched a media offensive to justify the war on drugs. Central to the media campaign was an effort to sensationalize the emergence of crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods.

In a few years, drugs--specifically crack--went from being a non-issue to the front page of Newsweek magazine. "The articles typically featured black 'crack whores,' 'crack babies,' and 'gang bangers,'" writes Alexander, "reinforcing already prevalent racial stereotypes of black women as irresponsible, selfish 'welfare queens,' and black men as 'predators'--part of inferior and criminal subculture."

Before long, the federal government began to change the criminal code to reflect the so-called "epidemic" of drug use. Draconian laws were passed, such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which enacted mandatory minimums, including a much more serious penalty for distribution of crack than for cocaine.

After Reagan, the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton further institutionalized the "war on drugs." The Clinton administration introduced a repressive 1994 crime bill and supported "three strikes and you're out" policies, which imposed strict, mandatory punishments on repeat offenders.

"The bill created dozens of new 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," Alexander writes of the Clinton crime bill.

Building on the "tough-on-crime" policies of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, Clinton's crime and drug policies caused the biggest boom in the prison population in U.S. history.

AMONG PEOPLE on the left, it's not a controversial idea that the war on drugs and the criminal justice system are racist. Many criminal justice activists know the statistics of incarceration rates, drug arrest rates and sentencing disparity.

What Alexander uncovers is the logic of mass incarceration, and how the war on drugs is administered by police and legitimated by the U.S. court system. Alexander's analysis of mass incarceration focuses on the logic and consequences of the war on drugs. She dismantles commonly held misconceptions about how the war on drugs operates and who are its primary targets. As Alexander writes:

The first myth is that the war is aimed at ridding the nation of drug "kingpins" or big-time dealers...In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five was for sales...

The second myth is that the drug war is principally concerned with dangerous drugs. Quite to the contrary, arrests for marijuana--a drug less harmful than tobacco or alcohol--accounted for nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s.

The police play an important role in administering the war on drugs, between the courts and the prison system itself. Law enforcement is the institution with the most power, argues Alexander. And its power is legitimized and expanded on the basis of the denial of constitutional rights and civil liberties. Alexander explains how several constitutional amendments have been dismantled in order to legitimize the war on drugs:

Virtually all constitutionally protected civil liberties have been undermined by the drug war. The Court has been busy in recent years approving mandatory drug testing of employees and students, upholding random searches and sweeps of public schools and students, permitting police to obtain search warrants based on an anonymous informant's tip, expanding the government's wiretapping authority, legitimating the use of paid, unidentified informants by police and prosecutors, approving the use of helicopter surveillance of homes without warrant, and allowing forfeiture of cash, homes and other property based on unproven allegations of illegal drug activity.

Many people would agree that racial profiling is used by law enforcement in a lot of instances, but some might be surprised to find out that racial profiling isn't necessarily against the law. Writing on the U.S. Supreme Court case of United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, which defended racial profiling, Alexander writes:

Because the Supreme Court has authorized the police to use race as a factor when making decisions regarding whom to stop and search, police departments believe that racial profiling exists only when race is sole factor. Thus, if race is one factor but not the only factor, then it doesn't really count as a factor at all.

The war on drugs and mass incarceration have had a devastating effect on Black and Brown men, including legalized discrimination, political disenfranchisement, exclusion from juries and racial segregation--all hallmarks of Jim Crow. Alexander argues:

In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer permissible to use race explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt...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 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.

Challenging mass incarceration is an arduous task, since the war on drugs and the logic of mass incarceration have been institutionalized in law enforcement, the courts and the media. As Alexander argues, it will therefore take a massive social movement to confront it.

"We must flip the script," she writes. "Taking our cue from the courageous civil rights advocates who refused to defend themselves, marching unarmed past white mobs that threatened to kill them, we, too, must be the change we hope to create."

Alexander uses the example of Martin Luther King's Poor People's Movement of 1968 as an inspiration to build a multiracial, class-based, principally anti-racist movement to confront mass incarceration.

Many people have filled churches, auditoriums, small bookstores and universities to hear her timely message, even though her book was printed by a small publisher. Clearly, Michelle Alexander has made an important contribution to the fight against racism--her timely book should be required reading for anti-racists, criminal justice activists and anyone interested in social change.

Further Reading

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