The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

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The following text is based on a PowerPoint presentation on The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, given by Dr. Susan Williams at a New York City Radical Women meeting commemorating Black History Month.


What U.S. institutions past and present have done the following to African Americans?

  • Denied them the right to vote
  • Kept them off juries
  • Limited where they could live
  • Divided and broken families
  • Engaged in legal theft of personal belongings/property
  • Kept them out of well-paying jobs
  • Excluded them from quality education


1980: 200,000 in U.S. prisons 
2011: 2,400,000 (more than ten times as many)
Alexander argues this is largely due to the “War on Drugs” 
New York State—Rockefeller Drug Laws enacted, 1973 
Officially launched nationwide by Reagan in 1982

The legal system is supposedly colorblind—yet

  • African Americans are 13% of the U.S. population, but 40% of prisoners.
  • In some states, young Black men are imprisoned at 20 to 50 times the rate of whites.
  • People of all races use and sell drugs at about the same rate.
  • Criminality is used to stigmatize all men of color.

Three Strikes Law

  • 1994—President Clinton signed a bill requiring a life sentence for the third conviction for any of many federal crimes.
  • “Three strikes and you’re out” laws were passed in many states, the first of which was Washington state.

A colorblind system? No.

  • In Washington state, Blacks are only 3.5% of the population, but 40% of three- strike prisoners.

Three cases in point:

Colton Harris-Moore; Caucasian

  • 20 yr old “barefoot bandit”
  • Convicted of 33 state and 7 federal felonies, including bank robbery and stealing and crashing 3 airplanes.
  • Sentence: 7 years

Gary Ewing: Black

  • Convicted of stealing three golf clubs, with history of several prior convictions for theft and one robbery
  • Sentence: 25 years to life

Leonardo Andrade

  • Convicted of stealing nine children’s videotapes from 2 K-marts, with history two home burglaries in 1983, no violent crimes.
  • Sentence: 50 years to life

The Supreme Court reviewed both Ewing’s and Andrade’s cases, and ruled that their sentences were not “cruel and unusual punishment.”

A closer look at how mass incarceration impacts lives after and outside of prison 
The right to vote 
-31 state and federal governments deny felons the right to vote. 
Serving on juries 
-Can deny Blacks a jury of their peers. 
Banned from public housing 
-“Zero tolerance” for drug rules. 
Divided and broken families 
-Both during and after imprisonment. 
Legal theft of personal belongings/property 
-Confiscation of cars, homes supposedly used with drugs. 
Lifelong economic hardship 
-One of the few legal bases for job discrimination. 
Loss of educational opportunities 
-1999: 992 Black men received college degrees in Illinois; 7000 were released from prison for drug crimes. 
Alexander’s conclusion: Mass incarceration has created a new racial caste system

Eras of Race Relations

  • Slavery 1619-1863
  • Reconstruction 1865-1877
  • Jim Crow 1877-1954
  • Civil Rights era
  • Mass Incarceration & War on Drugs 1982-present
  • Is this truly a “colorblind” society?

Successive U.S. racial caste systems

SlaveryJim CrowMass Incarceration
Individual hostility & 
Individual hostility & 
State Violence
Social Indifference
Support for being
“tough on crime”

Questions & Controversies 

  • Failure to care—really care—across color lines.”
  • “A flawed public consensus.”

Economic Factors

  • Exploitation of labor
  • Dividing the working class
  • Profiteering of prisons from privatization

Women & the Criminalization of Poverty

  • Welfare assistance gives only a fraction of the cost required to actually support a woman with child(ren).
  • The only way to survive is to break some of the welfare “rules”
  • Breaking the rules can lead to a felony conviction, and can result in prison sentences of up to 20 years and fines of up to $250,000.

Proposal to eliminate affirmative action

  • “Racial bribe”
  • “Success stories” give illusion that racial discrimination has been “solved” and that African Americans labeled criminal have freely chosen their lives
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