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The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
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Important prison statistics

In 30 years, the US penal population increased from 300k to 2MM, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of increase. The US rate of incarceration is 750 per 100,000 people, vs 161 in the US in 1972 and 93 in Germany today.

Blacks make up 13% of the US population, but 40% of the US incarcerated population. A third of black men will have served time in prison, based on 2001 rates.

Since 1980, the growth in number of arrests for black Americans has been concentrated in drug crimes - arrests for property and violent crimes have decreased.

Drug offenses make up 46% of inmates in federal prisons and 16% in state prisons.

One might think racial differences in drug prison admissions are due to differences in crime rates, but within drug crime, this isn’t true. Blacks are no more likely than whites to sell and consume drugs (albeit according to survey data). Despite this, blacks are searched and arrested at higher rates and receive more severe punishment for the same crime.

The War on Drugs

The war on drugs and incarceration is the latest instantiation of centuries-old racial discrimination against black people.

It avoids the overt racism of the slavery and Jim Crow methods by using terms like “tough on crime,” but it began in conscious racial motivation.

Starting in the 60s with Barry Goldwater and rising with Nixon, there was deliberate maneuvering by politicians to subtly exploit the vulnerabilities of Southern whites, who were concerned with the Civil Rights campaign.

  • Said Nixon’s chief of staff: “you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.”

Like slavery and Jim Crow before it, the New Jim Crow was instituted by appealing to the vulnerability and racism of lower-class whites, who felt threatened economically and socially by black progress, and who want to ensure they’re never at the bottom of the American social ladder. (Shortform note: protecting social status seems to be a basic human instinct.)

What began with a political agenda rapidly proliferated to many stakeholders, all incentivized to maximize the war on drugs and mass incarceration without being consciously racially biased. This includes:

  • Law enforcement, who receive federal grants for drug arrests
  • The media, which sensationalizes drug crime for views and has stereotyped black people as mainly responsible for drug crime
  • Politicians who appeal to scared constituents and one-up each other on being tough on crime (including Clinton and Obama)
  • Private prisons (which account for 8% of inmates)

No stakeholder has necessarily seen the big picture of the institution they supported; they were merely safeguarding their own interests and participating in the zeitgeist.

To be clear, Alexander is not accusing law enforcement and other stakeholders of explicit and conscious racism. Rather, the system has created a public consensus image of criminals as being black males, and people cannot acting along subconscious biases.

The New Jim Crow

Here is how the New Jim Crow works:

  • Use the War on Drugs to arrest large numbers of black men. Promote this through 1) strong financial incentives to stakeholders and 2) legal protection of discretion in law enforcement and prosecution.
    • Generally, as long as racial discrimination is not explicitly stated, actions biased by race are allowable.
    • Legal protections: race is allowed to be a factor in stopping vehicles as long as it’s not the sole factor; probable cause is sufficient to justify stop and searches, regardless of intent of the officer; lawyers can strike jurors on arbitrary peremptory challenges as long as it’s not explicitly racist.
    • In essence, black men are made criminals at higher rates than white men, despite not having significantly higher rates of drug crime.
  • Hand down disproportionately harsh sentences to black men, and limit effective legal representation for them.
    • As one example, before 2010, 5g of crack cocaine (associated with black people) and 500g of powder cocaine (associated with white people) earned the same 5-year minimum sentence - a literal 1:100 ratio. Analysis of risk of arrest.
  • Impose sanctions on ex-criminals outside of prison - like removing access to public housing, welfare, job opportunities, and the right to vote.
    • This prevents reintegration, encourages recidivism, and may actively promote crime.

As a result, black people are pushed into the system and kept within it. They are arrested more frequently, handed heavy sentences, then discriminated against when they leave prison.

In turn, their children are heavily disadvantaged as a result and similarly forced into the system; and so the cycle perpetuates.

Insidiously, because the current system does not have explicit racial bias, it’s assumed to be...

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The New Jim Crow Summary Shortform Introduction

We use the terms “blacks,” “whites,” “white elites,” and “felons” as shorthand to represent different groups, the way the author does in the book. These are not meant to be dismissive labels.

There are potentially controversial arguments around the intent and degree of conscious/subconscious bias. As in all of our summaries, we primarily communicate the author’s points and label our own notes separately.

Nearly every nonfiction book - whether about management, diet, sociology - cherry-picks the strongest data to confirm the main point, without addressing contradictory data. The truth is always more complicated than what any single viewpoint espouses, and if you strive for rationality...

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The New Jim Crow Summary Chapter 1: History Repeats Itself

The three major waves of racial discrimination in the United States - slavery, Jim Crow, and the war on drugs - show a pattern of genesis and implementation:

  • White elites committed to racial hierarchy worry about a threat to the social order.
  • They devise a new method of enforcing racialized social control.
  • They collapse resistance across the political spectrum, largely by appealing to the vulnerability of lower-class whites.
  • The system becomes institutionalized and pervasive, as stakeholders pursue their own incentives and rationalize their behavior.

Let’s follow the pattern:

Slavery in the American Colonies

1) White elites committed to racial hierarchy worry about a threat to the social order.

  • The colonies had to deal with the contradiction between the ideals of freedom in the colonies vs slavery and the extermination of American Indians.
    • One way to deal with this: stereotype American Indians as a savage lesser race. This offers less of a moral problem when eliminating them to expand land.
  • In Virginia in 1675, Nathaniel Bacon is denied militia support by the planter elite for seizing Native American lands. He organizes a rebellion, allying poor whites, indentured servants, and slaves, united in condemnation of the rich’s oppression. The rebellion is ended by force, but word of it spreads wide. The idea of whites and blacks uniting to overthrow the elites is terrifying.

2) They devise a new method of enforcing racialized social control.

  • They lessen their reliance on white indentured servants and import more slaves from Africa who are less likely to form alliances.
  • Stereotyping Africans as a lesser race, lacking in intelligence and laudable qualities, rationalized the enslavement. It allows consistency with the new American ideals of liberty, because in this view Africans aren’t really humans who deserved freedom.
  • Racism is built into the constitution - slaves are defined as ⅗ of a man. Federalism protects states’ rights to slavery.

3) They collapse resistance across the political spectrum, largely by appealing to the vulnerability of lower-class whites.

  • The planter class extends special privileges to poor whites to distinguish them from black slaves. Privileges include greater access to Native American lands and allowing policing of slaves.

4) The system becomes institutionalized and pervasive, as stakeholders pursue their own incentives and rationalize their behavior.

  • Due to the “racial bribes,” poor whites now have a personal stake in the maintenance of a race-based system of slavery.
  • The planter elites obviously have deep incentives to maintain slavery to enjoy their low labor costs.
  • White supremacy becomes a religion of sorts - “whites are superior to blacks, and slavery is for the blacks’ own goods.” Cognitive dissonance reinforces these beliefs - “if I’m a slave owner, and yet I also believe in American liberty, then African inferiority must be true.”

Jim Crow and Racial Segregation

1) White elites committed to racial hierarchy worry about a threat to the social order.

  • The Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, and 13th Amendment formally end slavery. Civil RIghts Act of 1866 gives African Americans full citizenship.
  • Freed black people provoke fears of danger, and amalgamation with beings considered inferior and vile.
  • Poor whites are frightened of losing their social status accorded by skin color.
  • The Populist Party accuses the privileged classes at conspiring to keep poor whites and blacks locked into subjugation. “You are made to hate each other” for “financial despotism that enslaves you both.” Racial integration and class-based unity is a centerpiece. The Populists achieve political success.

2) They devise a new method of enforcing racialized social control.

  • Mainly this: Segregation laws are proposed to split poor whites and African Americans. Segregation leads poor whites to retain a sense of superiority over blacks, making alliances unlikely.
  • A system of veiled slavery is enacted. 1) States enact convict laws allowing for hiring out-of-county prisoners for little pay. 2) Very tough vagrancy laws (like requiring jobs for all freed black people) create lots of convicts. Treatment is possibly worse than slavery, given that employers are merely temporary, unlike plantation owners. This fades out gradually in the early 20th century.
  • States impose poll taxes, literacy tests, and other barriers to prevent black voting.
  • The Ku Klux Klan enacts terrorist campaigns against Reconstruction governments and leaders.

3) They collapse resistance across the political spectrum, largely by appealing to the vulnerability of lower-class whites.

  • Conservatives implement campaigns of white supremacy, directing poor white hatred at blacks instead of white elites. This shields elites from a mass uprising from the poor.
  • The agricultural depression promotes “permission to hate” and scapegoats blacks.

4) The system becomes institutionalized and pervasive, as stakeholders pursue their own incentives and rationalize their behavior.

  • Politicians compete with each other by proposing more stringent and oppressive legislation (like prohibiting blacks and whites from playing chess).

The War on Drugs and the New Jim Crow

The pattern shown centuries earlier is repeated in the 1960s, creating the New Jim Crow lasting to the present day.

1) White elites committed to racial hierarchy worry about a threat to the social order.

  • World War II highlights a contradiction between opposing Nazi racial persecution and continued racial segregation in the US. You can’t fight the Nazis on grounds of racial equality while also segregating in the United States.
  • There is also concern that blacks without equality would become susceptible to communist ideals.
  • In 1954 Brown vs Board of Education abolishes “separate but equal,” to much outrage in the...

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The New Jim Crow Summary Chapter 2: Enabling Arrests

With this high-level impetus for enforcing a form of social control, how was it concretely implemented on the ground? Through a combination of police searches and arrests, and legal permissions loosening the requirements for such arrests.

First, the statistics:

  • Drug offenses account for ⅔ of the rise in federal inmates and ½ of rise in state inmates between 1985 and 2000.
  • 500k people are in prison today for a drug offense today, compared to 41k in 1980.
  • ⅘ drug arrests are for possession, and ⅕ for sales - so drug laws aren’t cracking down on kingpins, as commonly bandied, as much as mere users.
  • Marijuana arrests accounted for 80% of growth in drug arrests in the 1990s

A bevy of changes made it easier to arrest and convict people for drug offenses.

Legal Loosening of Searches

The Fourth Amendment was designed to protect against unreasonable searches and seizures by police. The courts loosened this by:

  • Condoning mandatory drug testing without warrants in the interest of public safety and student safety
  • Lowering the degree of suspicion required for a warrantless search in public
  • Arguing that average people should know not to give consent for suspicionless police searches, thus giving .
    • They argued it’s impractical to require police to explain to every suspect his right to refuse consent to a search.
    • In reality many people feel intimidated by police and don’t know they have the option of saying “No, you may not search my bag.”
  • Upholding ability of police to stop drivers for any traffic offense.
  • Allowing discretionary arrests for fine-only misdemeanors because requiring police to know details of penalty schemes on the spot was unreasonable.
  • Allowing use of drug-courier profiles in justifying searches. There are no national standards for profiles, and they can be so vague as to be generally applicable.

Police Searches Increase

Empowered by this latitude, police conducted more liberal searches.

  • Consent searches pressure people to comply, despite people not knowing they could refuse.
    • “May I speak to you? Will you put your arms up and stand against the wall for a search?” Compliance is interpreted as consent.
  • “Pretext stops” use minor traffic violations as a pretext to search for drugs, despite no evidence that drug laws are being violated.
    • Argument: There are so many minor laws that are commonly broken that virtually everyone can be stopped as pretext for drug searches.
  • Bringing drug-sniffing dogs to traffic stops or in public gives probable cause to search without consent.
  • Additional likelihood of being arrested for misdemeanors may increase willingness to provide consent.

Federal agencies supported local law enforcement to participate.

  • Because local and state officials buckle under federal authority, the fed knew it had to build a consensus that the drug war should be the top priority.
  • Cash grants, intelligence, and military equipment were made available to agencies that increased drug arrests. Police departments expanded, and keeping police jobs become dependent on arrests. It became an entrenched practice.
  • The DEA launched a campaign to train tens of thousands of police officers on the search tactics above.

Police departments became invigorated to increase drug arrests:

  • The militarization of police led to no-knock drug raids.
  • Civil forfeiture laws allow law enforcement (federal, state, and local) to keep cash and assets seized from people merely suspected of wrongdoing, without necessarily charging them of wrongdoing. The incentives are heavily in favor of more arrests.
    • The minimal requirement is that there is a “preponderance of evidence” that the asset was involved in a crime. A woman who knew that her husband smoked pot and drove her car could lose her car.
    • The owner had no right of counsel unless charged with a crime, and so the poor could not afford the court costs to retake their assets. Thus most forfeiture cases are not challenged. (If you lose $1000, would you pay $5000 for a lawyer to get it back, and risk the gov’t pressing charges?)
    • Investigations show that those who have more assets to forfeit are given more lenient punishments.
    • This extends to planting drugs and falsifying reports to establish probable cause for cash seizures.
  • Reports of increased drug arrests gave the public a heightened sense of danger, rather than recognition of the effect of incentives.

Those Arrested Have Little Chance

The legal system was stacked against those arrested for drugs.

  • Public defenders may have over 100 clients at a time and may meet with a lawyer for only a few minutes.
  • Some states deny representation for people who earn over a certain income limit.
  • Nearly all cases are resolved through a plea bargain. The full drug penalties are so severe - eg 20 years in prison for possession;...

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The New Jim Crow Summary Chapter 3: Racial Biases in Justice

The previous chapter laid the groundwork for understanding the loosening requirements around arrests, and the incentives driving drug arrests to a frenzy. This chapter examines not just the racial bias inherent in these drug arrests but also the legal difficulty of proving racial discrimination.

Black Arrests for Drugs are Disproportionately Higher

First, the numbers. Data show that the percentage of illegal drug use is roughly the same between white and black populations. And, because white people far outnumber other ethnicities (roughly 75% white to 25% minority), there are far more white drug users than black drug users. Other data show that white youth may possibly use illegal drugs at greater rates than black youth.

However, black arrests far outnumber white arrests for crime. Between 1983 and 2000, the rate of growth of prison admissions for black and Latino was 3x that of white admissions. 75% of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino (again, despite the percentage of drug users being similar between white and black populations).

And these rates are not explainable by differences in violent crime, which occur too low of a rate to explain the growth in incarceration. Homicides account for 0.4% of the past decade’s growth in prisoner population, compared to 61% attributable to drug offenders. (Deceptively, because violent offenders receive longer sentences, they appear to make up a greater % of prison population, but by count of admissions, drug offenses outnumber violent crime.)

Therefore, unlike what the media may present, higher rates of drug use are not to blame for increased rates of black arrests.

What, then, is to blame? Alexander argues it’s primarily granting discretion for law enforcement in who to arrest, fueled by conscious and unconscious racial bias.

Racial Biases in Arrests

Drug enforcement faces some oddities in prosecution, compared to other crimes: 1) drug use is consensual, and so unlike robberies or murders, drug crime is not usually reported, 2) drug use is widespread, and law enforcement can’t possibly identify and detain every drug criminal, for reasons of resource constraints and politics.

So the criminal justice system faces a question - if we are to wage this war, how can we get the most success? And given that incentives push toward number of arrests and convictions, how do we maximize these metrics?

The answer, it seems, was to use the flexibility of discretion in ways that heavily disadvantaged black people.

A combination of social, media, legal, and police forces combined to produce heavy racial baises.

Media Biases

The media supported the idea of crack being the predominant drug problem, and the imagery associated crack with black people. So a public consensus formed that drug criminals were predominantly black.

This widespread bias inevitably affected law enforcement as well, especially among those who do not consciously identify as racists.

Police Procedure Biases

Police concentrated drug arrests in poor urban mostly black areas, rather than wealthier white neighborhoods, where militant action might induce political backlash.

  • This was supposedly justified by higher rates of violent crime in these neighborhoods and ease of policing open areas, but this has since been debunked - the amount of police attention focused on black areas and crack was disproportionate to the # of crime reports and hospitalizations.
  • So common are drug searches that black youth may automatically “assume the position” when approached by police. It’s normal life to both.

Whites are stopped far less frequently than black people, but are more likely to have committed a crime.

  • In one study, black motorists made up 17% of drivers but 70% of searches. But whites were twice as likely to be carrying illegal drugs.
  • (Note this is a deceptive conclusion - because the bar for stopping a white driver was higher, they’re naturally more likely to be committing a crime. If you stopped and searched races proportionately, this rate of crime might even out).

Because of selective targeting, black people were mechanically more likely to be suspected and later convicted.

  • Arrests lead to fingerprinting and entering in criminal databases, which increases likelihood of conviction and strength of punishment later. This reinforces more arrests, causing a vicious cycle (more on these later).

Legal Biases

The bar for being arrested for crack, a “black” drug, was far lower than powder cocaine, a “white” drug - 5g vs 500g, respectively, a literal 1:100 ratio. This was motivated by testimony that crack was far more addictive and dangerous to society (which has since been debunked). Clearly this makes it easier to arrest and convict a crack user than a cocaine user.

Prosecutors have immense discretion in whether to press charges, how many to press, and to dismiss a case. Analysis showed that throughout the court process, whites were far more successful than colored people and received far more lenient sentences for identical crimes.

  • Part of the issue is unconscious bias and differences in empathy. The same drug user might be considered a dangerous gang banger with inherent disrespect for the law, or merely a kid experimenting with drugs who had a rough childhood. This might change based on race. And everyone involved - police officers, prosecutors, judges, the public - may be subject to this bias.

During voir dire (jury selection), lawyers are able to strike jurors with peremptory challenges. Lawyers are unable to strike jurors on grounds of race.

  • However, it becomes trivial to concoct non-racial reasons to remove jurors of a particular race - clothing worn, hairstyles, age, education,...

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The New Jim Crow Summary Chapter 4: Penalties On Release

In the last chapter, we saw how black people were systematically targeted in the criminal justice system, and the courts made litigation on racial discrimination extremely difficult.

This alone is massively destructive, but the penalties imposed on felons after release from prison entrenched the New Jim Crow system. As Alexander repeats throughout the book, felons have important civil rights stripped away. By making housing and finances difficult for convicted felons, they became far more likely to reoffend. And because they had limited ability to vote or serve on juries, their ability to influence the system was neutralized.

These were likely well-reasoned laws passed to disincentivize drug use, but they have a crippling effect on the ability of the subjugated to buck the system. Furthermore, when accepting a plea bargain, offenders may not be aware of the rights they’re giving up.

Here is a summary of the penalties that ex-felons face.

Housing Penalties

Housing increases the rate of employment and decreases recidivism.

Public housing can evict not only felons, but also any tenant even believed to be engaged in criminal activity or having prior arrests, regardless of convictions.

  • Obviously this is aggravated by the greater rate of arrests of colored people.
  • Agency ratings and funding consider effectiveness of applicant screening as a factor.
  • Tenants are held liable for behavior of their children and guests, even without knowledge of the activity.
    • For instance, grandmothers can be evicted if their grandchildren smoke weed in the parking lot.

All this makes families reluctant to allow their criminal relatives to stay with them, which pushes criminals into homelessness.

  • 30-50% of people under parole in SF/LA were homeless.

Employment Penalties

Criminals are already disadvantaged in finding employment, with most dropping out of high school and being illiterate.

40 states require parolees to maintain employment, or possibly be sent back to prison. But almost all states allow private employers to discriminate on past criminal convictions or arrests. Licensing for some professions prohibits felons.

The professions that are less customer facing and most willing to hire felons - construction, manufacturing - are disappearing due to outsourcing.

Felons may have their driver’s licenses expired or suspended, which exacerbates the job search and depletes the number of reasonably accessible jobs. They might spend more money getting to work than they earn.

Over 33% of young black men in the US are unemployed; 65% of young black male dropouts are unemployed.

  • Keep in mind poverty and unemployment statistics usually don’t include incarcerated people, so the true jobless rates may be underestimating by 20%.

Ironically, activism to remove questions about criminal history from job applications may backfire. Without this explicit information, employers may discriminate against non-criminal black people using proxies for criminality, like receipt of public assistance, gaps in work history - or effectively treat all black men as though they have criminal records.

Financial Penalties

Even if felons do land a job, they’re saddled with mandatory fees, such as jail booking fees, jail per diems, public defender application fees, payments to probation departments, drug testing fees. They may also be subject to child support.

In addition, late fees and payment plan fees but people further into the hole.

In addition, many states suspend driving privileges for missed debt payments, which further complicates employment.

In addition, Clinton signed a 5-year limit on welfare and a permanent bar on drug-related felony convictions.

Thus, workers can have 100% of their paychecks garnished.

Perversely, in some jurisdictions, people may choose to go to jail to reduce their debt burdens. This further reinforces the penalties of jail time.

Perversely, inmates work in prison, and the government and employers benefit from their low-paid labor, recalling the antebellum practice of imprisoning former slaves to work off their debts.

Naturally, to escape the financial trap, many convicted felons turn to crime.

Voting Penalties

Nearly all states prohibit felons from voting while incarcerated. Most states withhold right to vote to parolees. In 9 states, ex-felons must apply to have voting rights restored, typically after they pay all fines.

  • In contrast, half of Europe allow all prisoners to vote.

Furthermore, ex-offenders may be reluctant to vote because of fear of attracting attention with the government.

Others are told by parole officers that they’re not allowed to vote.

Naturally, many ex-felons never regain the right to vote.

  • Theoretically, these votes may have influenced very close elections.

Insidiously, new prisons occur in mostly white, rural areas, which benefit from inflated population totals and thus representation in state government.

Psychological Penalties and Stigma

Ex-offenders may never escape the prison label, face social exile, and feel constantly like the system is weighed against them. This can weigh on them and eventually deplete all hope.

Young black people may be told “you’ll amount to nothing, just like your father,” which implies a deep inherited weakness. “If nothing is expected of a people, that people will find it difficult to contradict that expectation.”

To avoid shame, people affected by incarceration (eg family members) stay silent, avoiding social discussion. Thus they underestimate the extent of incarceration, deepen the isolation of ex-offenders, and limit healing and mobilization of social action.

Naturally, ex-offenders may seek those who understand them - other criminals - and join...

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The New Jim Crow Summary Chapter 5: The New Jim Crow

Alexander argues that the public is in denial about the magnitude of the New Jim Crow problem. Obama lectures on too many black fathers missing, and black women complain about not finding good black men, but they rarely point to a major cause - mass incarceration.

Even worse, the war on drugs and mass incarceration is now a fact of life, and racial stereotypes are now embraced broadly, even by some black people. Possibly to resolve cognitive dissonance, people argue that criminals chose to commit criminal actions, and they deserve the punishment. They think, “the criminal justice system is now colorblind, so any correlation of arrests with race must reflect intrinsic behavior traits, not systematic racial bias.”

Draw an analogy to a birdcage, wherein if you think about racism by examining only one wire of the cage, it’s difficult to understand why the bird is trapped. The New Jim Crow is a birdcage, a set of structural arrangements that subjugates a race politically, socially, and economically.

In summary, the New Jim Crow:

  1. Uses the War on Drugs to arrest large numbers of black men, through strong financial incentives and legal protection of discretion that may be racially biased.
    1. In essence, black men are made criminals at higher rates than white men, despite not having significantly higher rates of drug crime.
  2. Hands down disproportionately harsh sentences to black men and limits effective legal representation.
  3. Imposes sanctions on ex-criminals outside of prison that prevent reintegration and encourage recidivism.
  4. (Shortform addition: This environment (absent fathers, racial stigma) disadvantages black youth and adds them back into the cycle.)

History Repeats Itself

The New Jim Crow bears many similarities to the old Jim Crow - the desire of white elites to exploit the vulnerabilities of poor whites; legalized discrimination; political disenfranchisement.

Here are less obvious parallels to Jim Crow:

  • Racial segregation
    • During Jim Crow, segregation compartmentalized black experience from whites, making it easier to maintain racial stereotypes and deny suffering.
    • Mass incarceration does the same, stuffing black men in prisons out of sight, even further away than Jim Crow segregation did.
    • Prisoners returning home concentrate further in poor neighborhoods, which have limited resources.
  • Symbolic production of race
    • Slavery defined being black as being a slave. Jim Crow defined being black as being a second-class citizen. Mass incarceration defines being black as being criminal.
    • Experiment: react to this statement: “we really need to do something about the problem of white crime.” If this sounds a little odd to you, reflect on how natural “black crime” sounds.
    • What it means to be a criminal has become conflated with what it means to be black.
    • A black person’s first time of being arrested or searched hammers home: “this is what it means to be black.”

And compared to the old Jim Crow, there are differences that make the current situation possibly even more difficult:

  • Racial stigma defeats racial solidarity
    • The stigma of black criminality has turned the black community against itself, in contrast to black solidarity during the civil rights era. This makes it harder to unify a community against unfair policies.
    • Politicians who support tough on crime policies can hold up black supporters as proof that they’re not being racist.
  • Absence of racial hostility
    • Things have improved in many respects - a majority of Americans oppose racial discrimination. There are no longer signs of “whites only” schools.
    • Some may use this to claim that things are fine as is. It leads to a sense of complacency, that things don’t need to change.
    • But just because there isn’t overt racial hostility doesn’t mean the current system isn’t racially biased. It would be impossible to imagine mass incarceration of young white men.
  • White victims of racial caste
    • Some reject the problem based on the idea that whites are also harmed by the war on drugs and incarceration, as opposed to clear white superiority in Jim Crow times. This makes it easier to see the criminal justice system as colorblind.
    • Alexander argues that white people are collateral damage in the concerted racialization of crime in politics and media. The goal from the beginning was to build a racial caste system, and whites getting caught in it is not proof otherwise.
  • Black support for “get tough” policies
    • Some argue: in contrast to...

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The New Jim Crow Summary Chapter 6: What Needs to Change

Alexander ends The New Jim Crow with her perspective on why the New Jim Crow cannot be dismantled piece by piece through litigation or narrow policies like affirmative action - people must recognize the enormity of the current system and overthrow it wholesale.

Barriers to Overturning the New Jim Crow

There are many forces entrenching the current system, and therefore just as many obstacles preventing it from being upended.

Civil rights movements used to be about grassroots organizing and gathering critical mass of public opinion. However, of late, civil rights organizations became professionalized, heavily centered on lawyers and litigation, and distanced from the communities they were supposed to represent.

  • Lawyers focus on problems that can be solved with litigation. But mass incarceration isn’t that problem, especially given the Supreme Court’s barriers on litigation in this area, described above.
  • Plus, small policy changes, like lightening drug crime sentences, have little effect - it’s entering the system itself that is a huge disadvantage.

Advocates are loath to petition on behalf of criminals.

  • Advocates have found that “respectable” people who defy racial stereotypes get the most success.
    • In the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks wasn’t the first civil protester of segregation, but she was a model citizen, as opposed to the teenager who got pregnant.
  • Perhaps it’s easier to draw attention to model citizens, such as for affirmative action.

Rigid financial incentives are in place to perpetuate the system.

  • If prisons closed and the war in crime ended, over a million jobs would be in jeopardy (prison employees, police, workers in the legal system). Federal grants for drug enforcement would be revoked.
  • Employers who use prison labor would be inconvenienced.
  • Phone companies that charge families high rates to call in; gun manufacturers for police; stakeholders of builders of new prisons in white rural communities all have skin in the game.

Data seem to suggest the lowest crime rates in history.

  • However, some suggest imprisonment creates far more crime than it prevents, and we could have even less crime today.

People are increasingly loath to talk about race and fearful of violating racial etiquette.

  • People want colorblindness for different reasons. Conservatives believe in individualism and the idea that race is a private matter. Liberals believe in racial equality and the unloading of significance on race. Others prefer colorblindness because it seems that the only practical way to accept racial differences is to not see them.
  • This has entrenched an insistence that systems are colorblind and just, and personal responsibility and morals are to blame for arrests. If we are colorblind, we ignore inherent real racial biases and racial divisions.
  • Alexander argues people must recognize race and show care for others, fully cognizant of possible racial differences. Seeing race is not the problem; refusing to care for the people we see is the problem.
  • Not coming to terms with race risks the same strategy as before - that race becomes a lever to pit racial groups against each other when it becomes politically convenient.

Affirmative action may be more of a racial bribe than a potent force.

  • It provides cosmetic racial diversity while masking the new caste system.
  • It has perpetuated the myth that anyone can make it if they try, and ignores deep disadvantages from birth.
  • It distracts as the main battlefront in race issues.

Model black citizens deceptively signal that race no longer matters.

  • “If black people can succeed, then surely discrimination does not exist, and thus people commit crimes out of free will!”
    • (Shortform note: the same argument has probably applied to female CEOs and heads of state, when gender bias may still remain.)
  • A few black CEOs and black graduates from Harvard seem like we’ve made a lot of progress, when the bulk data show blacks are no better off than 50 years ago.
  • These examples are dissonant with the existence of a caste system - how can Obama be president when a caste is in place? Alexander urges to remember that even in slavery, free black men did exist and were the exceptions.
  • It’s not that race no longer matters, it just matters a little less than it used to.

The exceptional black achievers are incentivized to fit into the system, rather than fight to change it.

  • They give the appearance of racial equity without fundamentally altering the structures.
  • Newcomers play by the old rules to survive. Minority police officers may engage in as much racial profiling as white officers.

Black people are loath to disagree and pull down black leaders.

  • They’re hesitant to trigger the downfall of one of their own.
  • Thus black leaders who uphold the racial caste may be given more latitude than white leaders.

So What to Do?

Alexander’s recommendations on how to upend the system requires inverting all the critical pieces holding the New Jim Crow in place:

  • Most importantly, there must be public consensus that the way we approach drug crime produces a racial caste and must be dismantled. Indifference cannot reign.
    • Similarly, Brown v. Board did not cause sweeping changes - it was public support 10 years later that caused the real changes in society.
  • All financial incentives to arrest poor black people for drug offenses must be revoked. Those with jobs in jeopardy must be retrained.
  • A seismic culture shift must happen in law...

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The New Jim Crow Summary Shortform Supplement: Vicious Cycles

Positive feedback loops are incredibly powerful and can lead to lock-in of a situation like the New Jim Crow. Here are vicious cycles possibly at play that make changes to the status quo difficult:

  • A higher absolute # of black people being arrested increases public perception of black crime, which increases # of black people being locked up.
  • Higher rates of searching black people leads police to find more drugs on them by absolute count, which reinforces higher search rates and higher absolute counts.
    • For instance, if you search 80 black people and 20 white people, and you find 10 black drug offenders and 5 white offenders, it’ll seem as though the black drug problem is far worse, if you don’t think about the statistics hard enough. “Most people being jailed are black - so they must be more likely to have drugs.”
  • In general, confirmation bias is a powerful feedback loop, wherein people select the data that confirms their beliefs and rejects other data, thus further entrenching their beliefs.
  • Police target black drug users and not white drug users partially because of the decreased political risk. Putting more black people in jail, and reducing their civic involvement, makes them even less likely to protest the system, which makes targeting black drug users easier.
  • Because blacks are locked up in large %, it’s likely that any black person has had indirect experience with criminal justice system. Thus even innocent blacks can be more likely barred from jury, which limits their voice in the legal process, which increases black conviction rate.
  • Because of the higher rate of arrests, blacks are more likely to be seen as repeat offenders and get harsher treatments. In other words, some people may face more of a binary 3 strikes or 0 strikes, rather than a linear progression from 0 to 1 to 2 strikes.
  • Concentrated police action in black ghettos makes further concentration more likely, since whites don’t want police intervention in their neighborhoods and ex-offenders return to their neighborhoods.
  • The psychology of being a victim presents more probable cause reasons for non-racial targeting, like appearing nervous around police or running away. Thus, stories about black people being arrested may make black people even more fearful, and thus more likely to be arrested.
  • As a defensive mechanism, embracing the stigma of criminalism as gangsta love is self-destructive and leads to more criminalism, which further reinforces cultural acceptance of criminalism.

When powerful positive feedback loops are at play, strong interventions (like affirmative action or social programs) can perturb the system and disrupt the feedback loop.

  • For instance, having more black prosecutors and police officers may allow more empathy for black offenders that white...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Shortform Introduction
  • Chapter 1: History Repeats Itself
  • Chapter 2: Enabling Arrests
  • Chapter 3: Racial Biases in Justice
  • Chapter 4: Penalties On Release
  • Chapter 5: The New Jim Crow
  • Chapter 6: What Needs to Change
  • Shortform Supplement: Vicious Cycles