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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...

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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...

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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,...

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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...

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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...

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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,...

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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...

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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...

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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.
  • ...

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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