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Michelle Alexander on the New Jim Crow


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Michelle Alexander, Associate Law Professor at Moritz School of Law and Author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Credit:

Michelle Alexander has struck a chord in so-called ‘post racial’ America.  The Ohio State University law professor makes the case that the United States’ current criminal justice system policies can be traced directly back to slavery.  Those targeted now, as they were then, are African Americans.

On this edition, Michelle Alexander talks about her book, ‘The New Jim Crow.  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’.

Special Thanks to KUOW Radio in Seattle.


Michelle Alexander, Ohio State Law Professor and Author of ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’

For More Information:


ACLU on Criminal Justice

Blacks Far More Likely Than Whites To Be Jailed For Low-Level Drug Crimes

Brennan Center for Justice

Critical Resistance

KUOW Radio

Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander on Democracy Now!

Michelle Alexander on Huffington Post

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Prison Activist

The Sentencing Project


Episode Transcript

  • This week on Making Contact.
  • More African-Americans are under correctional control today, in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850.

  • Michelle Alexander has struck a chord in so-called post-racial America. The Ohio State University law professor makes the case that the United States’ current criminal justice system policies can be traced directly back to slavery.

  • 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.

  • On this edition, Michelle Alexander talks about her book The New Jim Crow; Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I’m Andrew Stelzner. And this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.

  • I mention in the introduction to my book that I myself dismissed the idea that something akin to a racial caste system could be operating in the United States.

Many years ago, I first encountered the idea that a new racial caste system could exist in the United States when I was rushing to catch the bus. And a bright orange poster caught my eye. It was stapled to a telephone pole. And the poster kind of screamed in large bold print, “The drug war is the new Jim Crow.”

And I scanned the text of the flyer for a few minutes. And I saw that a radical community group was holding a meeting in a small church. And they were organizing to protest the new three strikes law in California, the expansion of the prison system, and police brutality.

And I remember looking at the poster and thinking to myself, yeah, the criminal justice system is racist in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t help to make such absurd comparisons. People just think you’re crazy.

And I crossed the street, ran to catch the bus, hopped on the bus on my way to my new job as director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU.

Now, when I started working at the ACLU, I assumed that the criminal justice system had problems of racial bias much in the same way that all institutions in our society today are infected to some degree with conscious and unconscious racial bias.

Prior to joining the ACLU, I had been working as a civil rights attorney, litigating large class action employment discrimination cases against companies like Home Depot and Publix supermarkets in the South. And I understood well the ways in which racial stereotyping, gender stereotyping can infect subjective decision making of all kinds at all levels of an organization with disastrous consequences.

But by the time I left the ACLU, I realized that I had been wrong about the criminal justice system. It’s not just another institution in our society infected with racial bias, but a different beast entirely. Now, the activists that posted that sign on the telephone pole, they weren’t crazy, nor were the smattering of lawyers and advocates around the country that were beginning to connect the dots between mass incarceration and earlier forms of racial control.

I state my basic thesis in the introduction to my book. I say, what has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, 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. Today, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways it was once legal to discriminate against African-Americans.

Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination, employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, exclusion from jury service are all suddenly legal. 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.

More African-Americans are under correctional control today in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

In 2004, more African-American men were disenfranchised due to felon disenfranchisement laws than in 1870, the year the 15th Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

And in some major urban areas in the United States today, if you take into account prisoners, the majority of working age African-American men have been branded criminals and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.

In fact, in 2002, the Urban League released a report showing that in Chicago, the figure is nearly 80%. 80% of working age African-American men are branded criminals, have criminal records. They are permanently locked into an inferior second class status. These men are part of a growing undercaste, not class, caste, a group of people defined largely by race that can be discriminated against by law for the rest of their lives, much like their grandparents or great-grandparents may have been under an explicitly racial system of control.

Now, I find that when I tell people that I think that mass incarceration amounts to some kind of new system of racial control, I’m kind of usually met with shock, disbelief. People say, how can you say that? Just look at Barack Obama. Look at Oprah Winfrey. Look at Colin Powell. The list goes on and on of highly visible African-Americans in positions of leadership or power who have attained great wealth. And these individuals are offered as proof that we can’t possibly have a caste-like system operating in the United States today.

But I think it’s important to keep in mind that no caste system in the United States has ever governed all African-Americans. There have always been free blacks and black success stories, even during slavery and Jim Crow. During slavery, there were some black slave owners. Not many, but some.

And during Jim Crow, there were some black lawyers and black doctors. Not many, but some.

The extraordinary nature of individual black achievement today in formerly white domains does indicate that the old Jim Crow system is dead. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of racial caste. If history is any guide, it may have just taken a different form.

After the collapse of slavery, a convict leasing system emerged in the South to replace the institution of slavery. There’s a fantastic book by Douglas Blackmon called Slavery By Another Name that talks about the practice at the end of the Civil War of African-American men being rounded up en masse for minor crimes, like loitering, arrested, sent to prisons, and then shipped out to plantations, leased out to plantations.

And the idea was that these folks had to kind of earn their freedom. But the catch was they could never earn enough to pay back the cost of their shelter and their food to their plantation owners. And so they were in perpetual slavery.

And of course, then there was the emergence of Jim Crow as convict leasing began to fade away. Now, most historians imagine that although Jim Crow and convict leasing systems clearly emerged as a backlash to the collapse of slavery, that no similar system has emerged following the collapse of Jim Crow. But I think if we take a closer look at the way mass incarceration actually operates in communities of color, we’re forced to reach a different conclusion.

The emergence of mass incarceration has been truly sudden and dramatic. In a period of less than 30 years, we went from having a prison population of about 300,000 to more than 2 million. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of even highly repressive regimes, like Russia, China, or Iran.

In fact, if we as a nation were to return to the incarceration rates we had in the 1970s, a time when many civil rights activists actually thought that rates of incarceration were egregiously high, but if we were just to go back to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today.

More than a million people employed by the criminal justice system would lose their jobs. That’s how enormous and deeply entrenched in the basic economic fabric of our society that mass incarceration has become in an incredibly short period of time.

Now, most people assume that this explosion in our prison system can be explained by crime rates. People say, well, yeah, of course, our prison population shot through the roof because of crime. Crime went up, so prison population went up. Not so.

Crime rates over the last 30 years have fluctuated. Whether crime rates are going up or down, incarceration rates have continued to soar. So if the prison population hasn’t exploded because of crime rates, well, what is it then?

Well, it turns out that the activists who posted the sign on the telephone pole were right. The war on drugs is the single most important cause of the prison boom in the United States and the branding of millions of Americans as felons for life. About 2/3 of the increase in the federal system is due to drug convictions. And more than half of the increase in the state system is due to drug convictions.

Drug convictions have increased about 1,000% since the drug war first began. And for those who might think that the target in this war has been violent offenders or drug kingpins, it’s not the case. In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for simple possession. Only one out of five were for sales. Most people in state prison for drug offenses today have no history of violence or significant selling activity.

And in the 1990s, the period of the greatest expansion of the drug war, nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests were for marijuana possession, a drug that many scientists now believe is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, and a drug that is equally as prevalent in middle class white communities, on college campuses, as it is in inner city communities.

But the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, resulting in astronomical increases in incarceration rates, particularly of black and brown men, although increasingly of women. In some states, 80% to 90% of all drug offenders sent to prison have been black or brown.

Now, the reality is that there are almost no differences in drug use or selling activity across racial groups. So the concentration of the drug war in poor communities of color cannot be justified by rates of drug crime, drug use, drug sales.

Well, why is it being waged there? Well, the drug war from the outset had never much to do with drug crime. It was about racial politics. It was part of the Republican Party’s kind of grand strategy, often referred to as the southern strategy, of attempting to appeal to poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, disaffected by many of the gains of the civil rights movement, particularly busing, desegregation, and affirmative action.

Now, many of these folks had good reason to feel concerned about the changes wrought by the civil rights movement. It wasn’t kind of rich white folks that had their worlds rocked by desegregation. They were able to send their kids to private schools.

No, it was primarily poor and working class white folks who are suddenly forced to compete on equal terms for scarce jobs with a group of people that they had long been taught to view as their inferiors. It was their kids who were facing potential busing orders across time. And there was anxiety and fear wrought by the social upheaval brought by the civil rights movement.

Well, Republican Party strategists and pollsters found that they could appeal to those poor and working class white voters through racially-coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare. And through these racially-coded political appeals, they could get white voters, particularly in the South, who had long been members of the Democratic Party to defect from the Democratic kind of New Deal coalition to the Republican Party.

And when Ronald Reagan declared the war on drugs at a time when drug crime was actually declining and people weren’t that much worried about drug crime, it was an effort to make good on campaign promises to get tough on a group of people that had been defined in the political rhetoric and in the media imagery as black and brown.

Now, the Reagan administration got lucky. And a couple of years after the war was officially declared, crack hit the streets in Los Angeles and spread to inner city communities. And the Reagan administration seized on this development with glee. Actually hiring staff whose job it was to publicize images of crack babies, crack dealers, crack-related violence. Staff whose job it was to feed stories about these folks and find examples of crack babies, crack whores in the inner city to feed to mainstream media outlets. Their hope was that by publicizing and sensationalizing crack-related use, abuse, and violence in inner city communities, that it could boost public support for the drug war and turn the rhetorical war into a literal one.

And the plan worked like a charm. In the mid 1980s and early 1990s, it was nearly impossible to turn on the evening news without seeing images of black and brown men in handcuffs, being paraded off to prison for drug-related offenses or sweeps being done of housing projects in ghetto communities. It saturated the news. And it forever changed our conceptions about who drug users and dealers are.

In 1995, a national survey was conducted, asking people, close your eyes for a minute and imagine a drug criminal. 95% of the respondents pictured someone who was African-American.

It was no surprise that in that political environment that the war would be waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color. And Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on them. And President Clinton outdid Ronald Reagan. The greatest increase in incarceration rates in the United States history happened during the Clinton administration, because Clinton was so desperate to appeal to and try to woo that same block of voters that had proved so responsive.

So here we are. As a result, years after all the media fanfare and the get-tough rhetoric, and we have people of all colors serving lengthy sentences, sentences unheard of in other Western democracies, for often relatively minor nonviolent drug-related offenses.

If you go to places in Europe and tell people that here in the United States, there are people doing life sentences for marijuana possession, they’ll just look at you like you’re crazy. Absolutely unheard of.

And the fact that those who are trapped in the new undercaste are not only black and brown, but are also white, is a reflection of a drug war and a get-tough movement that has spiraled out of control and caused harm to people of all colors.

  • We’ll be right back.

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We now return to more of Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander speaking about her book The New Jim Crow; Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She spoke at the University of Washington Law School on April 12, 2010.

In the next part of her speech, Alexander talks about how once incarcerated, Americans are stripped of many of the same rights which were denied to black people during the Jim Crow era. She poses the question, what, if anything, is the difference?

  • The denial of the right to vote is routine in most states in the United States to people who are prisoners. And then even once you’ve been released from prison, you can be denied the right to vote for a period of years or for your entire life.

Employment discrimination. Employment discrimination against those branded felons is perfectly legal. Job applications, ranging from Burger King clerk to accountant, all got that box on the employment application that you have to check if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony.

Studies indicate that 70% of employers won’t even consider hiring someone who’s been convicted of a drug felony.

Housing discrimination is perfectly legal. During the Jim Crow era, of course, it was the era of racially restrictive covenants. But today, public housing projects, as well as private landlords, are not only authorized to discriminate, but in federal public housing, they’re required to discriminate. Public housing is off-limits to you for a minimum of five years once you’ve been released from prison.

So imagine here you are released from prison. No money. No job. Public housing is off-limits to you. Many homeless shelters today screen for criminal convictions. Where are folks– the 600,000 people released from prison every year, where are these folks expected to go? Many folks who are released from prison return to the communities from which they came, ghetto communities. And their relatives risk eviction if they allow you to stay with them.

So no job. Nowhere to sleep. What are you expected to do? Well, in most states, you’re expected to pay thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs. Some states, you’re expected to pay back the cost of your imprisonment. And in fact, in many states, up to 100% of your wages can be garnished to pay back the cost of your imprisonment, accumulated child support, fees, fines, court costs.

What do we expect these folks to do? Even if you’re one of the lucky few who managed to land a job after checking the box, up to 100% of your wages can be garnished. And you’re not even eligible for food stamps. 0

Now, what is the system designed to do? From all appearances, it appears designed to send people right back to prison, which is what happens about 70% of the time. 70% of people released from prison return within three years. And the majority of those who return do so in a matter of months, because the legal hurdles and the barriers to just surviving and making it in the mainstream society and the legal economy are so great.

Now, of course, there’s also other political forms of discrimination analogous to Jim Crow, like exclusion from jury service. One hallmark of the Jim Crow era was the systematic exclusion of African-Americans from juries and kind of all white juries, particularly in the South.

Well, in many areas, all white juries have been making a roaring comeback. You know why? Because those branded felons are deemed automatically ineligible for jury service.

And then get this. Even if you haven’t been branded a felon, if you’ve ever had a negative experience with law enforcement, well, then that can disqualify you for cause from a jury in a criminal case, because you’re perceived to have experiences with the law enforcement that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for you to be impartial.

But of all of the formal political forms of discrimination and exclusion, those who’ve been branded felons will often say that these legal rules, these legal forms of discrimination are not the worst of it. That the worst is actually the stigma and shame that you bear. It’s being viewed as a criminal, being branded a felon. It’s not just the denial of the job, but the look that flashes across the employer’s face when he sees that box has been checked.

There’s a fascinating study that was done in Washington, DC of an area hard hit by mass incarceration, a neighborhood where every house or every other apartment had someone who had either been recently released from prison or had a family member behind bars. And these were neighborhoods where you would think that mass incarceration was just completely normalized.

But instead, the ethnographers found that not a single person in this study had fully come out to their friends, neighbors, loved ones about their own criminal history or criminal status or that of their loved ones. So there’s an eerie silence that has fallen over even the communities hardest hit by mass incarceration; one rooted in shame for some, and for others of us in denial.

We are in deep denial as a nation about the existence of caste in America and the experience of millions of people cycling in and out of the criminal justice system today. A big part of this denial is rooted in the fact that prisoners are literally erased from poverty statistics and unemployment statistics. Prisoners are just not even counted.

In fact, if you read unemployment statistics for African-Americans, well, you can actually add 15, 20, up to 23 percentage points to that number to account for all of the African-Americans behind bars.

So this illusion of great progress has been engineered in part by the removal of millions of people from our poverty rolls, from our unemployment statistics through mass incarceration.

And affirmative action, the election of Barack Obama has helped to create kind of a happy face on America’s racial reality. But if you take a look, a close look at the data and include prisoners within it, you see that African-Americans as a group are actually not better off than they were in 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and an uprising swept inner city communities across America.

We are today much in the same place that we were when Martin Luther King Jr. said, we need to build a poor people’s movement in the United States and join poor folks of all colors in a struggle for basic human rights. And that, I believe, is the work that is left unfinished and that we must go back to do. Not just to end mass incarceration, but to do the healing work and the movement building work that is necessary to end the history of racial caste in America and build a society that genuinely recognizes and honors the human rights of all.

  • That’s it for this edition of Making Contact. You’ve been listening to Michelle Alexander speaking about her book The New Jim Crow; Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She spoke at the University of Washington Law School on April 12, 2010.

Special thanks to KUOW radio in Seattle.

For a CD copy of this program, call the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736, or check our website at to get a podcast, download past shows, or help make a difference by supporting our work.

Thanks for listening to Making Contact.

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