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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...

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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...

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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,...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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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.

  • ...

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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...

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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