The new Jim Crow

Doreen Hunter

President Barack Obama’s personal and moving observations about the Trayvon Martin case were a heartfelt plea to all Americans to understand the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial from an African-American perspective. He did not question the outcome. Instead, he posed the question: Would the outcome of the trial have been different if Zimmerman had shot an unarmed white teenager? We know the answer.

Obama asked us to consider what Zimmerman’s exoneration must look like when seen in the light of the African-American experience and a history “that does not go away.” It wasn’t a moment to elaborate on the history of slavery or the brutal Jim Crow regime of segregation imposed on African-Americans after Reconstruction. It was, however, a breakthrough moment. Obama called upon all Americans to engage in serious soul-searching about the issue of racism in our country.

Thinking about racism is something that Americans are reluctant to do. We like to think that we have moved into a postracial era. We like to point to the evidence. We have elected an African-American president. We admire successful black athletes, entrepreneurs, politicians and writers. Over the years, we have passed affirmative action measures and anti-discrimination legislation. As the Zimmerman trial demonstrated, we have removed the issue of racial prejudice from trial proceedings. In law and custom we have nearly excised the issue of race from public discourse.

Although understandably reluctant to go at the issue of race full bore, Obama mentioned in passing one glaring instance of rampant racism – the racial disparities in the conduct of the criminal justice system. The belief that we have become a color-blind society masks this troubling issue.

In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander exposes the truth about the inequities that pervade our criminal “justice” system. A civil-rights attorney and professor of law at Ohio State University, Alexander has written a powerful, persuasive and deeply troubling account of how, over the last few decades, we have produced a racially based caste system every bit as pernicious as the old Jim Crow regime.

The “war on drugs,” initiated during the Reagan administration in 1985 and vigorously pursued ever since, has led to the mass incarceration of young black and brown men for drug crimes that go largely ignored when committed by whites.

Many studies show that white youths are more likely to engage in drug crimes than people of color. The percentage of white Americans using illegal drugs is as high, some studies claim higher, than the use by blacks. And yet, the explosion in the prison population (from 350,000 30 years ago to 2.3 million today) has been disproportionately made up of African-Americans. In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times greater than those of white men.

The consequences of this system of mass incarceration for black families and black communities are simply beyond calculation. Once labeled a felon, a young black man finds it next to impossible to get a job, vote, receive public assistance with housing, loans or grants for education or even food stamps. There is no such thing as a second chance. Such a caste system results in fatherless families, homelessness, unemployment, poverty and higher crime rates. In short, mass incarceration works to ensure the subordinate status of a group largely defined by race and permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society.

Alexander’s book explains why this mass incarceration system arose in the aftermath of the civil-rights movement. She identifies the political and economic forces essential to its creation and perpetuation, and the effect it has had on African-American lives and communities. Hers is not a story of some vast conspiracy. This is not a story of some cunningly devised plot to reinstitutionalize the old Jim Crow practices. Rather, her book offers a searching account of the confluence of economic and political events, policy decisions, complacency and bigotry, involving many players over many years, that has produced this unjust system.

Both political parties have exploited the advantages to be gained by promoting the “war on drugs.” The privately owned “prison industrial system” has absorbed billions in public and private money, created handsome profits for investors and jobs for hundreds of thousands workers. The mass incarceration system has also fueled a huge and expensive expansion of law enforcement agencies and the bureaucracies responsible for criminal justice.

Most of us have been complacent about these developments either regarding them as essential to public safety or simply unaware of the human toll that has ensued. In short, many Americans have an interest in the perpetuation of this system.

The actions of many Americans will be required to end it. Alexander believes that the mass incarceration of young black men is the social-justice issue of our time. Her book is an appeal to activists – to all of us – to carry the campaign for social justice into the heart of the “criminal justice system.” Her book asks that we open our hearts and overcome our racial indifference and our blindness to the suffering of so many in African-American communities throughout our nation.

If you are concerned about these issues, get a copy of The New Jim Crow (now available at Maria’s Bookshop) and join with members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Durango in a discussion of the book and of what we all might do in practical ways to end the New Jim Crow.

A video-recorded presentation by Michelle Alexander will take place at 7 p.m. Sept. 20 in Bowman Hall (the building behind the church), followed by a discussion of the book at 8 p.m. Everyone is welcome to this event.

Doreen Hunter is a friend of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durango and a professor emerita of American History at Fort Lewis College. Reach her at

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