Generations of black men have been disenfranchised and locked out of the political system due to citizenship laws, racial intimidation and violence, voting laws, and, now, mass incarceration.
While many activists who declare mass incarceration the “new Jim Crow” are dismissed as misguided or laughable, Alexander suggests that their claims are founded on some disturbing truths, such as the Central Intelligence Agency’s 1998 confession that, in order to protect US interests in the country, it supported and protected Nicaraguan drug cartels that also happened to be pumping crack cocaine into poor, urban African American communities.
To further introduce and support her central claim, Alexander offers the sociological theory that “… governments use punishment primarily as a tool of social control” even when the rates and categories of crimes do not warrant it. Crime rates in the United States were about the same as other developed countries before the War on Drugs—even below some of them—but the imprisoned population has increased exponentially and remains higher. The United States also imprisons more of its racial minorities than any other country.
Need to Know: Criminalization of black people is the new Jim Crow; the institutionalized mass incarceration of citizens creates a racial caste system just like discriminatory practices of the past.
Although there are successful African Americas today—most notably Barack Obama—the caste system has continued to grow and morph; even during slavery and Jim Crow there were exceptions, i.e., freemen and wealthy blacks.
Throughout slavery and in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, Reconstruction and the rise of the multiracial Populist movement, and the Civil Rights Movement and the breakdown of segregation, the white elite sowed racial hostility and leveraged the financial anxieties of poor whites to break coalitions and sustain racial hierarchy. This was often accomplished through “racial bribes,” giving poor whites rewards and privileges based on their skin color to separate them from blacks, with whom they may have shared economic and political interests.
After the Civil Rights era, conservative whites needed a “race neutral” way to preserve the hierarchy, now that law prevented them from using race to do so. Led by Richard Nixon, they turned to the idea of “law and order,” failing to distinguish between civil disobedience and crime. New party lines were drawn with “crime” as the code word for “black.” Conservative Republicans intentionally sought to appeal to those white voters with deep fears of and hatred for African Americans, including whites who had been longtime Democrats.
Due to high unemployment in the late seventies, crime rose among fifteen- to twenty-four-year-old men. But instead of exploring the complex demographic causes for crime, the media oversimplified the situation. Riots in urban areas in the ’60s in response to episodes of police brutality fed the narrative that civil rights for African American begot more crime. Even black activists called for severe punishment for crimes in order to prevent black communities and racial progress from being unraveled. Conservatives asserted that poverty was caused by culture (read: black culture) rather than structural inequities.
Despite the fact that drug crime was not seen as a priority to most Americans, the Reagan administration launched a War on Drugs, even before the introduction of crack cocaine into poor black communities. And by feeding exaggerated, fear-mongering stories to the media and the public, it began a new system for racial control.
The national incarcerated population soared from 350,000 to 2.3 million in a decade and a half due to policies, not crime rates. The Reagan administration ignored powder cocaine—mostly used by whites—and focused on the less expensive crack cocaine, used more often by poor blacks. In many states, more than ninety percent of prisoners were African American or Latino. Subsequent administrations on both sides of the political spectrum did not want to appear weak on crime and thus the war continued.
Need to Know: Alexander lays out three cyclical efforts to disenfranchise and subjugate African Americans: slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. Whenever one of these was threatened or began to fail, anti-black political elite evolved these structures into new methods of maintaining power and blocking the majority of the black population’s meaningful engagement in the United States’ economic, political, and civic life.
The War on Drugs did not take down powerful drug cartels; the majority of people arrested were not accused of serious offenses and were not selling drugs—they were only using or possessing them. In fact, the Supreme Court empowers law enforcement to disregard the Fourth Amendment, allowing them to ask pedestrians, drivers, and bus passengers if they can search their belongings without explicit directions that they can refuse or remain silent during these police interactions.
Additionally, the federal government incentivizes drug arrests—but not for more serious crimes such as murder and rape—through funding and military equipment. This leads some districts to pressure their officers to meet quotas which in turn mean unnecessary and unethical shakedowns of individuals and communities based on mere assumptions. The Drug Enforcement Agency actually trains its officers on how to use unnecessary traffic stops to then conduct unwarranted searches for drugs. Most innocent civilians do not...