The New Jim Crow is a 2010 book and a name given to a category of race-related social and political phenomena in the United States by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights litigator and legal scholar. Alexander deals in the book primarily with the issue of the current mass levels of incarceration and other means of societal suppression of African-American men, and the social consequences of the policies described, for the "people of color" and for the country as a whole. According to the author, what has been altered since the collapse if Jim Crow is not so much the basic structure of the society, as the language used to justify its affairs. People of color are classified as "criminals", which allows the unleashing of a whole range of legal discrimination measures.
The United States penal population has grown every year for the past thirty-six years. The rate of imprisonment in the United States is now four times its historic average and seven times higher than in Western Europe. Even more striking than the overall level of incarceration is the concentrated force of the penal system on the most disadvantaged segments of the population. One-third of African American male high-school dropouts under age 40 are currently behind bars. Among all African American men born since the mid-1960s, more than 20 percent will go to prison, nearly twice the number that will graduate college. This extraordinary pattern of penal confinement has been called “mass incarceration,” a rate of incarceration so high that it affects not only the individual offender, but also whole social groups.
Incarceration in the United States is a concurrent power under the Constitution of the United States, which means that prisons are operated under strict authority of both the federal and state governments. Incarceration is one of the main forms of punishment for the commission of felony offenses in the United States.
The federal government's war on drugs does not appear to be restrained by the economic crisis facing the states., is a factor suggesting that high incarceration growth will resume in the next two to five years. The War on Drugs is a campaign of prohibition and foreign military aid being undertaken by the United States government, with the assistance of participating countries, intended to both define and reduce the illegal drug trade. This initiative includes a set of drug policies of the United States that are intended to discourage the production, distribution, and consumption of illegal psychoactive drugs.
Not crime, but the need to shore up an eroding caste cleavage, along with buttressing the emergent regime of desocialized wage labor to which most blacks are fated by virtue of their lack of marketabl ecultural capital, and which the most deprived among them resist by escaping into the illegal street economy, are the main impetus behind the stupendous expansion of America’s penal state and its de facto policy of ‘carceral affirmative action’ towards African-Americans.
America’s first three ‘peculiar institutions’, slavery, Jim Crow, and the ghetto, have this in common: they were all instruments for the conjoint extraction of labor and social ostracization of an outcast group deemed unassimilable by virtue of the indelible threefold stigma it carries. African-Americans arrived under bondage in the land of freedom.
Jim Crow: Racial division was a consequence, not a precondition, of US slavery, but once it was instituted it became detached from its initial function and acquired a social potency of its own. Emancipation thus created a double dilemma for Southern white society: how to secure anew the labor of former slaves, without whom the region’s economy would collapse, and how to sustain the cardinal status distinction between whites and ‘persons of color,’ i.e., the social and symbolic distance needed to prevent the odium of ‘amalgamation’ with a group considered inferior, rootless and vile. After a protracted interregnum lasting into the 1890s, during which early white hysteria gave way to partial if inconsistent relaxation of ethno-racial strictures, when blacks were allowed to vote, to hold public office, and even to mix with whites to a degree in keeping with the intergroup intimacy fostered by slavery, the solution came in the form of the ‘Jim Crow’ regime. It consisted of an ensemble of social and legal codes that prescribed the complete separation of the ‘races’ and sharply circumscribed the life chances of African-Americans while binding them to whites in a relation of suffusive submission backed by legal coercion and terroristic violence.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander points out that if U.S. incarceration levels were rolled back to those of the early 1980s, well over a million of the locked down would be released, and an additional million contractors, sheriffs, cops, judges, guards, prison administrators and others would be out of work. After more than a dozen years of campaigning against the 100 to 1 differential between sentences for crack vs. powder cocaine, the best our pragmatic traditional leaders could do, with a black Democrat in the White House and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, was to narrow the crack vs. powder differential from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1, not by lowering penalties for crack, but mainly by increasing those for powder cocaine. Our pragmatic leaders simply have no stomach for this kind of change. They can't lead it, they can't follow it, they cannot even conceive of it.
While the number of offenders in each major offense category increased, the number incarcerated for a drug offense accounted for the largest percentage of the total growth. According to US justice department, 27% of drug offenders in state prisons are serving time for possession and 70% are serving time for trafficking offenses, and 3% are in for other offenses. The racially disproportionate nature of the war on drugs is not just devastating to black Americans. It contradicts faith in the principles of justice and equal protection of the laws that should be bedrock of any constitutional democracy; it exposes and deepens the racial fault lines that continue weaken the country and belies its promise as a land of equal opportunity; and it undermines faith among all races in the fairness and efficacy of the criminal justice system. Urgent action is needed, at both the state and federal level, to address this crisis for the American nation.
Among persons convicted of drug felonies in state courts, whites were less likely than African- Americans to be sent to prison. Thirty-three percent of convicted white defendants received a prison sentence, while fifty-one percent of African American defendants received prison sentences.
More than 165,000 African Americans were living with injection-related AIDS or had already died from it by the end of 2001. Many thousands more were infected with the HIV virus. The virus has fallen much more harshly upon African Americans than on whites who inject drugs. Among those who inject drugs, African Americans are five times as likely as whites to get AIDS.
In an attempt to reduce illicit drug markets, many governments rely on the incarceration of drug users. The rationale behind the need to maintain and often increase police activity and penal sanctions for drug users is the belief that strong law enforcement and widespread incarceration will deter potential users and dealers form becoming involved in the drug market. Incarceration therefore plays an important part in drug policy of most countries, although its use varies widely from country to country. Increasing numbers of people arrested for drug-related offences are being sent to prison. The steepest rise has been in the USA, where over half of federal prison inmates are kept in custody for a drug charge.
It is recommended that the incarceration penalties should be reduced or removed altogether for low-level drug offenders, who should be diverted instead to more appropriate forms of intervention. These can include administrative penalties for recreational users, or treatment services for drug dependent people. Any criminal procedure that increases the pressure on prison capacity, such as mandatory minimum sentences and pre-trial detention procedures, should only be used for the most serious offenders. More generally, a change of focus is needed from treating drug use as a crime to dealing with it as a health problem, and from punishment to treatment for dependent drug users who are not involved in serious or violent crime.