Newsroom image of kids

Child Watch® Column: "“The New Jim Crow”"

Release Date: March 11, 2011

Marian Wright Edelman

"Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy... Cotton's great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole."

"Cotton's story illustrates, in many respects, the old adage ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same'... In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don't. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals' and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind... Once you're labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it."

So begins the introduction to legal scholar and former litigator Michelle Alexander's extraordinary book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Jim Crow has been praised for documenting in compelling detail how the current historic levels of incarceration in the United States have disproportionately targeted communities of color and function as a means of controlling people of color, just as slavery and Jim Crow did in their time.

Alexander acknowledges that many people find this argument hard to believe in the "age of colorblindness." Many Americans wanted to see President Obama's historic election as the final hopeful sign our nation has moved "past race," and many believe the millions of other Black Americans who are imprisoned and disenfranchised are in that condition only because of individual bad choices. When we are confronted with the facts that our nation's incarceration rates have quintupled over the last several decades and the United States has the largest prison population and imprisons the highest numbers of its minority population in the world, Alexander says many Americans simply accept the prevailing myth that "there is, of course, a colorblind explanation for all this: crime rates. Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime. We're told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys." But as The New Jim Crow argues, the data show this is simply not true.

While incarceration may be rooted for some in poor individual choices, the glaring racial disparities in searches, arrests, convictions, and sentencing for the same crimes suggest our nation doesn't treat everyone's poor choices equally. What has skyrocketed over the years are not our nation's crime rates—which have actually fallen below the international norm—but the number of drug convictions in the U.S. as a result of our declared "War on Drugs." Many people assume next that of course Black criminals are being incarcerated for drug crimes at record rates because they are the ones committing them. In some states, Blacks comprise 80%-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison. But The New Jim Crow painstakingly outlines how media and political strategies manufactured the popular images of the War on Drugs as an assault on scary, violent Black male drug dealers, when in fact "[s]tudies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color." Meanwhile, as The New Jim Crow clearly shows, the dramatic increases in mandatory sentence lengths even for nonviolent offenses and the far-reaching consequences that come with being classified as a felon even after a sentence is completed have made incarceration today a historically punitive form of social control and social death—at exactly the same time as record numbers of African Americans are being confined.

This is how mass incarceration functions as the new Jim Crow, with predictably destructive results for Black communities and families. For those of us concerned about our nation's Cradle to Prison Pipeline® crisis, this latest danger threatens to overwhelm and destroy millions of our children's futures. By identifying it and giving it a name, Michelle Alexander has placed a critical spotlight on a reality our nation can't afford to deny. We ignore her careful research and stay silent about mass incarceration's devastating effects at our own and our nation's peril.


Let us know what you think about this column:

Enter this word: Change


Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Magee at: December 2, 2011
It is a great article and well written. Thank You!

Submitted by glendagrams at: March 16, 2011
Wow so mcuh truth in what she said. It makes me sad and I wish I could help. I have two black great grandsons and they are doing so well since they have so much family support, bUT i can's imagine where they would be if this weren't so.

Submitted by Trise at: March 16, 2011
I think this is applicable to all felons. The shear fact is that more black men are incarcerated at higher rates. Our society is set up to farther punish them by taking away all of the rights. If they are being incarcerated, is that not their punish. The system is set up to discriminate against those that have criminal records. This dicrimination leads to more criminal behavior because very rarely are they afforded opportunities to change their life around. The vicious cycle has to be broken at a macro level first.

Submitted by barriomother at: March 15, 2011
I read your last entry dated 3-11-11 and I didn't have to read further. Shock and sadness, understanding and tears were my reaction. I came across your column doing a research project for school. It all carries over to the minority.

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 15, 2011
This is the same argument we use each time for our failures. We know that society is not kind to our youth but we do not instruct them in the Godly choices they have to make in life. We must tell them about sexual choices and how the God of the universe will help us if we will follow his instructions. Sexual diseases are rampant in our community and our choices of music lead to this shameful condition.

Submitted by cgj at: March 15, 2011
Thanks for this article. It is painful to see how purposeful this all is. I've heard it said that if a child can't read by 3rd grade, they build a prison bed for him. Do you have a source for that statistic? The Prisons for Profit are of course making huge profits, and we are putting our tax dollars into prisons, and not into education. I am fearful that the profit motive is a huge barrier to ending the achievement gap. If they educate, they will end their prison profits. But I don't hear much discussion identifying this correlation.

Submitted by rlj at: March 14, 2011
Considering the percentage of Americans who are eligible to vote and how many actually participate in the electoral process I find it disingenuous that states want to disenfranchise anyone who want to vote. For those who say, "...shouldn't there be consequences...?" Yes, and it's called 'serving your time'. Why are states now so concerned with felons and youth voting? If we, who care, do not speak up and speak out we will find that even more 'rights' make be taken from those who have the smallest voices.

Submitted by rlj at: March 14, 2011
Considering the percentage of people who are eligible to vote and the percentage who actually participate in the electoral process I find it disingenuous that states want to disenfranchise anyone who wants to vote. For those who say "...shouldn’t there be consequences...?" Yes, and it's called 'serving your time'. Why are states now so concerned with felons and youth voting? If we care about fair elections and don’t speak up and speak out we will find that even more "rights" will be taken from those who want to perform their civic duty by participating in the electoral process.

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 14, 2011
I've admired her work for years. Great column.

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 13, 2011
Let us stop jim crow in his tracks. Let us know how to help.

Submitted by MK at: March 13, 2011
I think you are on the ball Marian. I appreciate your work so very much. Yor column is one of the things I hae to look forward to so that I can feel better about something being done to address the horror of the cradle to prison pipeline. I am a sociai/behaviroal scientist whose specialty is youth/humna services administration. My work has been very surpressed here in Georgia for more thabn two decades. I stay here because I still beleive through continued determintion I am going to be able to deliver services to children at risk. Georgia prefers incarceration to human services, but now that much of the federal governemtnr is sdvocating for evidence-baed programs I am doing all i can to recieve funding to began services for children now in secure detention, as well as programs to prevent and lower high school dropout rates, which is key in stopping incareration rates. Thank you so much for your dedication. I feel I hjave a sister in this fight for our children and for the black man as well who is trapped bt the new Jim Crow prison system. I a however, very frustrated that th leaders among black men are not as active as I beleive they should be on the issues of the juvenile injustice system and the overall criminal justice system. Thank you again so much for your commitment to our youth and all those incarcerated and loosing their lives and human and civil rightrs. I onltr recently learned that the U. S. is only one of two nations (and Somalia) in the United Nations that failed to sign the international treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Inrternationally all other nations acknowledge childen as unque and entitled to certaine discretions until age 18. We are th eonly ones trying children as adults and sentencing children to adult prisons. Thank you so much once again for your efforts and hard work.

Submitted by Jen at: March 13, 2011
So, is she saying that there should be no consequences?

Submitted by EB at: March 12, 2011
The truth of this has been on my conscience for a long time. I want to read this book and study it in our Sunday school class. I am tutoring a smart and dear little African American girl and am appalled to realize that her father or brother could easily become a felon, with only a small offense, I am also tutoring a poor white boy and shudder at his future, too, as he is not as smart and could get into trouble, with no one to bail him out. Yet the GOP want to take deep cuts in education and social services. We must fight!

Submitted by Evelyn at: March 12, 2011
Are you saying that this only happens to black people? Many black men are in jail for taking guns and robbing 7/11's and doing rape and other crimes. If you watch the news in and around Atlanta, Georgia, you will see surveillance cameras of black men robbing stores. There are far more black men than white men doing the crimes. I was in a Mrs. Winners Restaurant one morning and two black men were there, one talking on a phone and threatening to bring his "piece" and take care of some problem. I went over and talked to him and told him that I didn't want him to get killed that God loves him and I care about him, to please come and talk to me, I am an old white woman with white hair and am on crutches because I am handicapped. The young man talked to me and had a change of heart. That was one, why can't we reach out to others.

Submitted by Juliette at: March 12, 2011
Yes, racial caste still exists in America, evident not only in the prison statistics but also in the educational system, where minority youth are disproportionately segregated into special education classes, diagnosed as emotionally disturbed or learning disabled by perhaps well-meaning school psychologists. If the special education led to more intensive educational and psychological help, it might be justified, but all too often the special ed student becomes more isolated from those peers in regular classes and is taught by special education aides, who most often don't have the qualifications a certified teacher has. These students may drop out of school and seek a life of crime, feeling rejected by all systems in his/her life. I look forward to reading Ms. Alexander's book to see if effective solutions are offered. Most important are the preventative measures, such as Head Start and Parenting programs, many of which are threatened by budget cuts. Such cuts hurt all of us.

Submitted by LDR at: March 12, 2011
I am a doctoral candidate that wishes to do my dissertation proposing an intervention for mothers with children in the reunification process and to reduce recidivism rates in this population. I live im MO and I am a little concerned about getting the resources needed to achieve this goal. Any suggestions?

Submitted by Forever Young at: March 11, 2011
I just don't buy it. We are our own worst enemy.sure, there is discrimmination, but where are we in helping our children get a good education and stay off the streets and out of trouble. Where are we in the job markets that used to be predominantly Black? We can't have the high paying jobs if we don't succeed in school. Just don't accept her rationale.

Submitted by Jody Ann at: March 11, 2011
Excellent, I have long said that we have not left racial bigotry behind, simply redefined the prejudice and in this article it is told like it is. What a tragic day for this country and for all of its inhabitants, for when ever we discriminate against another human being because of the persons race we have harmed all. The children are the most vulnerable and I am so sad that we have continued to demean and incarcerate so many, especially the black race. It must stop. But how, when so many seem bent to deny the black race a level playing field. It is not wonder some have become som bitter.

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 11, 2011
This article speaks the truth. As American we should speak out concerning the prison system in America.

Submitted by Mickey at: March 11, 2011
Education, Incarceration, Employment, and Hip-HopCulture -- the four major problems facing the African-American community. Where are our leaders?