The initial chapter of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander outlines the history of the War on Drugs. Michelle Alexander draws an analogy between the Jim Crow Era in and segregation laws to today’s mass incarnation and discriminatory laws. The Jim Crow laws, state and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States, were enacted after the Reconstruction period, and persisted until 1965. When these laws were eliminated, the South had a vacuum of racism and unrest waiting to be filled, and the candidate Richard Nixon, during the presidential campaign in 1971, saw an opportunity to gain support from the South by exploiting white fears and hatreds of African Americans. Hiding racial slurs and rhetoric, Richard Nixon redefined the words “crime”, “drugs”, and “urban” to mean “black”; therefore, enabling his Southern Strategy policies to appear colorblind.
This chapter explains how the War on Drugs was actually a racial targeting of minority groups in the US, and to this day these discriminatory, inequitable laws suppress minority communities and imprison them. The War on Drugs was launched when drug use and crimes were on the decline, and Alexander goes on to show that even though drugs are used and sold races at equal rates, or in many locations more by whites, drug laws explicitly target minority groups. African Americans are locked up, and after being labeled a felon, they are excluded from basic societal participation.
America now has the biggest prison population in the world.
Roughly 65 million people have criminal records, including tens of millions of Americans who have been arrested but never convicted of any offense, or convicted only for misdemeanors.
Alexander explains how the War on Drugs has been an extreme failure. Incarceration not only locks people out of the legal mainstream economy, reinforcing the illegal economy of sale of drugs, but it is also a major cause of poverty, chronic unemployment, broken families, and crime today. The New Jim Crow reminds its readers that institutionalized racism persists today and creates a discriminated racial caste through racial profiling, biased sentencing policies, political disenfranchisement, and legalized employment discrimination. When someone is labeled a felon they lose all of these rights and essentially become a second-class citizen.
Michelle Alexander asserts her credibility with defined, researched facts that are followed up with cited sources and dates. The analogies she draws out for her readers are always backed with current or past legislative policies as well as historical evidence and consistent data. She spent years in the field uncovering her research, and has personal experience as well. While her motivations are clearly to call out politicians and law enforcement in order to persuade her readers that mass incarceration and drug laws are discriminatory, she does so with an unbiased, informative tone and hard evidence.