New Jim Crow Mass Incarceration War on Drugs Term Paper

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Michelle Alexander does not assume full credit for the striking title of her book The New Jim Crow, recounting having seen the slogan on a “bright orange poster” in 1998.[footnoteRef:1] Former ACLU attorney turned law professor, Michelle Alexander had always been aware of the need for justice system reform. Alexander worked headed the ACLU Racial Justice Project but it took that bright orange poster to help her draw the connection between drug policy and race-related social justice issues in America. Her initial research revealed that up to three quarters of the prison terms being served for drug offences are Black or Latino, even though the “majority of the country’s illegal drug users and dealers are white.”[footnoteRef:2] Alexander herself is bi-racial, with a white mother and a black father. She experienced discrimination from an early age, forcing her parents out of their community. Her childhood experiences spurned racial awareness, and prompted Alexander to pursue a career as a civil rights attorney. [1: Arnie Cooper, “Throwing Away the Key,” The Sun, February 2011, ] [2: Arnie Cooper, “Throwing Away the Key,”]

After investigating the sinister connection between the War on Drugs and racial disparities in the criminal justice system, Alexander started to focus more firmly on mass incarceration. The title The New Jim Crow refers to the fact that the War on Drugs is a racist response to the Civil Rights movement just as the original Jim Crow was a direct response to emancipation. Rhetoric related to the War on Drugs presented a narrative that drove fears deep within the mind of the American public: centering on inner city urban ghettos filled with African Americans using and selling drugs. These narratives represented gross distortions of the truth, just as Jim Crow propaganda would present black males as moral threats to an otherwise innocent white society.

In The New Jim Crow, the author also argues that mass incarceration is a sinister means of social control, and subtle method of subverting anti-discrimination laws and norms. Alexander points out that labeling a person a felon effectively legalizes the types of discrimination that would otherwise be illegal, including “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.

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”[footnoteRef:3] The author calls mass incarceration the means of enforcing a caste system in America. Most remarkably, Alexander claims in The New Jim Crow that the creation of a racial caste system is deliberate, part of a grand scheme machinated by the same demographic that would have supported Jim Crow several generations earlier. Essentially, Jim Crow—even slavery—had been rebranded. The media became the mouthpiece for the moral police, and together with political rhetoric and misleading statistics, the majority of Americans were duped into thinking the War on Drugs was keeping America safe. In fact, responding to drug-related crimes with excessive measures like incarceration and the lifelong penalties associated with being a felon do nothing to improve public health, public safety, or quality of life in the nation. [3: Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, New York: The New York Press, 2010, p. 2). ]

Based on the extensive impact the War on Drugs has on American lives, mass incarceration is a civil rights issue, and a human rights issue. Mass incarceration is not at all a response to increased rates of crime; the notion that crime automatically drives incarceration rates is a myth. Alexander notes that “especially black incarceration rates have soared regardless of whether crime is going up or down in any given community or the nation as a whole.”[footnoteRef:4] In fact, the author traces the genesis of the War on Drugs—and its corresponding effect on punitive incarceration policies—to the Civil Rights movement itself. In the wake of de-segregation and entrenched legal action for civil rights, many poor and working class, largely conservative segments of the white population in America had a new….....

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Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Childress, Sarah. “Michelle Alexander: ‘A System of Racial and Social Control.’” PBS Frontline. April 29, 2014.

Cooper, Arnie. “Throwing Away the Key.” February, 2011. The Sun.

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