The New Jim Crow

It’s that time of year again, when we hear Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches in 10 second clips, the same clips that get recycled on an annual basis now — radical proclamations that have been reduced over the years to mere platitudes. His booming voice declares that he’s been to the mountaintop and has glimpsed the promised land. He has a dream, he says, and his voice soars.

During this year’s Black History Month, like last, we will be treated to celebrations of Obama’s presidency — the ultimate symbol, we are told, of America’s triumph over its ugly history of discrimination, exclusion, and racial caste. This is a time to rejoice, it is said, though we still have a long way to go.

That is the dominant racial narrative today among those who claim to care about racial justice: Look how far we have come, but yes we still have a long way to go.

Here are a few facts that run counter to that racial narrative:

  • There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
  • As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
  • If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas, like Chicago, have been labeled felons for life. These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — a group of people who are permanently relegated, by law, to an inferior second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits — much as their grandparents and great-grandparents once were during the Jim Crow era.

There is a colorblind explanation for all this: crime rates. But crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the past few decades — and currently are at historical lows — but imprisonment rates have soared. Quintupled. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the War on Drugs, a war waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offenders.

The clock has been turned back on racial progress in America, though scarcely anyone seems to notice. All eyes are fixed on people like Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey who have defied the odds and achieved great power, wealth and fame.

But what if Obama, who has admitted to violating our nation’s drug laws, had been treated like a common criminal — what if he hadn’t been insulated by growing up in Hawaii and attending a predominately white university — where would he be now? Most likely, he would be cycling in and out of prison, trapped in the parallel social universe that exists for those labeled felons.

Far from being president of the United States, he might be denied the right to vote. He would be subject to many of the same forms of discrimination, stigma, and social exclusion that we supposedly left behind. How many black men and boys are trapped in this undercaste who might have been president of the United States? We will never know.

This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. As described in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnessthe cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.

Michelle Alexander

Civil rights lawyer, activist, professor, and national news commentator, Michelle Alexander has written a powerful new book arguing that the mass imprisonment of poor black and brown men and women is the most dramatic form of racial injustice in the United States today. She places this mass incarceration within 400 years of racist government policies and discusses what must be done to eliminate it.

Republished with the author’s permission from Huffington Post.



  1. Timeparticle says

    Mrs. Alexander, I recently did some research on Population Control and found some interesting information on our country’s past…

    Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood in the early 1900s. Some thought she was ahead of her time. This is what she wrote in 1939:

    “We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population. and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”

    Margaret Sanger’s December 19, 1939 letter to Dr. Clarence Gamble, 255 Adams Street, Milton, Massachusetts. Original source: Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, North Hampton, Massachusetts. Also described in Linda Gordon’s Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1976.

    So, who did Mrs. Sanger hire? How did she establish her social birth control agenda?

    The Harlem Clinic

    In 1929, 10 years before Sanger created the Negro Project, the ABCL laid the groundwork for a clinic in Harlem, a largely black section of New York City. It was the dawn of the Great Depression, and for blacks that meant double the misery. Blacks faced harsher conditions of desperation and privation because of widespread racial prejudice and discrimination. From the ABCL’s perspective, Harlem was the ideal place for this “experimental clinic,” which officially opened on November 21, 1930. Many blacks looked to escape their adverse circumstances and therefore did not recognize the eugenic undercurrent of the clinic. The clinic relied on the generosity of private foundations to remain in business. In addition to being thought of as “inferior” and disproportionately represented in the underclass, according to the clinic’s own files used to justify its “work,” blacks in Harlem:

    were segregated in an over-populated area (224,760 of 330,000 of greater New York’s black population lived in Harlem during the late 1920s and 1930s);

    comprised 12 percent of New York City’s population, but accounted for 18.4 percent of New York City’s unemployment;

    had an infant mortality rate of 101 per 1000 births, compared to 56 among whites;

    had a death rate from tuberculosis—237 per 100,000—that was highest in central Harlem, out of all of New York City.

    Although the clinic served whites as well as blacks, it “was established for the benefit of the colored people.” Sanger wrote this in a letter to Dr. W. E. Burghardt DuBois, one of the day’s most influential blacks. A sociologist and author, he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 to improve the living conditions of black Americans.

    That blacks endured extreme prejudice and discrimination, which contributed greatly to their plight, seemed to further justify restricting their numbers. Many believed the solution lay in reducing reproduction. Sanger suggested the answer to poverty and degradation lay in smaller numbers of blacks. She convinced black civic groups in Harlem of the “benefits” of birth control, under the cloak of “better health” (i.e., reduction of maternal and infant death; child spacing) and “family planning.” So with their cooperation, and the endorsement of The Amsterdam News (a prominent black newspaper), Sanger established the Harlem branch of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. The ABCL told the community birth control was the answer to their predicament.

    Sanger shrewdly used the influence of prominent blacks to reach the masses with this message. She invited DuBois and a host of Harlem’s leading blacks, including physicians, social workers, ministers and journalists, to form an advisory council to help direct the clinic “so that our work in birth control will be a constructive force in the community.” She knew the importance of having black professionals on the advisory board and in the clinic; she knew blacks would instinctively suspect whites of wanting to decrease their numbers. She would later use this knowledge to implement the Negro Project.

    Sanger convinced the community so well that Harlem’s largest black church, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, held a mass meeting featuring Sanger as the speaker. But that event received criticism. At least one “very prominent minister of a denomination other than Baptist” spoke out against Sanger. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., pastor of Abyssinian Baptist, “received adverse criticism” from the (unnamed) minister who was “surprised that he’d allow that awful woman in his church.”

    The question that arises is this: Is the early eugenic mind set of Planned Parenthood remain the base for today’s reproductive health agenda established in the global population control efforts, especially in Third World Countries?

  2. says

    I had the tremendous opportunity to hear Michelle speak and just finished her very important book.This is such an important issue to all of us. We became the country with the greatest prison population built on racism. We’ve created a system built on destroying lives, families communities ,state budgets and more because we can’t figure out how to deal with de-industrialization or race.
    I watched a little basketball Saturday , I played hoop with Al Skinner the coach of B.C.,they beat North Carolina Saturday. I couldn’t help but think about the screaming fans , screaming in support of B.C. basketball players almost all of whom were black.This happens at almost all Division I schools in the country. I also saw the great documentary about the musicians behind, Motown,Standing in the Shadows of Motown , the Funk Brothers and how they created song after song that electrified the country, black and white.The audience at their concert would erupt into applause after identifying a big hit after just a few notes of the song.
    Ms. Alexander is right in her book when she says we need to become more compassionate toward people, especially people who have been thrown in the slammer based on a double standard.Denzell Washington played an inmate we could feel compassionate with, in Do the Right Thing but ironically won an Oscar portraying a corrupt cop in a film that also portrayed black people and black community in a very negative light.Hollywood should also take a good look at her study.
    We somehow need to transform the applauds into compassion, the fans into fighters against the New Jim Crow.More power to Michelle and her crucial message.Buy her book, go hear her speak, write to Michelle Obama and ask her to read it as well.

  3. says

    I am reminded of something else.. Not long ago II was watching an interview with Trent Lott on the tube. He made the incredible statement that the mass exodus of southern white people from the Democratic to the Republican parties right around the time the Voting and Civil Rights Acts came into being was all about economics, “It had nothing to do with race”.

    Bullshit. It had EVERYTHING to do with race!

    When are we going to grow up and admit that racism is inherent in this whole stupid system? We’re kidding ourselves, folks.

    Cheerio! Pip! Pip!

    Tom Degan

  4. Adam Eran says

    Thanks for this important reminder. Racism is a central issue in current public policy debates. Unfortunately it is also deeply embedded in U.S. culture.

    To understand how deep in denial the population is about this, all you have to do is listen to the narrative that began with Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” (designed to capitalize on the resentment of bigots for civil rights legislation), culminating in Reagan’s cruel “welfare queen” meme.

    People of color have literally been enslaved, lynched, tortured, imprisoned and abused for centuries. So why do they have family problems, and why are they disproportionately represented in prison populations? …Why it’s welfare!

    Of course this is the same public that believes lowering taxes will increase government revenues, so the deception isn’t exactly hard to sell.

    Meanwhile, the country is literally deciding whether to share its public assets with a wider public, or to shrink the public realm (outside of defense spending) to allow today’s robber barons free reign to make serfs of us all.

    The trends have not been entirely encouraging, either. Almost immediately after California’s courts mandated funding poorer (“colored”) school districts equally with the richer (“whiter”) ones, proposition 13 passed. That measure, not runaway state spending, was the origin of California’s current deficits. Tax collections at the local level fell 57% in its wake.

    Apparently we’d rather de-fund parks, schools, roads, public health measures, etc. than share them with our colored brethren.

    Racism is so pervasive that most people don’t appreciate how the degradation of the public realm is rooted in our bigotry. But it is.


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