The New Jim Crow

by Michelle Alexander

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 04, 2024
The New Jim Crow
The New Jim Crow

What are the big ideas? 1. Mass Incarceration as a Modern-day Racial Caste System: The book presents a unique perspective on mass incarceration as not just an issue

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What are the big ideas?

  1. Mass Incarceration as a Modern-day Racial Caste System: The book presents a unique perspective on mass incarceration as not just an issue of criminal justice or punishment, but rather as a modern-day racial caste system that operates to maintain racial hierarchy and perpetuate discrimination against communities of color. This is a distinct perspective that challenges the common assumption that the end of Jim Crow and segregation meant an end to racial caste in America.
  2. The Role of Racial Profiling in Drug Law Enforcement: The book highlights the significant impact of racial profiling on drug law enforcement, which results in racial disparities at every stage of the criminal justice process. This is a unique insight that challenges the common assumption that the War on Drugs is a race-neutral policy and sheds light on the role of racism in shaping criminal justice policies and outcomes.
  3. The Self-Defeating Nature of Embracing Criminality: The book explores the self-defeating nature of embracing criminality as a means of survival for young black men trapped within the system of mass incarceration. This is a unique insight that challenges common assumptions about individual responsibility and agency in the context of criminal justice, and emphasizes the importance of providing opportunities for success and support to those most affected by the system.
  4. The Need for Radical Restructuring of Racial Justice Advocacy: The book calls for a radical restructuring of racial justice advocacy, focusing on grassroots, bottom-up approaches that prioritize human dignity and rights for all persons. This is a unique insight that challenges the common assumption that civil rights organizations can effectively address racial inequality through inclusion within the political and economic structure alone.
  5. The Risk of Extermination Posited by Mass Incarceration: The book argues that mass incarceration poses a risk of extermination, particularly for communities of color, as seen in historical examples such as the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing. This is a unique insight that highlights the extreme consequences of racial caste systems and emphasizes the urgency of addressing mass incarceration as a matter of human rights and dignity.




  • The criminal justice system functions as a gateway into a larger web of laws, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison. This larger system, referred to as mass incarceration, operates like a racial caste system by creating and maintaining racial hierarchy through law and custom.
  • Mass incarceration is not an independent system but rather a component of a larger system of racial stigmatization and permanent marginalization. It is designed to lock people out of mainstream society and the economy.
  • The criminal justice system disproportionately targets and harms people of color, particularly African Americans, perpetuating racial hierarchy in America.
  • Legalized discrimination against former prisoners significantly restricts their ability to reintegrate into society and results in high recidivation rates.
  • Parallels between slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration include legalized discrimination, segregation of communities, and authorization of discrimination against ex-prisoners in employment, housing, education, public benefits, jury service, voting, and jury service.
  • Federal court system effectively immunizes the current system from challenges on grounds of racial bias, just as earlier systems were protected by U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Important differences include slavery designed to exploit black labor, Jim Crow designed to maintain segregation and control black labor within a Jim Crow economy, mass incarceration designed to warehouse disposable population deemed unnecessary to the functioning new global economy.
  • Experience of white people in the new caste system includes harm from drug war, powerful illustration of racial state that can harm people of all colors.
  • Acknowledging presence of New Jim Crow means future of civil rights advocacy nothing short of: 1. Meaningful reforms possible without social movement; 2. Understanding role of race in criminal justice system essential dismantling new caste system; 3. Building broad-based social movement necessary; 4. Cultivating ethic genuine care, compassion, concern for every human being within nation's borders (including poor whites who often pitted against people color); 5. Acknowledging presence of New Jim Crow means end of racial hierarchy in America.


“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 that 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, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are 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.”

“Through a web of laws, regulations, and informal rules, all of which are powerfully reinforced by social stigma, they are confined to the margins of mainstream society and denied access to the mainstream economy.”

“The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran.”

“The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.”

“Sociologists have frequently observed that governments use punishment primarily as a tool of social control, and thus the extent or severity of punishment is often unrelated to actual crime patterns.”

“... as recently as the mid-1970s, the most well-respected criminologists were predicting that the prison system would soon fade away. Prison did not deter crime significantly, many experts concluded. Those who had meaningful economic and social opportunities were unlikely to commit crimes regardless of the penalty, while those who went to prison were far more likely to commit crimes again in the future.”

“Far from fading away, it appears that prisons are here to stay. And despite the unprecedented levels of incarceration in the African American community, the civil rights community is oddly quiet. One in three young African American men will serve time in prison if current trends continue, and in some cities more than half of all young adult black men are currently under correctional control - in prison or jail, on probation or parole. Yet mass incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue as opposed to a racial justice or civil right issue (or crisis).”

“Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.”

“There is no inconsistency whatsoever between the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land and the exis­tence of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness. The current sys­tem of control depends on black exceptionalism; it is not disproved or undermined by it.”

“racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago.”

“The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.”

Chapter 1 - The Rebirth of Caste


  • The War on Drugs emerged as a response to the civil rights gains of the 1960s, particularly those related to African Americans and the end of segregation.
  • Conservative politicians, led by Ronald Reagan, began using implicit racial appeals in their calls for a "get tough" approach to crime and drugs, exploiting white racial resentment and fears.
  • The War on Drugs and mass incarceration disproportionately affected African Americans and other communities of color.
  • Democratic politicians, including Bill Clinton, also embraced the "get tough" stance on crime and drugs in an effort to win back white swing voters.
  • The criminal justice system was transformed into a new system of racialized social control, with millions of people being locked up or pushed to the margins of society.
  • This new racial undercaste functioned relatively automatically, with the prevailing system of racial meanings, identities, and ideologies already seeming natural.
  • The War on Drugs was justified in race-neutral terms, despite its disproportionate impact on communities of color.
  • The mass incarceration of communities of color continued into the twenty-first century, with few alternatives to this system being entertained in mainstream political discourse.


“The fact that some African Americans have experienced great success in recent years does not mean that something akin to a racial caste system no longer exists. No caste system in the United States has ever governed all black people; there have always been “free blacks” and black success stories, even during slavery and Jim Crow. The superlative nature of individual black achievement today in formerly white domains is a good indicator that the old Jim Crow is dead, but it does not necessarily mean the end of racial caste. If history is any guide, it may have simply taken a different form.”

“The valiant efforts to abolish slavery and Jim Crow and to achieve greater racial equality have brought about significant changes in the legal framework of American society—new “rules of the game,” so to speak. These new rules have been justified by new rhetoric, new language, and a new social consensus, while producing many of the same results. This dynamic, which legal scholar Reva Siegel has dubbed “preservation through transformation,” is the process through which white privilege is maintained, though the rules and rhetoric change.”

“The history of racial caste in the United States would end with the Civil War if the idea of race and racial difference had died when the institution of slavery was put to rest. But during the four centuries in which slavery flourished, the idea of race flourished as well. Indeed, the notion of racial difference—specifically the notion of white supremacy—proved far more durable than the institution that gave birth to it.”

“Following the Civil War, it was unclear what institutions, laws, or customs would be necessary to maintain white control now that slavery was gone. Nonetheless, as numerous historians have shown, the development of a new racial order became the consuming passion for most white Southerners. Rumors of a great insurrection terrified whites, and blacks increasingly came to be viewed as menacing and dangerous. In fact, the current stereotypes of black men as aggressive, unruly predators can be traced to this period, when whites feared that an angry mass of black men might rise up and attack them or rape their women.”

“The rhetoric of ‘law and order’ was first mobilized in the late 1950s as Southern governors and law enforcement officials attempted to generate and mobilize white opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights activists used direct-action tactics in an effort to force reluctant Southern States to desegregate public facilities. Southern governors and law enforcement officials often characterized these tactics as criminal and argued that the rise of the Civil Rights Movement was indicative of a breakdown of law and order. Support of civil rights legislation was derided by Southern conservatives as merely ‘rewarding lawbreakers.’ For more than a decade – from the mid 1950s until the late 1960s – conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime.”

“Barry Goldwater, in his 1964 presidential campaign, aggressively exploited the riots and fears of black crime, laying the foundation for the “get tough on crime” movement that would emerge years later. In a widely quoted speech, Goldwater warned voters, “Choose the way of [the Johnson] Administration and you have the way of mobs in the street.”41 Civil rights activists who argued that the uprisings were directly related to widespread police harassment and abuse were dismissed by conservatives out of hand. “If [blacks] conduct themselves in an orderly way, they will not have to worry about police brutality,” argued West Virginia senator Robert Byrd.42”

“That dominance came to an abrupt end with the creation and implementation of what has come to be known as the Southern Strategy. The success of law and order rhetoric among working-class whites and the intense resentment of racial reforms, particularly in the South, led conservative Republican analysts to believe that a “new majority” could be created by the Republican Party, one that included the traditional Republican base, the white South, and half the Catholic, blue-collar vote of the big cities.50 Some conservative political strategists admitted that appealing to racial fears and antagonisms was central to this strategy, though it had to be done surreptitiously. H.R. Haldeman, one of Nixon’s key advisers, recalls that Nixon himself deliberately pursued a Southern, racial strategy: “He [President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”51 Similarly, John Ehrlichman, special counsel to the president, explained the Nixon administration’s campaign strategy of 1968 in this way: “We’ll go after the racists.”52 In Ehrlichman’s view, “that subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.”53”

“Far from resisting the emergence of the new caste system, Clinton escalated the drug war beyond what conservatives had imagined possible a decade earlier. As the Justice Policy Institute has observed, “the Clinton Administration’s ‘tough on crime’ policies resulted in the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.”99 Clinton eventually moved beyond crime and capitulated to the conservative racial agenda on welfare. This move, like his “get tough” rhetoric and policies, was part of a grand strategy articulated by the “new Democrats” to appeal to the elusive white swing voters. In so doing, Clinton—more than any other president—created the current racial undercaste. He signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which “ended welfare as we know it,” replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with a block grant to states called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, as well as a permanent, lifetime ban on eligibility for welfare and food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense—including simple possession of marijuana.”

“Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born.”

Chapter 2 - The Lockdown


  • The War on Drugs has led to mass incarceration in the United States, with approximately 2.3 million people in prisons and jails and another 5.1 million under community correctional supervision.
  • Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have stripped judges of discretion and result in sentences for drug offenses that are disproportionate to those imposed for violent crimes in other countries, even for first-time offenders.
  • The majority of people subject to harsh mandatory minimum sentences are drug offenders, not "violent criminals."
  • The prison system in the United States is focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people cycle in and out of prison due to their criminal record, creating a closed circuit of perpetual marginality.
  • The War on Drugs has led to a system that locks up millions for lengthy periods and perpetuates second-class citizenship through felony records, which result in discrimination, stigma, and exclusion from the mainstream society and economy.


“Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs.”

“The typical mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense in federal court is five or ten years. By contrast, in other developed countries around the world, a first-time drug offense would merit no more than six months in jail, if jail time is imposed at all.”

“It is impossible to know for certain how many innocent drug defendants convict themselves every year by accepting a plea bargain out of fear of mandatory sentences,”

“The critical point is that thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence. The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on the streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch...and once inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences - sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murderers. This is the way the roundup works, and it works this way in virtually every major city in the United States.”

Chapter 3 - The Color of Justice


  • Racial profiling in drug law enforcement, particularly through pretext stops and consent searches, has resulted in significant racial disparities in arrests, convictions, and incarceration.
  • The Supreme Court decision in Sandoval eliminated the private right of action under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, making it difficult for individuals to challenge racial profiling in law enforcement practices.
  • Racial bias permeates every stage of the criminal justice process, from stops and searches to plea bargaining and sentencing.
  • The drug war disproportionately targets and harms communities of color, perpetuating cycles of poverty, violence, and mass incarceration.
  • The war on drugs has created a permanent underclass of individuals labeled as criminals, who are subjected to discrimination and social exclusion long after their sentences have ended.


“The process occurs in two stages. The first step is to grant law enforcement officials extraordinary discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free rein. Unbridled discretion inevitably creates huge racial disparities. Then, the damning step: Close the courthouse doors to all claims by defendants and private litigants that the criminal justice system operates in racially discriminatory fashion. Demand that anyone who wants to challenge racial bias in the system offer, in advance, clear proof that the racial disparities are the product of intentional racial discrimination—i.e., the work of a bigot. This evidence will almost never be available in the era of colorblindness, because everyone knows—but does not say—that the enemy in the War on Drugs can be identified by race. This simple design has helped to produce one of the most extraordinary systems of racialized social control the world has ever seen.”

“Although crack cocaine had not yet hit the streets when the War on Drugs was declared in 1982, its appearance a few years later created the perfect opportunity for the Reagan administration to build support for its new war. Drug use, once considered a private, public-health matter, was reframed through political rhetoric and media imagery as a grave threat to the national order.”

“A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: “Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?” The startling results were published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education. Ninety-five percent of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups.39 These results contrast sharply with the reality of drug crime in America. African Americans constituted only 15 percent of current drug users in 1995, and they constitute roughly the same percentage today. Whites constituted the vast majority of drug users then (and now), but almost no one pictured a white person when asked to imagine what a drug user looks like. The same group of respondents also perceived the typical drug trafficker as black.”

“A black kid arrested twice for possession of marijuana may be no more of a repeat offender than a white frat boy who regularly smokes pot in his dorm room. But because of his race and his confinement to a racially segregated ghetto, the black kid has a criminal record, while the white frat boy, because of his race and relative privilege, does not. Thus, when prosecutors throw the book at black repeat offenders or when police stalk ex-offenders and subject them to regular frisks and searches on the grounds that it makes sense to “watch criminals closely,” they are often exacerbating racial disparities created by the discretionary decision to wage the War on Drugs almost exclusively in poor communities of color.”

“The Supreme Court has now closed the courthouse doors to claims of racial bias at every stage of the criminal justice process, from stops and searches to plea bargaining and sentencing. The system of mass incarceration is now, for all practical purposes, thoroughly immunized from claims of racial bias.”

Chapter 4 - The Cruel Hand


  • The War on Drugs has disproportionately targeted and harmed black communities, contributing to mass incarceration and a caste system based on criminality.
  • Young black men in particular are subjected to increased policing, surveillance, and stigma, which can lead them to embrace their stigmatized identity as a means of survival.
  • Embracing criminality is inherently self-defeating and destructive, but it is a natural response to the stigma of criminality in a society that offers little else in the way of support or opportunities.
  • The commodification of gangsta culture can be understood as a modern-day minstrel show, perpetuating racial stereotypes and justifying the mass incarceration of black people.
  • It is essential to understand the social context of those trapped in the system of mass incarceration and to respond with compassion, care, and concern rather than shame and contempt.
  • Embracing young black men and providing them with opportunities for success can help break the cycle of mass incarceration and create a more just society.


“Criminals, it turns out, are the one social group in America we have permission to hate. In 'colorblind' America, criminals are the new whipping boys. They are entitled to no respect and little moral concern. Like the 'coloreds' in the years following emancipation, criminals today are deemed a characterless and purposeless people, deserving of our collective scorn and contempt. When we say someone was 'treated like a criminal,' what we mean to say is that he or she was treated as less than human, like a shameful creature. Hundreds of years ago, our nation put those considered less than human in shackles; less than one hundred years ago, we relegated them to the other side of town; today we put them in a cage. Once released, they find that a heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon them.”

“Many offenders are tracked for prison at early ages, labeled as criminals in their teen years, and then shuttled from their decrepit, underfunded inner city schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons.”

“Today’s lynching is a felony charge. Today’s lynching is incarceration. Today’s lynch mobs are professionals. They have a badge; they have a law degree. A felony is a modern way of saying, ‘I’m going to hang you up and burn you.’ Once you get that F, you’re on fire.”

“So herein lies the paradox and predicament of young black men labeled criminals. A war has been declared on them, and they have been rounded up for engaging in precisely the same crimes that go largely ignored in middle-and upper-class white communities—possession and sale of illegal drugs. For those residing in ghetto communities, employment is scarce—often nonexistent. Schools located in ghetto communities more closely resemble prisons than places of learning, creativity, or moral development. And because the drug war has been raging for decades now, the parents of children coming of age today were targets of the drug war as well. As a result, many fathers are in prison, and those who are “free” bear the prison label. They are often unable to provide for, or meaningfully contribute to, a family. Any wonder, then, that many youth embrace their stigmatized identity as a means of survival in this new caste system?”

“When black youth find it difficult or impossible to live up to these standards—or when they fail, stumble, and make mistakes, as all humans do—shame and blame is heaped upon them. If only they had made different choices, they’re told sternly, they wouldn’t be sitting in a jail cell; they’d be graduating from college. Never mind that white children on the other side of town who made precisely the same choices—often for less compelling reasons—are in fact going to college.”

“As a society, our decision to heap shame and contempt upon those who struggle and fail in a system designed to keep them locked up and locked out says far more about ourselves than it does about them.”

Chapter 5 - The New Jim Crow


  • Mass incarceration is a more recent and different phenomenon from Jim Crow, despite some similarities in their racial implications.
  • The War on Drugs, which began during the late 1970s and early 1980s, targeted poor communities of color, especially African Americans, following deindustrialization and job loss.
  • The mass incarceration system is not primarily aimed at addressing violent crime but rather at controlling nonviolent drug offenders in racially segregated ghettos.
  • Many African Americans may seem to support the current system of control due to their experience of "dual frustration," which includes both a desire for safety from crime and fear for loved ones involved in it, as well as understanding that harsh criminal justice policies can result in lifelong marginalization for young black men.
  • The argument that African Americans want harsh criminal justice policies is not supported by evidence, as they are generally less supportive of these policies compared to whites.
  • Mass incarceration is a form of extreme marginalization that may pose a risk of extermination, as seen in historical examples such as the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing.


“More African American adults 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.7 The mass incarceration of people of color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.8 The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.”

“When we think of racism we think of Governor Wallace of Alabama blocking the schoolhouse door; we think of water hoses, lynchings, racial epithets, and "whites only" signs. These images make it easy to forget that many wonderful, goodhearted white people who were generous to others, respectful of their neighbors, and even kind to their black maids, gardeners, or shoe shiners--and wished them well--nevertheless went to the polls and voted for racial segregation... Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.”

“One theorist, Iris Marion Young, relying on a famous “birdcage” metaphor, explains it this way: If one thinks about racism by examining only one wire of the cage, or one form of disadvantage, it is difficult to understand how and why the bird is trapped. Only a large number of wires arranged in a specific way, and connected to one another, serve to enclose the bird and to ensure that it cannot escape.11”

“The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.”

“Jim Crow and mass incarceration have similar political origins...both caste systems were born in part, due to desire among white elites to exploit the resentments, vulnerabilities and racial biases of poor and working-class whites for political or economic gain. Segregation laws were proposed as part of a deliberate and strategic effort to deflect anger and hostility that have been brewing against the white elite away from them and toward African Americans. The birth of mass incarceration can be traced to a similar political dynamic. Conservatives in the 1960s and 1970s sought to appeal to the racial biases and economic vulnerabilities of poor and working-class whites through racially coded rhetoric on crime and welfare. In both cases, the racial opportunists offered few, if any, economic reforms to address the legitimate economic anxieties of poor and working-class whites, proposing instead a crackdown on the racially defined "others." In the early years of Jim Crow, conservative white elites competed with each other by passing ever more stringent and oppressive Jim Crow legislation. A century later, politicians in the early years of the drug war competed with each other to prove who could be tougher on crime by passing ever harsher drug laws- a thinly veiled effort to appeal to poor and working-class whites who, once again, proved they were willing to forego economic and structural reform in exchange for an apparent effort to put blacks back "in their place.”

“It is worthy of note, however, that the exclusion of black voters from polling booths is not the only way in which black political power has been suppressed. Another dimension of disenfranchisement echoes not so much Jim Crow as slavery. Under the usual-residence rule, the Census Bureau counts imprisoned individuals as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are incarcerated. Because most new prison construction occurs in predominately white, rural areas, white communities benefit from inflated population totals at the expense of the urban, overwhelmingly minority communities from which the prisoners come.35 This has enormous consequences for the redistricting process. White rural communities that house prisons wind up with more people in state legislatures representing them, while poor communities of color lose representatives because it appears their population has declined. This policy is disturbingly reminiscent of the three-fifths clause in the original Constitution, which enhanced the political clout of slaveholding states by including 60 percent of slaves in the population base for calculating Congressional seats and electoral votes, even though they could not vote.”

“Arguably the most important parallel between mass incarceration and Jim Crow is that both have served to define the meaning and significance of race in America. Indeed, a primary function of any racial caste system is to define the meaning of race in its time. Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.”

“African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct.”

“Whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal.”

“The vastly different sentences afforded drunk drivers and drug offenders speaks volumes regarding who is viewed as disposable—someone to be purged from the body politic—and who is not. Drunk drivers are predominantly white and male. White men comprised 78 percent of the arrests for this offense in 1990 when new mandatory minimums governing drunk driving were being adopted.65 They are generally charged with misdemeanors and typically receive sentences involving fines, license suspension, and community service. Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death than the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person functional and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling.66 People charged with drug offenses, though, are disproportionately poor people of color. They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison.”

“We could choose to be a nation that extends care, compassion, and concern to those who are locked up and locked out or headed for prison before they are old enough to vote. We could seek for them the same opportunities we seek for our own children; we could treat them like one of “us.” We could do that. Or we can choose to be a nation that shames and blames its most vulnerable, affixes badges of dishonor upon them at young ages, and then relegates them to a permanent second-class status for life. That is the path we have chosen, and it leads to a familiar place.”

Chapter 6 - The Fire This Time


  • The history of racial caste systems in America has been marked by the exclusion of certain groups from full citizenship and human dignity, often accompanied by a belief in their inherent inferiority.
  • The end of Jim Crow did not mean an end to racial caste. Instead, a new system emerged based on mass incarceration that denied millions of African Americans basic human dignity.
  • Civil rights organizations have been slow to recognize and respond to this new system. Their focus on inclusion within the political and economic structure has led them to overlook or alienate those most affected by the new caste system, who are determined to challenge its fundamental structure.
  • To truly end racial caste in America, a radical restructuring of our approach to racial justice advocacy is required. This will require civil rights organizations to prioritize grassroots, bottom-up advocacy on behalf of "all of us" and commit to a vision of racial justice that includes human dignity for all persons.
  • The arc of history bends toward justice, but it requires the courage and determination of those who are willing to challenge the status quo and demand a society where all persons are treated with dignity and human rights.


“A new civil rights movement cannot be organized around the relics of the earlier system of control if it is to address meaningfully the racial realities of our time. Any racial justice movement, to be successful, must vigorously challenge the public consensus that underlies the prevailing system of control. Nooses, racial slurs, and overt bigotry are widely condemned by people across the political spectrum; they are understood to be remnants of the past, no longer reflective of the prevailing public consensus about race. Challenging these forms of racism is certainly necessary, as we must always remain vigilant, but it will do little to shake the foundations of the current system of control. The new caste system, unlike its predecessors, is officially colorblind. We must deal with it on its own terms.”

“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that's why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”

“For the foreseeable future, racial and ethnic inequality will be a feature of American life. This reality is not cause for despair. The idea that we may never reach a state of perfect racial equality—a perfect racial equilibrium—is not cause for alarm. What is concerning is the real possibility that we, as a society, will choose not to care. We will choose to be blind to injustice and the suffering of others. We will look the other way and deny our public agencies the resources, data, and tools they need to solve problems. We will refuse to celebrate what is beautiful about our distinct cultures and histories, even as we blend and evolve. That is cause for despair.”

“Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream—a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.”

“In short, mass incarceration is predicated on the notion that an extraordinary number of African Americans (but not all) have freely chosen a life of crime and thus belong behind bars. A belief that all blacks belong in jail would be incompatible with the social consensus that we have “moved beyond” race and that race is no longer relevant. But a widespread belief that a majority of black and brown men unfortunately belong in jail is compatible with the new American creed, provided that their imprisonment can be interpreted as their own fault. If the prison label imposed on them can be blamed on their culture, poor work ethic, or even their families, then society is absolved of responsibility to do anything about their condition.”

“Black success stories lend credence to the notion that anyone, no matter how poor or how black you may be, can make it to the top, if only you try hard enough. These stories “prove” that race is no longer relevant. Whereas black success stories undermined the logic of Jim Crow, they actually reinforce the system of mass incarceration. Mass incarceration depends for its legitimacy on the widespread belief that all those who appear trapped at the bottom actually chose their fate.”

“If we want to do more than just end mass incarceration—if we want to put an end to the history of racial caste in America—we must lay down our racial bribes, join hands with people of all colors who are not content to wait for change to trickle down, and say to those who would stand in our way: Accept all of us or none.”

“Martin Luther King Jr. called for us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable.”

“Parents and schoolteachers counsel black children that, if they ever hope to escape this system and avoid prison time, they must be on their best behavior, raise their arms and spread their legs for the police without complaint, stay in failing schools, pull up their pants, and refuse all forms of illegal work and moneymaking activity, even if jobs in the legal economy are impossible to find. Girls are told not to have children until they are married to a "good" black man who can help provide for a family with a legal job. They are told to wait and wait for Mr. Right even if that means, in a jobless ghetto, never having children at all.”

“Those of us who hope to be their allies should not be surprised, if and when this day comes, that when those who have been locked up and locked out finally have to chance to speak and truly be heard, what we hear is rage. The rage may frighten us; it may remind us of riots, uprisings and buildings aflame. We may be tempted to control it or douse it with buckets of doubt, dismay or disbelief. But we should do no such thing. Instead, when a young man who was born in the ghetto and who knows little of life beyond the walls of his prison cell and the invisible cage that has become his life, turns to us in bewilderment and rage, we should do nothing more than look him in the eye and tell him the truth.”


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