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.
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 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.
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:
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.
Here is how the New Jim Crow works:
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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...
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:
Let’s follow the pattern:
1) White elites committed to racial hierarchy worry about a threat to the social order.
2) They devise a new method of enforcing racialized social control.
3) They collapse resistance across the political spectrum,...
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:
A bevy of changes made it easier to arrest and convict people for drug offenses.
The Fourth Amendment was designed to protect against unreasonable searches and seizures by police. The courts loosened this by:
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.
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.
Drug enforcement faces some...
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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 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.
All this makes families reluctant to allow their criminal relatives to stay with them, which pushes criminals into homelessness.
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...
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:
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:
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.
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.
Advocates are loath to petition on behalf of criminals.
Rigid financial incentives are in place to perpetuate the system.
Data seem to suggest the lowest crime rates in history.
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:
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