Chapter 1 – The Rebirth of Caste
Michelle Alexander argues that racism will adapt to any particular era. The racial caste system began in 1619 when black people were brought to America and sold as slaves. When slavery was abolished, the Jim Crow era replaced the systems put in place by slavery. Then, when the civil rights movement tore down Jim Crow, a new form of systemic oppression arose: the war on drugs.
Alexander references the vagrancy laws that were put into place in the Reconstruction era as the seeds of modern-day mass incarceration. These laws were put into place by southern whites after slavery was abolished in order to maintain some sort of racial control and hierarchy. The vagrancy laws made it a criminal offense not to work and were exclusively applied to blacks. One law specifically stated that “all free negroes and mulattoes over the age of eighteen” must have written proof of employment at the beginning of every year (Alexander 35).
While many positive improvements were seen during the Reconstruction period, many laws put into place to protect former slaves were not honored or enforced. The enforcement of policies that established segregation led to the development of codes known as Jim Crow.
Chapter 2 – The Lockdown
In chapter 2, the author goes on to describe in-depth the war on drugs and the process of being arrested, charged, and then incarcerated for a drug offense. The author argues that the reason the war on drugs has been so impactful is that police were allowed to operate with almost no guidelines or restrictions. There have been several major court cases that impacted the war on drugs, including Florida v Bostick. In that particular case, a man named Terrance Bostick had been riding a Greyhound bus when it was stopped and searched by police. The police questioned Bostick and asked to search his bag. Bostick agreed, despite having a pound of cocaine in his bag. Later on, when the case was appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, it was determined that the cocaine was seized illegally because Bostick had not been made aware that he had the right to deny police to search his belongings because they did not have a warrant (Alexander 83).
The federal government also decided to militarize drug units and send in SWAT teams for minor drug busts, which led to more aggression and violence while drug busts were being carried out. Also, in many cases, people are encouraged to take plea deals without being fully informed about what a plea deal is.
Chapter 3 – The Color of Justice
Alexander begins chapter three describing how people of color are convicted at significantly higher rates for drug crimes than white people, despite the overwhelming evidence proving that white people use drugs at the same rate, if not higher, than people of color. In 2000, the Human Rights Watch reported that black people in seven states accounted for 80-90% of all drug charges that were sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, black people are sentenced to prison at a rate from 25 to 57 times greater than white men. When the War on Drugs was in full swing, the arrest rate for black Americans on drug charges was 26 times higher in 2000 than in 1983. For Latinos, the arrest rate was 22 times higher. For white men, the arrest rate was only eight times higher (Alexander 123).
Alexander distinguishes how drug crime enforcement is very different from other law enforcement activity to explain how the system is racist. While non-drug-related criminal investigations are started usually with a lead that points towards a specific person, drug busts are usually sought by the police, which means that they have total control over whom they choose to search or investigate in relation to drug crimes. Alexander points to the media portrayal of black people as drug users in the 1980s during the crack epidemic as a potential cause for people targeting black people in drug crimes. Alexander explains that many people do not want to believe that they are racist despite numerous studies that show that most white participants harbor bias and assumptions towards black people.
Chapter 4 – The Cruel Hand
In chapter 4, Alexander describes the consequences of having a criminal record and suggests that modern-day felons receive even less respect than black men in the Jim Crow south (Alexander 176). In many cases, Alexander explains, people who plead guilty do not understand the lifelong consequences of being a convicted felon, even if they do not receive a lifelong sentence.
Among others, a common form of discrimination faced by felons is public housing. Upon release, many people have a hard time finding somewhere to stay for a myriad of reasons. Unfortunately, having the status of a convicted felon prevents them from receiving housing assistance due to a series of reforms that were passed in the late 1980s. Another common discrimination is in the workplace. While it was made illegal by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to deny anyone work solely because they have a criminal record, many convicted felons are unable to find work based on their criminal records.
ALEXANDER, MICHELLE. NEW JIM CROW: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. NEW Press, 2020.