Michelle Alexander draws on her experience as a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Northern California to attempt to draw attention to the existence of a new caste system. It serves to control people of color (Black men in particular) in the United States of America. She argues that this new caste system is difficult for regular people to observe, as it exists within the confines of the justice system. Government funded policing, employing the use of racial profiling, arrests many more Black men, and transforms them into “criminals” and “felons.” Society can then justify inhumane treatment, while avoiding overtly racist language or acts.
Although these felons are eventually released to the wider world after serving their terms, the label of “felon” follows them the rest of their lives. Traditionally, there is not a lot of support for people who return home to their communities after release from prison. When so many young Black men return home to their communities, unable to find jobs or housing, they form a massive underclass. Barred from applying for public benefits, or further education, they have difficulty succeeding in regular society. Michelle Alexander calls this “The New Jim Crow.” She argues this is simply a new version of the previous racial caste known as “Jim Crow,” but updated to fit in a society that no longer accepts overt racist language or acts.
To truly be an equitable society, the United States must acknowledge the existence of this new racial caste, and then act to dismantle it. To do so will require a mass acknowledgement of each other’s humanity and an open promise to care for each other despite racial or socio-economic background. This would involve more funding from a federal level of basic education, housing and healthcare, with the acknowledgement that these are basic rights to which all citizens in the United States should have access. Armed with these tools, all citizens would have an equal right to a basic standard of living that is a better testament to Thomas Jefferson’s argument in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”
The New Jim Crow consists of an Introduction and six chapters. Chapter 1, “The Rebirth of Caste,” outlines the history of caste systems in the US. Chapter 2, “The Lockdown” describes how police have been allowed wider use of search and seizure as a result of courts reinterpreting the 4th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Chapter 3, “The Color of Justice,” outlines how “the war on drugs” targets people of color. Chapter 4, “The Cruel Hand,” describes how the system of mass incarceration continues to follow and adversely affect African Americans after they are released from prison. Chapter 5, “The New Jim Crow,” examines how structural racism allows and enables the “The New Jim Crow” to exist openly in American society. Chapter 6, “The Fire This Time” discusses how the status quo hinders the elimination of mass incarceration and how the system can be dismantled without laying the ground for a replacement.