from my bookshelf: the new jim crow by michelle alexander


michelle alexander discusses the american criminal justice system and argues that mass incarceration is analogous to jim crow laws. she demonstrates how institutions designed to oppress poor black communities are not a thing of the past, and demand our attention now more than ever.


“This book argues that mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow and that all those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system.”

“[R]acial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference…”

“Our focus is the War on Drugs. The reason is simple: nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than this ongoing war.”

“Though it is not widely known, the prosecutor is the most powerful law enforcement official in the criminal justice system…It is the prosecutor, far more than any other criminal justice official, who holds the keys to the jailhouse door.”

“…[T]he fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may even have black friends or relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias.”

“Although prosecutors, as a group, have the greatest power in the criminal justice system, police have the greatest discretion…”

“From the outset, the drug war could have been waged primarily in overwhelmingly white suburbs or on college campuses. SWAT teams could have rappelled from helicopters in gated suburban communities and raided the homes of high school lacrosse players known for hosting coke and ecstasy parties after their games. The police could have seized televisions, furniture, and cash from fraternity houses based on an anonymous tip that a few joints or a stash of cocaine could be found hidden in someone’s dresser drawer. Suburban homemakers could have been placed under surveillance and subjected to undercover operations designed to catch them violating laws regulating the use and sale of prescription ‘uppers.’ All of this could have happened as a matter of routine in white communities, but it did not.”

“A black kid arrested twice for possession of marijuana may be no more of a ‘repeat offender’ than a white frat boy who regularly smokes pot in his dorm room. But because of his race and his confinement to a racially segregated ghetto, the black kid has a criminal record, while the white frat boy, because of his race and relative privilege, does not.”

“[A]re we willing to demonize a population, declare a war against them, and then stand back and heap shame and contempt upon them for failing to behave like model citizens while under attack?”

“Yet when these young people do what all severely stigmatized groups do–try to cope by turning to each other and embracing their stigma in a desperate effort to regain some measure of self-esteem–we, as a society, heap more shame and contempt upon them. We tell them their friends are ‘no good,’ that they will ‘amount to nothing,’ that they are ‘wasting their lives,’ and that ‘they’re nothing but criminals.’ We condemn their baggy pants (a fashion trend that mimics prison-issue pants) and the music that glorifies a life many feel they cannot avoid. When are done shaming them, we throw up our hands and then turn our backs as they are carted off to jail.”

“In fact, if you are white and middle class, you might not even realize the drug war is still going on.”

“Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent_, when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.”