The New Jim Crow Summary and Review

by Michelle Alexander

Has The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

Research shows that to this day, in many parts of the United States, you’re far more likely to be stopped by a police officer if you’re black compared to being white. But in the twenty-first century, how can that still be the case? This book summary reveals how the “War on Drugs” has produced a system of mass incarceration, maintained by a prejudiced police force and discriminatory legal system. This extensive, systemic discrimination has many similarities to the Jim Crow laws that constrained African-Americans to be second-class citizens in America. Those laws were only overthrown generations later through the numerous uprisings of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It is time for another civil rights movement. However now, the fight is not for equal access to universities or other public institutions, but to liberate millions of African-Americans unjustly put in prison for petty drug crimes.

In this summary of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, you’ll discover

  • how the Reagan administration profited from the widespread usage of crack cocaine;
  • that the societal view of drug dealers is entirely incorrect; and
  • why we need to abandon racial etiquette.

The New Jim Crow Key Idea #1: It All Began With the Reagan Administration and the War on Drugs.

Let’s begin our story with two crucial facts. Firstly, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, about eight times higher than Germany’s. Secondly, from 1980 to 2000, the amount of incarcerated people rose from 300,000 to 2 million. Furthermore, the vast majority of those imprisoned were people of color. But how did this happen? It began in the 1970s, with Richard Nixon's strategy to play off of the existing racial division to gain an electoral advantage. Though, the epidemic took hold when the Reagan Administration declared war on drugs in 1982. While the initiative was framed as a drug war, it had a lot more to do with race than anything else. At the time, a “war” on drugs was somewhat of a surprise, considering only two percent of Americans believed illegal drugs were the country’s most urgent political issue. What exactly motivated the drug war? Well, it had to do with concerns of poor, rural white people, who disliked the progress of black civil rights and solidly supported Reagan’s law-and-order policy During that political climate, the Reagan administration launched a primary media campaign and started pumping money into drug law enforcement. The entire enterprise was very generously financed. Between 1981 and 1991, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spending went from $33 million to $1.42 billion. It’s worth noting that when this drug war commenced, even the conservatives in Reagan’s party were skeptical. Although, this changed in 1985 when crack cocaine started appearing in disadvantaged, black neighborhoods, leading to a significant spike in violence and drug use. For the Reagan administration, crack cocaine, and the violence that came with it were convenient ways to justify a war on drugs. Consequently, the DEA increased their public awareness efforts, drawing attention to the “new” crack problem. The media quickly jumped on the bandwagon as well, playing up the characterizations, with full racial subtexts, of black “crack whores” and “crack babies” for the public’s imagination.

The New Jim Crow Key Idea #2: The Disproportionate Number of Blacks and Latinos Being Incarcerated for Drug-Related Offenses

When the War on Drugs launched, the number of prisoners in U.S. jails skyrocketed. Simultaneously, while drug-related convictions exploded, the actual use of narcotics was declining. The current population of U.S. prisons totals 2.3 million people. Most of those behind bars are serving time for drug-related offenses and are Black or Latino. Even more shocking, no other country in the world incarcerates so many of its racial or ethnic minorities – not even repressive regimes like Russia, China or Iran! The incarceration rate of black people in the United States today is higher than it was in South Africa during the time of apartheid. To understand the full scope of this crisis, we must consider the following fact. Statistically, if you’re young, black, and live in Washington, D.C., there’s a three-in-four chance you’ll end up in prison at some point. Many believe that people end up in prison for a reason, regardless of race. Hence the thinking pattern that if there are more blacks in jail for drug offenses, it merely means that black people violate U.S. drug laws more often. But here’s some surprising truth. Studies have found that all races use and sell drugs at similar rates. Research has even shown that white people, and especially the younger ones, are more likely to be involved in drug crimes than any other racial group. So, even though the majority of drug dealers and drug users are white, three out of four people incarcerated for drug offenses in the United States are black or Latino. Here’s one last fact for the skeptics: while the number of incarcerations has quadrupled in recent decades, the U.S. crime rate has not increased.

The New Jim Crow Key Idea #3: The U.S. Criminal Justice System’s Role in Facilitating Mass Incarceration

What is the U.S. justice system’s role in this and why has it failed to act against such injustices? To begin answering these questions, it’s important to note that minimum sentencing in the United States for drug violations is extremely punitive. For instance, in federal court, a standard mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense is five to ten years in prison. Comparatively, you’d only serve six months or no time at all for the same crime in any other developed country. These rigid standards have been around for decades. In 1982, an adult charged with possession of nine ounces of marijuana and intent to sell was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in prison. What was even crazier is that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the verdict and sentencing. Law enforcement plays a critical role in this dysfunctional system. Generally, the police have far too much power and not enough oversight. For example, a police officer is technically allowed to stop and search anyone they encounter. If the officer finds illegal drugs on them during the search, they can take that person to a police station and book them. However, the vast majority of those types of stop-and-search cases don’t end up going to trial. Instead, most are resolved through plea bargaining, where an individual pleads guilty to try and receive a more lenient sentence. Those who don’t plea bargain have to go to trial, which can be a drawn-out process. It typically entails having to pay attorney fees while also carrying a potential risk of more severe sentencing. That is why so many people plead guilty; they can’t afford a lawyer and are afraid of doing even more time. Incentives to take a plea bargain are so powerful that sometimes even innocent people will say they’re guilty. According to estimates, two out of every five U.S. inmates aren’t truly guilty but chose to plead it to avoid going to trial.

The New Jim Crow Key Idea #4: Police and Racial Profiling

Many people think that we live in a post-racial era and U.S. law enforcement is also color-blind. While it’s true that most of the police aren’t explicitly racist, society still has to grapple with the question: why does police work produce such racially biased outcomes? It is hard to prove this definitively, but research has shown that most people are very likely to discriminate in some way based on race, even subconsciously. Studies have found that almost everyone is subject to unconscious cognitive biases related to racial stereotypes. A 1995 survey asked participants the following question: “Close your eyes and envision a drug user. Would you describe this person to me?” The result was that an astonishing 95 percent of subjects described someone who is black. Now, contrast that with the real data that shows in 1995 only 15 percent of U.S. drug users were black. In other words, most people – including law enforcement – have some unconscious racial bias. Nonetheless, drug law enforcement has to be more proactive by nature, making the consequences of racial stereotyping in this field even more important. Most crimes involve a victim seeking out police assistance. But standardly, drug crimes don’t include a victim. Since both drug dealers and drug buyers are partaking in illegal activity, neither of them is inclined to call the police if something goes awry. So police officers must work strategically, being that they obviously can’t stop and search every person they see. Given the social and historical contexts we’ve already discussed, from the early boom in crack use in poor neighborhoods to sensationalist media coverage of “black addicts,” it’s not difficult to guess which group law enforcement often targets. This all points to the police profiling black people.

The New Jim Crow Key Idea #5: The Continuation of Systematic Discrimination

As we’ve seen in previous book summaries, the criminal justice and drug law enforcement systems in the United States are racially biased. This prejudice has led to prisons full of black Americans convicted of nothing more dangerous than possession charges. The injustice does not stop there. After inmates are released, they face many highly discriminatory regulations. For instance, about 5.1 million people released from American prisons in 2008 were excluded by law from receiving public housing and participating in the federal food stamp program. Private landlords and potential employers also are permitted to discriminate against former convicts. On the majority of job or rental applications, an applicant must indicate if they were ever convicted of a felony. Revealing this information makes it next to impossible for former inmates to secure employment. Furthermore, Individuals with felony convictions are denied a right to vote. Not to mention, anyone on parole or probation is subject to intense police surveillance and monitoring and can be stopped and searched at any time. It is essential to remember that due to the War on Drugs, most of these former inmates are felons convicted for minor drug offenses. For instance, a study covering Chicago’s Cook County showed that in 72 percent of drug-related cases, 70 percent are convicted as felonies. Conclusively, former drug felons barely stand a chance to successfully reintegrate into society, given this amount of exclusionary legal policies. As a result, the chances are increased that former inmates will return to prison because crime seems the only option. It’s a vicious circle. To understand the full scope of the issue, consider the following statistics. A Bureau of Justice Statistics study revealed that approximately 30 percent of released prisoners were arrested again within six months. After three years, the number rises to 68 percent. Most of the time, the new arrests are minor crimes, such as drug or property offenses.

The New Jim Crow Key Idea #6: Mass Incarceration as Social Control

Everything covered in previous book summaries has, in sum, created a new undercaste of second-class citizens; black Americans repressed by the white majority through legal institutions. This situation resembles the systematic oppression of African-Americans during the eras of institutionalized slavery and Jim Crow laws. It’s important to note that short periods of actual freedom followed the collapse of both of these systems, but there was also confusion. The outcome was that a new means of social control was sought out to re-establish a racial hierarchy. For example, after the collapse of slavery, the Jim Crow legal system was established, perpetuating segregation in several areas. Once Jim Crow ended in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Drugs introduced yet another system of repression. Why do such repressive policies keep coming back and who benefits from them? Similar to Jim Crow laws, the new system of systematic oppression was created by white elites to exploit the tensions and racial resentments of working-class whites for the sake of political gain. By drawing attention to a supposedly dangerous “other,” or the African-Americans, the political establishment could distract voters and divert attention from other pressing political issues. Just as conservative politicians during the Jim Crow era competed against each other by passing increasingly repressive legislation against black Americans, politicians promoted being “tough on crime” during the War on Drugs. This stance appealed to lower-class white voters. It is unquestionably a depressing and appalling state of affairs. But what can we do to change it?

The New Jim Crow Key Idea #7: Raising Critical Consciousness

Systematic and racially biased mass incarceration is a substantial and complicated dilemma. What can we do to help solve it and create change for the better? It’s a problem deeply rooted in U.S. society and unfortunately can’t be solved overnight. However, to make a positive change, we must fundamentally raise awareness. We as a society have to learn to talk more frankly about race. A major factor preventing us from discussing racial injustice is people’s firm commitment to the notion of colorblindness. Being “color-blind” relies on the idea that it’s not socially acceptable to discriminate against someone based on race. Although well-intentioned, this principle can lead to people pretending to be color-blind, which makes it difficult getting to the root of the problem and dismantling unconscious racial biases permanently. Research has shown that most people, and especially whites, are uncomfortable speaking about race. One study revealed that some white people would go as far as completely avoiding talking to black people because they’re so apprehensive of saying something inappropriate or potentially offensive. Thus, these circumstances hinder us from having open discussions about race and understanding how politicians can exploit racial resentment to their advantage. Furthermore, the black community has to take more action and raise overall consciousness on the subject of mass incarceration. Doing so would require a shift of attention away from higher-profile policies like affirmative action (maintaining diversity in institutions). This is key because the conversation is imbalanced. We talk too much about racial justice about privileged institutions and societal roles and far too little about the underprivileged and socially oppressed people in society.

The New Jim Crow Key Idea #8: In Review

The key message in this book: Placed partially in response to achievements of the Civil Rights Movement and consolidated by the War on Drugs, the present-day system of mass incarceration of African-Americans has produced a new undercaste in the U.S. Black people in present aren’t just disproportionately imprisoned based on drug-related offenses but also institutionally discriminated again after release. Actionable advice: Become more conscious of your prejudices. What would your response be if a survey asked you to close your eyes and imagine a drug dealer? Would you be a part of the 95 percent that pictured someone black? It’s important to ask yourself questions like that and attempt to answer them honestly because it’ll help you to dismantle your stereotypes. Try to understand where those biases come from so you can challenge them. Suggested further reading: On the Run by Alice Goffman In On the Run, author Alice Goffman plunges into a dangerous world unknown to most Americans: the impoverished, predominantly black, crime-ridden neighborhood of Sixth Street in Philadelphia. After living in the area for six years, Goffman witnessed the daily life of the community and gained a unique insight into a crime-plagued society, with members regularly “on the run.”