During the past decade, no single book was more directly responsible for reshaping how the American public understands race and mass incarceration than Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. This week marks the 10-year anniversary of its publication. After its release, the book went on to spend more than a year on the New York Times Best Sellers list and has been taught in colleges and mentioned in major films like Ava Duvernay’s award-winning Netflix documentary, 13th. Most crucially, Alexander’s work sparked a new wave of progressive activists with a mission to work against the system, and shone a light on those organizers who were already veterans in the fight.
Shifting the narrative beyond criminal justice reform
Two years after the election of President Barack Obama, a historic political moment that many claimed was evidence of a “post-racial” era in America, The New Jim Crow provided a necessary and direct refutation of the misguided notion of a colorblind justice system.
“If someone were to visit the United States from another country (or another planet) and ask: Is the U.S. criminal justice system some kind of tool of racial control? Most Americans would swiftly deny it. Numerous reasons would leap to mind why that could not possibly be the case. The visitor would be told that crime rates, black culture, or bad schools were to blame. “The system is not run by a bunch of racists,” the apologist would explain. “It’s run by people who are trying to fight crime.” That response is predictable because most people assume that racism, and racial systems generally, are fundamentally a function of attitudes. Because mass incarceration is officially colorblind, it seems inconceivable that the system could function much like a racial caste system. The widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control is the most important reason that we, as a nation, have remained in deep denial.” – The New Jim Crow, p. 178
Using socio-historical analysis, The New Jim Crow exposed the modern American criminal justice as a racialized caste system “well adapted to the circumstances of its time.” As a result, Alexander challenged advocates and organizers to expand their focus beyond mere reform, which on its own would not dismantle the current “racialized system of social control.” Instead, across the pages of The New Jim Crow, Alexander pushed for advocates to move beyond what she calls the “politics of responsibility” to adopt a framework that is liberatory in nature. Throughout, she centered the voices and experiences of those directly impacted by the system.
Over the last decade, activists and organizations have leveraged the popularity of the book to ramp up the fight against the hidden injustices within the criminal justice system.
“The audiences [Alexander] was drawing weren’t always there,” said Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, which organizes with communities impacted by the criminal justice system and works to build awareness about structural racism. Dorsey, who served nearly 12 years behind bars, is mentioned in the book by name, along with LSPC.
“[Alexander] helped change the narrative and got us greater access,” he said. “[People] became more receptive to the arguments that [people of color] have been making for years, but weren’t getting traction. A lot of the arguments that were made in the book gained traction in policy work and grassroots organizing.”
Nunn says the book gave his organization a greater level of legitimacy, and that people contacted him in droves after the book begin to rise in popularity. One of LSPC’s major victories came in 2017 with the passage of the California Fair Chance Act, also known as “Ban the Box.” The legislation prohibits private employers from including checkboxes on job application forms that ask if a person has ever been convicted of a crime, and restricts them from conducting criminal history checks until a conditional job offer has been made to the applicant. The New Jim Crow addressed the issue, and since the book’s publication, the “Ban the Box” movement has exploded nationally with 35 states and more than 150 municipalities adopting the policy.
“As a result of being referred to in the book, people have contacted the organization and became more interested in us and our pursuit of ‘banning the box,’” he said. “I can remember sitting in front of my computer with a person who just came home after serving close to 15 years. We were watching a presentation and [the people in] my office almost cried when we heard Barack Obama say ‘ban the box.’”
Raising the level of consciousness
Alexander has been widely praised for the way The New Jim Crow lays out cogent arguments connecting the oppression of Black Americans within the criminal justice system to their centuries-long fight for equality. At its core, The New Jim Crow is about raising awareness of the need for new strategies and whole scale changes to organizing around systemic oppression.
“What [Alexander] was able to do in a persuasive way was to draw a straight line from slavery to black codes to legalized apartheid in the form of Jim Crow to mass incarceration,” said Daryl Atkinson, the co-director of Forward Justice, a law, policy, and strategy center that works to enhance racial, social, and economic justice. “They weren’t the same—they morphed over time—but at the root of it was the dominant theory of racial inferiority working in service of white supremacy.”
Atkinson says he pre-ordered the book when he first heard about it 10 years ago. Since then, Forward Justice has used it as a tool for organizing through book studies. While other authors had written about the racism within the criminal justice system, Atkinson says no one was able to connect the dots as clearly as Alexander.
“Other authors had basically propounded that our criminal legal system was operating as a kind of recent apartheid system or something analogous to Jim Crow,” said Atkinson. “What she was able to do so well is to take all of those and put them together in a language that resonated with people. I think she was able to penetrate in a way that no other had before.”
Continued relevance and impact amid critique
While The New Jim Crow has resonated with many criminal justice activists, some have criticized the book, arguing that it doesn’t delve into the deeper historical causes of mass incarceration, puts too much emphasis on the War on Drugs, and fails to highlight the impact of the problem for other racial groups.
“Although the New Jim Crow writers and I agree more often than we disagree, the disagreements matter,” wrote Yale University law professor James Forman in 2011. Forman later went on to write Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, which engages with the arguments made in The New Jim Crow. “I believe that the Jim Crow analogy neglects some important truths and must be criticized in the service of truth. I also believe that we who seek to counter mass incarceration will be hobbled in our efforts if we misunderstand its causes and consequences in the ways that the Jim Crow analogy invites us to do.”
However, Alexander wrote that the analogy of the modern criminal justice system and Jim Crow was never intended to be a perfect 1:1 comparison, but rather to offer a familiar framing for understanding the current condition.
“Saying that mass incarceration is the New Jim Crow can leave a misimpression. The parallels between the two systems of control are striking, to say the least—in both, we find racial opportunism by politicians, legalized discrimination, political disenfranchisement, exclusion of blacks from juries, stigmatization, the closing of courthouse doors, racial segregation, and the symbolic production of race—yet there are important differences. Just as Jim Crow, as a system of racial control, was dramatically different from slavery, mass incarceration is different from its predecessor.” – The New Jim Crow, p. 195
Ten years later, the book continues to offer a useful and revealing way to understand the current state of affairs in criminal justice. This week, The New Press released a Tenth Anniversary Edition of the book, featuring a new preface where Alexander assesses the book’s impact and discusses the current state of the criminal justice reform movement.
Since 2010, she has consistently returned to the themes of her seminal work. In a 2018 op-ed for the New York Times, “The Newest Jim Crow” Alexander delved into the underside of reforms that merely tinker around the edges of the criminal justice system. While acknowledging notable gains, including restoration of the right to vote for people with felony convictions in Florida, bail reform, changes to drug policy, and “ban the box,” Alexander nevertheless warned that the “current reform efforts contain the seeds of the next generation of racial and social control, a system of ‘e-carceration’ that may prove more dangerous and more difficult to challenge than the one we hope to leave behind.”
In June 2019, she gave opening plenary remarks at the Ending Mass Incarceration Conference at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA and drew on her own experience to explain further why a focus on reform was insufficient.
“For much of my adult life, I have been involved in efforts to reform our criminal justice system or obtain something like justice for people who have been discriminated against, abused, locked up, locked out, and disposed of like garbage,” she said. “It took me, even as a civil rights lawyer, a long time to wake up. But what I can tell you from my years of experience as a litigator, as a legislative advocate, as a coalition builder, as a media advocate, is this: There is no legal strategy or set of policy arguments alone that will end this history and cycle of creating caste-like systems in America. For what we have here is a crisis of conscience. The truth is that we have become the most punitive nation in the world, and the roots of our punitiveness have a great deal to do with race.”
By mapping the parallels between two distinct, yet interconnected, systems of social control, The New Jim Crow provides a framework for moving beyond the limitations of current reformist segments of the civil rights advocacy space. The book points to the need for a wave of collective organizing across multiple fronts—legislative and electoral victories alone won’t be enough to dismantle the current system.
“[The book] shed light on another manifestation of white racism,” said Rev. Amos Brown, the president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP and pastor of the city’s Third Baptist Church. Though Brown commends Alexander for drawing attention to issues that impact Black and brown communities, he says he doesn’t feel optimistic that legislators will take aggressive action in the fight against mass incarceration.
“When it comes to being progressive for the empowerment of Black people, [legislators have] never shown the political will,” Brown said. “We still haven’t done anything about it. We still have Black folks disproportionately locked up in prison. What is it to be aware and not do anything?”
(Michelle Alexander could not be reached for comment.)