Third Wave of Racism in America?

New Jim CrowSlavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration – are these the evolution of racism in America?

The New Jim Crow is written by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and associate professor at Stanford Law School. She says that over ten years of working for the ACLU she has come to believe that liberal and civil rights groups are failing to recognize an important issue – mass incarceration – and failing to recognize that it is a racial issue.

Part of the problem is that no one wants to be seen as favoring criminals. As Alexander notes, there were several blacks who personally fought segregation on buses, but if they resisted arrest or had unsavory relatives, they didn’t make a good test-case for civil rights leaders. Rosa Parks became that test case because, not only did she refuse to give up her seat, she was unimpeachable.

Alexander defines mass-incarceration as time in prison, plus notes that “ex-offenders are discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives… in voting, employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service.” This creates a permanent underclass and, since black and brown men are incarcerated at much higher rates than whites for the same crimes, this is a racial underclass.

She failed to realize this herself for many years, so “knowing as I do the difficulty of seeing what most everyone insists does not exist, I anticipate this book will be met with skepticism… may seem like a gross exaggeration… this book argues that mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow.”

Alexander briefly discusses colonial America, indentured servitude, the rise of slavery and racism, and the embedding of slavery in the American Constitution. She refers to the “racial bribe” when powerful wealthy planters extended special privileges to poor whites, so “poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery.” (The racial definition of slaves may have been a New World concept. I have read other books that indicate African heritage did not preclude acceptance in Europe.)

After the Civil War ended outright slavery, the “black code” was instituted in southern states to “govern the Negro.” For example, the law stated an adult man must present written proof of employment or be jailed and his labor loaned out to planters; but it was enforced only against blacks and so was racist. (It reminds me of a recent author stating that police would confiscate cars from black men if they could not show a pay stub.)

The section on Jim Crow similarly documents outrageous discrimination – you should read it even if you know something about Jim Crow laws – but I want to focus on mass incarceration.

As the Civil Right Era progressed, “a general attitude of ‘toughness’ toward problems associated with communities of color began in the 1960s.”

Alexander shows how the War on Drugs was used disproportionately in “management of the urban poor,” an expensive expansion of government power that robbed the accused of many rights. Any libertarian will be outraged:

“Full-blown trials… rarely occurred… witnesses were routinely…coerced… police regularly stop and search people for no reason whatsoever; penalties are so severe that innocent people [accept] plea bargains… four out of five drug arrests were for possession [only and]… for non-violent minor offenses.”

She doesn’t discuss whether anti-drug laws are objectively good, but focuses on their disproportionate enforcement against blacks.

“People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.” But because of uneven enforcement “when people think about crime, especially drug crime, they do not think about suburban housewives violating laws regulating prescription drugs or white frat boys using ecstasy.” They think about blacks, especially young, urban, back men.

In most of the book, Alexander presents her evidence and I urge you to read it for yourself. The human and monetary cost of mass incarceration promises to figure in upcoming political debates, legalization of marijuana is an ongoing issue, and I (as a old white woman) understand the black community’s distrust of the police better now.


Alexander offers a large list of footnoted sources. The few of her stats that I checked seem to hold up. For example:

  • I found a chart of historical incarceration rates (state plus federal, based on total US population) that shows the rate bottoming out at 100 per 100,000 then increasing. “In October 2013, the incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world, at 716 per 100,000 of the national population.” Wikipedia
  • Wikipedia also has an article on the US crime rate (Wikipedia is a good starting place for research). In the long term, violent crime in the United States has been in decline since colonial times. However, crimes rates were rising rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s, and were highest between 1980 and 1990.
  • Crime rates have dropped but the incarceration rate continued to climb until about 2010.
  • Crimes rates may not be highly dependent on tough prison sentences, which seem counter-intuitive. As Freakonomics notes, crime rates dropped starting in the 1990s in America, and there is evidence that legalizing abortion in the 1970s prevented the birth of over a million children a year who would have grown up in circumstances that lead them into crime. “It can be unsettling, even frightening, to stare a root cause in the face.”

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