Book Review: The New Jim Crow

Summary: A work of consciousness-raising with the visceral impact of a gut punch. One of the rare books that will transform the way you understand politics in America.

I’ve always been an advocate of legalizing recreational drug use. The drug war is stupidity, wastefulness and futility on a colossal scale, and the results speak for themselves: prisons crammed with hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug users, prohibitionist policies that ensure drug profits fuel criminal gangs rather than legitimate businesses, and police forces that employ ever more aggressive and draconian tactics in a futile attempt to stem the flow of a product for which there’s enormous demand.

But the missing piece of the puzzle, in my mind, has always been why there’s so much political support for the drug war. Who benefits from criminalizing harmless euphoriants? Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow answers that question definitively, in a monumental work of consciousness-raising. It’s the very rare kind of book that makes you almost feel your brain rewiring itself as you read it.

Alexander’s thesis is that America’s history can be understood as a cyclical struggle between social-justice advocates who want the races to be equal, and those who want to perpetuate a racial caste system that assigns people of color to a permanently inferior status. When the advocates of caste are in power, they create systems of racial control that perpetuate inequality through discriminatory law. Each of these systems reigns for a time, but inevitably the injustice is recognized, and mass movements arise to fight back against them. Finally, advocates of social justice succeed in overthrowing the current system of racial control. But inevitably, the other side regroups and creates a new system to take the place of the old one, using different language and justifications to achieve much the same result.

Alexander’s book makes the case that the War on Drugs is the latest incarnation of this racial caste system. This may seem like conspiratorial thinking, but she backs it up with a wealth of evidence, a consilience of facts that all point to the same conclusion.

She begins by surveying the historical parallels. At the country’s inauguration, racial control was achieved through slavery. It took a civil war to abolish that institution, and when it did, the racists were in retreat for a time. But then they regrouped and reestablished the old racial hierarchy through Jim Crow laws, a comprehensive system of segregation which consigned black people to a separate and lower status in every sphere of life. Again, it took several decades and a mass popular movement, but this system too was eventually overthrown.

The collapse of Jim Crow threw the segregationists back on their heels, but once again they regrouped. The drug war as we now know it began in the second half of the 20th century, as “law and order” arguments that Southern politicians originally used to justify cracking down on civil-rights protesters were put to a new purpose: stirring up racialized fears of mob violence and social breakdown brought about by black men running amok. The drug war proved to be the most convenient way to encapsulate this racial paranoia.

The sinister genius of the drug war is that, unlike the earlier systems, it’s not explicitly race-based. On their face, the laws against drug use and trafficking apply to everyone regardless of color. But in practice, there’s a huge racial disparity. Although surveys have shown that all ethnic groups use drugs at about the same rate, the drug laws are and always have been enforced overwhelmingly against people of color. Alexander argues persuasively that this isn’t an accident; it was intentional on the part of the people who planned and instituted it.

After several decades, the drug war has become part of the fabric of American politics, assented to by both major parties (including President Obama). Alexander marshals abundant evidence to show that drug-war rhetoric has been employed to oppress people of color in the same way as Jim Crow laws once were. I knew a lot of these facts: the erosion of Fourth Amendment rights in the name of drug interdiction; the horrendous abuse of asset-forfeiture laws; the way that police forces have become increasingly militarized, acting like an occupying army in many poor communities of color; the way mass incarceration has become a fact of life in America, how our prison populations have exploded as we lock up millions of men, far more than any other country, mostly for nonviolent offenses like simple possession. But the genius of Alexander’s book is that she throws them up in the air so they all land in a new pattern, emphasizing the connections among them.

She also cites some facts I didn’t know, including a series of court precedents that make it all but impossible for criminal defendants to allege racism on the part of police or prosecutors as a defense. More importantly, Alexander illuminates the way that social control continues even after convicts are out of prison, via a web of laws that bar them from public assistance like housing or food stamps, that take away their voting rights, that make it legal for employers to discriminate, that control their movements and their associations. She argues that the label of “felon” is the new Jim Crow: a legal stamp of inferiority that bars millions of men of color from full participation in society.

There’s much more in this book, more than I can do justice to in this review. But suffice it to say that Alexander’s argument will comprehensively transform your understanding of American politics. There’s just one thing I thought was missing: I want to see an updated edition of the book to get the author’s take on recent events! The voter-driven legalization of cannabis in Washington and Colorado, or the landslide victory of Bill de Blasio on an anti-stop-and-frisk platform, give me reason to hope that the drug war is beginning to totter. Of course, if her thesis is right, even the total collapse of the drug war would inevitably give rise to attempts to establish a new and different system of racial caste – but perhaps, with this book as a guide, forewarned will mean forearmed next time.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Korey Peters

    Sounds like an interesting read, Adam. Did she discuss Prohibition as well? Curious to know how she thought that fit in.

  • Bdole

    our prison populations have exploded as we lock up millions of men, far more than any other country, mostly for nonviolent offenses like simple possession.

    One response to this is that the non-violent charges were simply the only ones that would stick against otherwise violent offenders, sorta like the tax evasion charges against Capone. The upshot being that these really are violent offenders that are locked up. I haven’t looked into this issue so I don’t know how to respond. It sounds like thin gruel, though.

  • GCT

    That response ignores the racial disparity in our justice system.

  • Azkyroth

    Evidence plz.

  • Alex SL

    One would have to wonder then why the USA would have so many more violent people than the rest of the world, and whether it is plausible that people of colour would be so much more violent than others. Ha. No, when you read things like this: (note also the last paragraph!) such explanations appear unrealistic.

  • Steve Bowen

    I read somewhere, and this was over thirty years ago so I’ve no recall as to where, that when prohibition was lifted marajuana was criminalised to keep the officials employed and because it really only inconvenienced people of colour as few whites used the drug at the time. Anyone know if this is true? I hope it is as I’ve repeated it a few times over the years.

  • DavidMHart

    Well, cannabis was only criminalised at the federal level in 1937 ( and even that wasn’t an honest, direct prohibition, but a sneaky back-handed tax law that said you had to have the appropriate tax stamps in order to possess it, but in reality there was no way to actually get the tax stamps) … so it took them a while to get round it. But many states had already criminalised it by then, so that hypothesis may well hold true in at least some localities.

  • Nancy McClernan

    This is evidence for what I’ve suspected for years. Is it really a coincidence that as soon as the Civil Rights Movement began to get results, suddenly a huge proportion of black men ended up in jail? The timing is just too convenient.

    There is another piece to the puzzle though, and that is the fact that those in the lower range of incomes have been losing economic ground for the past 30 years, and for the obvious historical reasons black Americans are more likely to be in the lower income range. There is a class issue here as well as an ethnic one – one reinforcing the other to very bad results.

  • Adam Lee

    There’s not a lot of discussion of Prohibition in this book, no. As far as I’m aware, there wasn’t a major racial dimension to those laws: as my wife said, they seemed to come from a different kind of moral panic.

  • Adam Lee

    Yes, class is a big concern of Alexander’s as well. Part of her book is an argument that racial-caste laws exist as a kind of consolation prize to poor whites, pacifying them with the thought that, however bad their situation may be, at least there’s someone lower on the ladder than them. It’s a strategy that’s been depressingly effective at dividing poor whites from poor blacks and preventing the formation of an effective trans-racial coalition to demand greater income equality and a stronger social safety net.

  • smrnda

    An early drug that was prohibited was *smoking opium* – done because it was the drug of choice among the Chinese population. Drug laws have always been about targeting *specific populations.* These days residential segregation is how cops discriminate. They turn a blind eye to drug use in some areas, an in others, they exist as an occupying force unburdened by the usual constitutional provisions against unwarranted searches and seizures.

    Something I think that might be necessary in fighting drug policy is creating a climate of acceptance about drug use itself. As long as people think drug use is some horrible thing, people might lend their reluctant support to the drug war. If we can be open that many people use drugs, many are not harmed by this, and people are harmed by legal drugs (alcohol and tobacco.)

  • Plutosdad

    She also points out how all the politicians who called for a “war on crime” or “war on drugs” were also coincidentally the same politicians who were against the civil rights movement. They definitely knew what they were doing, and just removing “race” from the law and replacing it with other things can accomplish the same goals but pretend otherwise.

    Most white people in america are completely unaware that surveys and statistics show white people commit just as much crime, yet are arrested at a far lower rate, and instead they think non white people just commit more crimes and therefore it has nothing to do with race.

  • Plutosdad

    I have read there was racism in prohibition, but it was white on white racism – against the Irish and southern Europeans (Catholics) that were flooding the country and “taking jobs” from good protestants. Those people drank a lot more and so while prohibition maybe didn’t target them only, it was easily sold by pointing to those dirty “swarthy” Europeans that weren’t WASPs.

    Of course Germans drank too, but they could still make beer in their homes, which was still legal. I think I read that in “The Poisoner’s Handbook”

  • Adam Lee

    I didn’t know that, but I can believe it. I’d always thought that Prohibition was one part religious crusade, like today’s religious crusades against abortion or homosexuality, and one part roundabout attempt by early feminists to address the problem of domestic violence. But I wouldn’t be surprised if anti-immigrant racism was a major motivator as well.

  • Pattrsn

    I don’t know how to respond.

    I do you just make shit up like

    One response to this is that the non-violent charges were simply the only ones that would stick against otherwise violent offenders,

    It doesn’t have to even remotely make sense as long as your ideology remains unthreatened.

  • smrnda

    It’s really important to drive those stats home, because the whole myth of the *inherent criminality* of minorities needs to get exploded. Another deal is looking at sentencing discrepancies by race, which tell a very similar story.

  • smrnda

    I doubt the average person busted for drugs is *on the radar* on the level of Capone and such high-profile crime lords.

    I’d also imagine that getting arrested for violent crime is far easier than drug use. I mean, you’re likely to leave a victim, either living or deceased.

  • smrnda

    On the Germans – someone pointed out that they lost some clout after WWI since Germans were the bad guys then, which might have reduced the power of the booze lobby.

  • Bdole

    Possession is far more cut and dry than gathering evidence against a single person (probably a member of a gang) of murder after the fact. Re: Capone, notoriety wasn’t the issue, difficulty of building a case was. Witnesses are hard to come by if people are scared of retaliation.

  • DavidMHart

    While we’re on the subject of drug policy, I just tried to chip in some money to the DC Cannabis Campaign, but they sent it back saying they can’t take my money because I’m a non-USAian. If anyone here who is a US citizen fancies donating to help a ballot initiative to fully legalize the possession of cannabis in personal-use quantities in the very city that lies at the heart of the drug prohibition regime*, then that’s a thing you could do (and I hope that Adam will not mind me putting up what might otherwise be considered a spammy post … )

    *Unless you consider that to be Vienna, headquarters of the INCB and the UNODC, but they’re both effectively singing from Washington’s hymnsheet.

  • DavidMHart

    As someone who has already read the book being reviewed here, I would just say get yourself a copy. It will be very difficult to maintain the position that the US is just locking up the violent offenders on possession pretexts once you have read Michelle Alexander’s case.

  • J-D

    I can’t remember the source, and so can’t back this up, but I recall reading that the scare campaign associated with the prohibition of heroin in the US in the 1920s specifically painted heroin use (accurately or not) as primarily an activity of blacks, and that the scare campaign associated with the prohibition of marijuana in the US in the 1930s specifically painted marijuana use (accurately or not) as primarily an activity of Mexicans.

    (I wish I could remember where I read that!)

    The already mentioned tying of opium use with Chinese in scare campaigns, not just in the US, would be something similar.

  • smrnda

    Well, we could look at the statistics this way. You can look at the rates of unsolved violent crimes. You can check out the number of people in jail for non-violent drug offenses. Are there enough non-violent drug offenders for a high % of them to have committed the unsolved violent crimes? I could probably do the maths for a state or 2 provided my workload slows down.

    Where do you live? I’ve actually observed police tactics in a number of minority neighborhoods in Chicago. The cops will spend entire evenings stopping and searching *everyone* to obtain busts for drugs. These neighborhoods *are* more violent than others, but given the high number of people being busted for drugs, if a sizable % of them had committed violent crimes, there wouldn’t be anybody LIVING in the entire city. There isn’t enough violence in violent neighborhoods for *all the people* being busted for drugs to have committed violent crimes.

  • Michael

    This was always the case. With the abolition of slavery, various laws were passed in the South that hemmed in the freed slaves. Though some were explicitly racial, many applied to whites as well-in theory at least. Vagrancy laws, for instance, outlawed being in public without proof of employment. Most arrests for this were, of course, made against black people. Along with the fact they had mostly nowhere to go, and knew nothing else, this meant that many former slaves often worked on the same plantations, often for their former owners. Selective enforcement of laws that were ostensibly neutral (even such things as “loud talk or laughter” became felonies in some places) meant that many ended up in rural prisons. Convict lease allowed prisoners to legally be used on farms and occasionally factories as forced labor. The Thirteenth Amendment specifically provides that slavery remains lawful “as a punishment for a crime, of which the party shall have been duly convicted.” Many former slaves and their descendants would thus be “duly convicted” of any number of crimes and legally re-enslaved. The book Slavery By Another Name, which details this, would be another good read. Suffice it to say, this was part of Jim Crow from the beginning. It simply took another form with the drug war.

  • Adam Lee

    Not at all! In fact, I was planning to put up a post this week asking people to mention some of their favorite non-profits.

  • Bdole

    Yeah, good point. It’s a dragnet that maybe captures a handful of actual criminals at the expense of locking up masses of non-violent offenders. Compound that waste with the likelihood that it’s the prohibition on drugs that’s responsible for many murders in the first place (turf wars between rival gangs/ dealers) and the inevitable conclusion is eliminating the war on drugs would eliminate the purported need for a war on drugs.

  • smrnda

    True, and just a fact on Chicago in particular:

    Years ago, the cops and the FBI wanted to get the *higher ups* in some gangs, mostly the Gangster Disciples. So they eventually got them, but the result was that crime increased.

    How and why? The higher ups understood that crime is a business and that too much violence is bad for business. They kept lower-level gang members and dealers in line, settled disputes and were in it to make $$$. The rank and file got money, so they kept in line.

    Without top-down organization, conflict increased, along with the fact that most people who joined gangs didn’t quite understand the business aspect of it, and with an absence of leadership and organization the remaining members kept fighting each other for ever-decreasing revenues. The ‘gangs’ went from being a more or less Capone-style operation to just kids on the streets.

    Now, drugs did fuel a lot of this, but if you totally legalized them, the illegal producers would be replaced by chemistry grad students making higher quality stuff in nice, clean sanitary and well-lit labs.

  • Jack Start

    Let’s test Alexander’s theory: Encourage everyone you know to stop using drugs. If everyone stopped using drugs, the war would go away. Then we can see if “they” come up with some other means to oppress “the other”.

    Whether or not drug use is legal, avoiding drug use is the best plan of action for everyone, no matter where you are on the social/political/economic/racial spectrum. Many studies show the detrimental effects of drugs on individuals, communities and society at large. Unless you know that these studies are a part of a conspiracy to keep drugs illegal, and you have
    evidence that drug use is beneficial, you should encourage everyone to stay away from drugs.

  • GCT

    Let’s test Alexander’s theory: Encourage everyone you know to stop using drugs. If everyone stopped using drugs, the war would go away. Then we can see if “they” come up with some other means to oppress “the other”.

    Because the historical examples in ample supply aren’t enough?

    Whether or not drug use is legal, avoiding drug use is the best plan of action for everyone, no matter where you are on the social/political/economic/racial spectrum.

    So, you encourage everyone you know to stop drinking alcohol? What about the medicinal benefits of marijuana?

    Yes, illicit drugs can be harmful, but that doesn’t excuse a policy of incarceration for non-violent offenders and a policy of locking up brown-skinned people at higher rates than whites. If anything, we should be focusing on equity as well as treatment instead of punishment.

  • Jack Start

    GCT- Thanks for interacting. Here’s a couple things:

    I think we’re “worldy” enough that we don’t need to parse what we mean by “drug use” (“Yes to Tylenol, No to sniffing glue”- not necessary).

    In fact I do encourage anyone in a difficult situation, especially a tough financial position, to stop consuming alcohol and cigarettes and junk food. Why exacerbate your problems with unhealthy and costly choices?

    Alexander’s thesis about the “cyclical struggle…to perpetuate a racial caste system” is an interesting response to the indisputable evidence she presents. We don’t have a lab setting to test her social-science hypothesis, but we can play a mind game: If drugs are taken out of the equation, will the outcome be the same? That’s where I started, but I didn’t continue on that thread. Sorry for that confusion.

    I went along the thread that started the blog, the idea that recreational drug use is OK and should be legal. Whether or not Alexander’s hypothesis is correct, the social problems she articulates so well won’t go away by legalizing cocaine etc. But if the time and money used consuming cocaine (or beer or lottery tickets) etc went towards healthier pursuits, a lot of social problems would be averted or at least lessened. Let’s encourage everyone to make positive choices and avoid the need for treatment or punishment.

  • PhiloKGB

    Is that a potentially fruitful avenue down which to divert resources from legalization campaigns? It almost sounds like a Randian approach. Put more broadly: Has any massive social change ever been brought about by treating people as purely rational entities?

  • Loren Petrich

    Furthermore, if some disliked minority seems to have some virtue, the dislikers may interpret that virtue as a vice. That’s what has happened to the Jews, who have often been stereotyped as having a gigantic and dangerous intelligence, as Isaac Asimov put it. Except that it isn’t described as that but lack of scruples and always being on the make and trying to take over.

  • smrnda

    People are entitled to do things that *YOU PERSONALLY* might not think are a great idea. Ultimate fighting is probably going to be dangerous, but I have no idea to make it illegal for adults to decide to beat each other up inside of an octagon. I don’t like snotty paternalism.

    The other thing is that people have been using drugs throughout all of human history.

    On the ‘dangers’ of drugs, the dangers of drugs cannot be separated from the fact that the drug are often of poor quality. For example, in studies about the negative health effects of heroin use, it’s impossible to determine if the health damage is from opiates, or from dirty needles or adulterants the drug is cut with.

  • smrnda

    You do understand that *controlled experiments* in the social sciences are not exactly possible? Pushing for an impossible *controlled experiment* is basically wasting time. It’s idle speculation, not a worthwhile contribution to a discussion.

    And screw the ‘positive choices’ nonsense. Totally, if you can only afford to buy drugs or food, drugs would be a bad choice, but how many people using drugs are actually in that situation? I spent a bit of money this weekend on beer. However, the % of my income that I am spending on beer is fairly low, and consuming booze is a social event for me. One could attack *any expenditure* that isn’t straight food or housing as ‘waste’ that could be ‘better spent elsewhere’ but all that does is create a pissing contest where everybody accuses everyone else of having ‘wasteful hobbies’ and exempts their own.

    I also think you over-estimate how many drug users are incapable of work. Drug use is pretty prevalent, and lots of functional people engage in recreational drug use.

    I mean, take the lottery. Lots of poor people play the lottery. If there are no real ways you can increase your income, the lotto is the only thing you’ve got. If these people didn’t buy lotto tickets, they would still be poor. Not playing the lottery isn’t going to make a poor person solidly middle class.

  • UWIR

    Can you provide citations? The statistics on homicide are rather hard to explain under the “Black and white people commit murder at the same rate, but black people are arrested more often” hypothesis. And to respond to smrnda, your post implies some sort of equivalence between “the current sociological forces result in black people committing more murder” and “black people are ‘inherently’ more criminal”. We should be able to discuss the hypothesis that black people commit more crime, without confusing it with the hypothesis that black people are inherently more violent.

  • UWIR

    “how our prison populations have exploded as we lock up millions of men, far more than any other country, mostly for nonviolent offenses like simple possession. ”

    Where are you getting your statistics? According to this site, 47% of prisoners were convicted of violent crimes, and 21% for drug crimes.

  • Adam Lee

    From Alexander’s book:

    Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000. Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980 – an increase of 1,100 percent. Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result, more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began. To put the matter in perspective, consider this: there are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980. [p.60]

  • UWIR

    Your quote is light on actual numbers, doesn’t give the source, doesn’t support the claim that most of the prisoners are locked up for “nonviolent offenses like simple possession”. According the link I gave, there is a total of 322164 prisoners for drug offenses, although they say “sentenced prisoners”, so that might be the source of the discrepancy.

  • GCT

    From your own source:

    (Drug Offenders in US Prisons 2012) Federal: On Dec. 31, 2012, there were 196,574 sentenced prisoners under federal jurisdiction. Of these, 99,426 were serving time for drug offenses, 11,688 for violent offenses, 11,568 for property offenses, and 72,519 for “public order” offenses (of which 23,700 were sentenced for immigration offenses, 30,046 for weapons offenses, and 17,633 for “other”). – See more at:

    11688/196574 = 6%, not 47% as you claimed.

  • UWIR

    Well, it’s been more than a month, and you haven’t provided any citation whatsoever. I can’t say for certain that you’re just making shit up, but it does rather look like it. It really doesn’t help a cause to be just make whatever claims you want and refuse to back them up.