Mapping the New Jim Crow

America's entire history is marked by the state imposing unfreedom on a large swath of the African American population.

Update: An earlier version of this post included a chart that compared black America's incarceration rate with those of other countries. The chart incorrectly listed black Americans' incarceration rate in 2010 as 4,347 per 100,000 Americans. In fact, that is the rate for black American men. The rate for black American women is 260 per 100,000 Americans, and the rate for black Americans as a whole is 2,207 per 100,000 Americans. The graphic has been updated.

Theodore Johnson's excellent piece appraising "Black America" as a country gives us some sense of the beast with which Michelle Alexander was grappling. Another factoid to consider while looking at this: "No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities," writes Alexander. "The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid."

Somehow, looking at Johnson's post, the term "mass incarceration" seems not to capture exactly what this country is doing to its African American population. Does this equal a "new Jim Crow?" The more I think about it, the less important I find the debate to be. Was convict-leasing really "slavery by another name?" I'm not quite convinced. But at the same time the greater point seems to be that America's entire history is marked by the state imposing unfreedom on a large swath of the African American population. Whatever the successes of the past 50 years, there is no evidence that that trend has ended.

I would be remiss if I did not offer two other entries into the debate. Here is law professor James Forman's critique of The New Jim Crow. Forman mostly agrees with Alexander but offers an argument for jettisoning the "Jim Crow" framing. In support of Alexander, I offer the concluding words from chapter three of Randall Kennedy's Race, Crime and the Law. Kennedy published his book in 1997, but this section—on inmate rights—feels especially relevant to our conversation:

Some observers will argue that the indifference, if not hostility, shown by governments at every level toward inmates despite the large percentage of whites in the inmate population negates any suggestion that this indifference or hostility is tainted by illicit racial sentiments. That argument, however, should by no means be viewed as decisive.

First, it may be that the politically influential sectors of the society are unaware that whites constitute a large proportion of inmate populations. It is possible, indeed likely, that the imagery of the Negro as criminal has misled some people into believing that blacks (and other people of color) constitute an even larger percentage of incarcerated populations than is actually the case, thereby misleading these same people into erroneously minimizing the number of whites who face danger and misery in jails and prisons.

Second, even if voters and their representatives do have an accurate understanding of the racial demographics of inmate populations, that alone does not negate the possibility that racially selective hostility or indifference is at work in affecting public sentiment and thus public policy regarding incarceration. Although whites constitute a large proportion of the prisoner population, white inmates constitute a much smaller percentage of the overall white population than is the case with black inmates. In 1990, for every 100,000 white Americans, 289 were in jail or prison; for every 100,000 black Americans, 1,860 were in jail or prison.

It is entirely plausible that the white-dominated political institutions of America would not tolerate present conditions in jails and prisons if as large a percentage of the white population were incarcerated as is the reality facing the black population. It is surely possible, to many likely, that if the racial shoe were on the other foot, white-dominated political structures would be more responsive than they are now to the terrors of incarceration. That possibility should make more alarming the fact that the darkening of jail and prison populations during the past twenty years has been attended by a discernible increase and hardening of antagonism toward the incarcerated.

One indication of this increased public hostility is the return of chain gangs and other policies calculated to increase the immiserization of prison life. It is impossible to say definitively whether attitudes toward the in-carcerated would be different if those who are jailed and imprisoned represented as large a proportion of the white population as the jailed and imprisoned represent of the black population. That this hypothesis is at least plausible is itself a damning statement about the state of American race relations.

Moreover, apart from the matter of governmental intentions, the plain fact is that deplorable, unlawful conditions in jails and prisons have a distinctively racial appearance because such a relatively large percentage of the black population is, has been, or will be incarcerated. At present, jails and prisons are among the most influential institutions of socialization in African-American communities. The extent to which authorities allow these institutions to remain dangerous, destructive, lawless hells is the extent to which authorities strengthen the belief held by an appreciable number of black Americans that the “white man’s” system of criminal justice remains their enemy.

I highlighted the sentences about proportionality because they offer some perspective on the "collateral damage" critique. Previously, I asserted that the sheer number of white people damaged by mass incarceration made it hard to view it strictly through the lens of racist control. But looking at those numbers relative to the total population of each group tells a different story.

I know that a number of you had feelings about the book, on reflection. Feel free to offer them here.