Interactive Book Discussion Guide: “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander

One of the earliest contemporary books foreshadowing the discussions we are more widely having today is Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow,” written during the giddy times of an Obama Administration, when we might have falsely assumed race was becoming less of an issue.

Rights Issues

Alexander reminds us that the Founding Fathers originally determined that Blacks (and women) were not full citizens. Since then, we have simply redesigned how we racially exclude and discriminate.

She points out that criminalizing non-white people for the same infractions as white people is a form of social control that denies opportunities after release from prison, which is why we have so many unnecessary restrictions stigmatizing the formerly incarcerated.

“An extraordinary percentage of Black men in the U.S. are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history,” Alexander writes. “They are [then] subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were.”

The continuing attempt to discredit non-white voters also is to claim voter fraud and twist voting districts with gerrymandering.

In the pre-Trump era, Alexander had written: “It is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So, we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. … 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.”

QUESTION: Why do you think voting rights and other denial of rights is an aspect of white culture — what is that denial accomplishing? When have you experienced a restriction of rights that others around you had?

War on Drugs

In 1998, the CIA admitted that it had supported guerilla armies in Nicaragua that also smuggled illegal drugs into the U.S. These drugs found their way to inner-city black neighborhoods as crack cocaine. The CIA also indicated — despite the “War on Drugs” in the U.S. — it blocked law enforcement from investigating the drug network, which was funding the covert war in Nicaragua. President Ronald Reagan announced the war on drugs in 1982, then hired staff to publicize the emergence of crack cocaine in 1985 as part of a strategic effort to build public and legislative support for this particular war. Almost overnight, Alexander indicated, the media was saturated with pictures of “crack whores and dealers” that seemed to confirm the worst racial stereotypes about inner-city residents.

“The War on Drugs began at a time when illegal drug use was on the decline,” Alexander writes, “causing arrests and convictions for drug offenses to skyrocket. The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than 30 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. The U.S. now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates or nearly every developed country — including Russia, China, and Iran. … The U.S. imprisons a larger percentage of its Black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.

“In Washington D.C., it is estimated that three out of four young Black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found across America. These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. As many as 80 percent of young Black men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”

Between 1980 and 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. DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,026 million.

By contrast, funding for agencies responsible for drug treatment, prevention, and education were dramatically reduced. Alexander writes that the budget of the National Institute on Drug Abuse was reduced from $274 million to $57 million from 1981 to 1984. Antidrug funds allocated to the Department of Education were cut from $14 million to $3 million.

In 1986, “the House passed legislation that allocated $2 billion to the antidrug crusade, required the participation of the military in narcotics control, allowed the death penalty for some drug-related crimes. … The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 included mandatory minimum sentences for the distribution of cocaine, including far more severe punishment for distribution of crack, associated with Blacks, than powder cocaine, associated with whites.”

QUESTION: Consider your own thoughts around drug use — its root causes, its treatment, its harm. Why do you think punishment in prison has been the default solution? What do you think that accomplishes? Why do you think funding towards anti-drug enforcement has taken precedence over anti-drug treatment?

The Politics of Anti-Black Rhetoric

Civil rights protests have often been considered criminal rather than political in nature. Riots erupted in 1984 in Harlem and Rochester, New York, followed by uprisings around the country after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Some argued that cities that welcomed Blacks migrating from the south were “repaid with crime-ridden slums and Black discontent.” This “get tough on crime” viewpoint was pivotal to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign, exploiting the riots and fears of Black crime.

Alexander points out that Republican strategist Kevin Phillips argued in “The Emerging Republican Majority,” published in 1969, that “Nixon’s Presidential election campaign could point the way toward long-term political realignment and the building of a new Republican majority, if Republicans continued to campaign primarily on the basis of racial issues, using coded anti-Black rhetoric. He argued that Southern white Democrats had become so angered and alienated by the Democratic Party’s support for civil rights reforms, such as desegregation and busing, that those voters could be easily persuaded to switch parties if those racial resentments could be maintained.”

A New York Times book reviewer observed that Phillip’s strategy depended upon creating and maintaining a racially polarized political environment. Alexander quotes the reviewer: “He wants to see a Black Democratic party, particularly in the South, because this will drive into the Republican party precisely the kind of anti-Negro whites who will help constitute the emerging majority.”

Alexander writes: “Competing images of the poor as ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ became central components of the debate.” She says the picture also emerged of resentment by lower-income whites who felt threatened by Black progress, being forced to compete on equal terms with Blacks for jobs and status. In contrast, affluent white liberals were often sheltered in private lives, immune to these issues.

“This reality made it possible for conservatives to characterize the ‘liberal Democratic establishment’ as being out of touch with ordinary working people — thus resolving one of the central problems facing conservatives: how to persuade poor and working-class voters to join in alliance with corporate interests and the conservative elite,” Alexander wrote. “By 1968, 82 percent of those responding to the Gallup Poll agreed with the statement that ‘law and order has broken down in this country,’ and the majority blamed ‘Negroes who start riots’ and ‘Communists.’”

QUESTION: Alexander wrote her book well before Trump was elected President. If you believe that politics is largely strategy to get a larger voting bloc, do you also believe that the conservative party has succeeded in a way that will be difficult for the liberal party to sway? Do you think we are destined to be a 50-50 country that pits racial differences as a wedge?

For Readers

These three questions are based on content in the first 57 pages of the 248-page book (which also includes extensive bibliography). If this new interactive book discussion guide interests you, please do one or both of two things:

  1. Use the Comments section below to respond to any of the questions raised. Indicate if you do or do not want your response to be made public, or whether we can summarize your comments anonymously in a later post of reactions.
  2. Offer your own queries based on your read of the book.

If this new format elicits reactions, we will continue with this book in subsequent discussion guides, and apply this concept to other books in the future.

See also one of our Legacy stories from 1999: “Caught in the Crossfire of the War on Drugs”

See how the Center for Court Innovation is testing new models around child trauma, mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, reentry, community-based justice, housing court, child support, Native healing, supervised release, fatherhood engagement, youth court, and other restorative approaches.

3 replies
  1. Carol Koepp
    Carol Koepp says:

    I am so glad that The New Jim Crow is getting this attention. Although I haven’t read the book, I watched “13”, a documentary on NETFLIX where Michelle Alexander was a major contributor. It is so important that the current situation of mass incarceration be put in historical context. Along with knowing the historical context of mass incarceration it’s important to understand the destructiveness that generational trauma has on the Black community. I am hopeful for positive changes and intend to be an ally of the BLM movement.

  2. Suzann Willhite
    Suzann Willhite says:

    I read this book and thought that Michelle Alexander presented solid evidence of the continually evolving abuse and criminalization of black bodies from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. I don’t understand why there is a desire by the majority white men to continue to stoke fears of black men. Maybe because more sexual violence and control actually was and is perpetrated by white men. It relates to why was powder cocaine was treated as less serious than crack cocaine. White privilege protects its own criminals.

  3. Elizabeth McCambridge
    Elizabeth McCambridge says:

    I highly recommend that if you choose to read The New Jim Crow, procure the 2020 Tenth Anniversary edition because Michelle Alexander’s introduction hauntingly prescient. I would love to read her response to what has happened politically and racially in the last two years, especially in relation to the George Floyd murder and the defense team that wants to paint him as deserving of the police torture that murdered him.

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