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30+ quotes from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Quotes from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Michelle Alexander ·  290 pages

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“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that's why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“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. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. 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.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“When we think of racism we think of Governor Wallace of Alabama blocking the schoolhouse door; we think of water hoses, lynchings, racial epithets, and "whites only" signs. These images make it easy to forget that many wonderful, goodhearted white people who were generous to others, respectful of their neighbors, and even kind to their black maids, gardeners, or shoe shiners--and wished them well--nevertheless went to the polls and voted for racial segregation... Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“Arguably the most important parallel between mass incarceration and Jim Crow is that both have served to define the meaning and significance of race in America. Indeed, a primary function of any racial caste system is to define the meaning of race in its time. Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“We could choose to be a nation that extends care, compassion, and concern to those who are locked up and locked out or headed for prison before they are old enough to vote. We could seek for them the same opportunities we seek for our own children; we could treat them like one of “us.” We could do that. Or we can choose to be a nation that shames and blames its most vulnerable, affixes badges of dishonor upon them at young ages, and then relegates them to a permanent second-class status for life. That is the path we have chosen, and it leads to a familiar place.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“Those of us who hope to be their allies should not be surprised, if and when this day comes, that when those who have been locked up and locked out finally have to chance to speak and truly be heard, what we hear is rage. The rage may frighten us; it may remind us of riots, uprisings and buildings aflame. We may be tempted to control it or douse it with buckets of doubt, dismay or disbelief. But we should do no such thing. Instead, when a young man who was born in the ghetto and who knows little of life beyond the walls of his prison cell and the invisible cage that has become his life, turns to us in bewilderment and rage, we should do nothing more than look him in the eye and tell him the truth.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“Parents and schoolteachers counsel black children that, if they ever hope to escape this system and avoid prison time, they must be on their best behavior, raise their arms and spread their legs for the police without complaint, stay in failing schools, pull up their pants, and refuse all forms of illegal work and moneymaking activity, even if jobs in the legal economy are impossible to find. Girls are told not to have children until they are married to a "good" black man who can help provide for a family with a legal job. They are told to wait and wait for Mr. Right even if that means, in a jobless ghetto, never having children at all.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“The rhetoric of ‘law and order’ was first mobilized in the late 1950s as Southern governors and law enforcement officials attempted to generate and mobilize white opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights activists used direct-action tactics in an effort to force reluctant Southern States to desegregate public facilities. Southern governors and law enforcement officials often characterized these tactics as criminal and argued that the rise of the Civil Rights Movement was indicative of a breakdown of law and order. Support of civil rights legislation was derided by Southern conservatives as merely ‘rewarding lawbreakers.’
For more than a decade – from the mid 1950s until the late 1960s – conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“Black success stories lend credence to the notion that anyone, no matter how poor or how black you may be, can make it to the top, if only you try hard enough. These stories “prove” that race is no longer relevant. Whereas black success stories undermined the logic of Jim Crow, they actually reinforce the system of mass incarceration. Mass incarceration depends for its legitimacy on the widespread belief that all those who appear trapped at the bottom actually chose their fate.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“... as recently as the mid-1970s, the most well-respected criminologists were predicting that the prison system would soon fade away. Prison did not deter crime significantly, many experts concluded. Those who had meaningful economic and social opportunities were unlikely to commit crimes regardless of the penalty, while those who went to prison were far more likely to commit crimes again in the future.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“Today’s lynching is a felony charge. Today’s lynching is incarceration. Today’s lynch mobs are professionals. They have a badge; they have a law degree. A felony is a modern way of saying, ‘I’m going to hang you up and burn you.’ Once you get that F, you’re on fire.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“Martin Luther King Jr. called for us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“A new civil rights movement cannot be organized around the relics of the earlier system of control if it is to address meaningfully the racial realities of our time. Any racial justice movement, to be successful, must vigorously challenge the public consensus that underlies the prevailing system of control. Nooses, racial slurs, and overt bigotry are widely condemned by people across the political spectrum; they are understood to be remnants of the past, no longer reflective of the prevailing public consensus about race. Challenging these forms of racism is certainly necessary, as we must always remain vigilant, but it will do little to shake the foundations of the current system of control. The new caste system, unlike its predecessors, is officially colorblind. We must deal with it on its own terms.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“The Supreme Court has now closed the courthouse doors to claims of racial bias at every stage of the criminal justice process, from stops and searches to plea bargaining and sentencing. The system of mass incarceration is now, for all practical purposes, thoroughly immunized from claims of racial bias.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“Many offenders are tracked for prison at early ages, labeled as criminals in their teen years, and then shuttled from their decrepit, underfunded inner city schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“Sociologists have frequently observed that governments use punishment primarily as a tool of social control, and thus the extent or severity of punishment is often unrelated to actual crime patterns.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“So herein lies the paradox and predicament of young black men labeled criminals. A war has been declared on them, and they have been rounded up for engaging in precisely the same crimes that go largely ignored in middle-and upper-class white communities—possession”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“One theorist, Iris Marion Young, relying on a famous “birdcage” metaphor, explains it this way: If one thinks about racism by examining only one wire of the cage, or one form of disadvantage, it is difficult to understand how and why the bird is trapped. Only a large number of wires arranged in a specific way, and connected to one another, serve to enclose the bird and to ensure that it cannot escape.11”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“As a society, our decision to heap shame and contempt upon those who struggle and fail in a system designed to keep them locked up and locked out says far more about ourselves than it does about them.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“There is no inconsistency whatsoever between the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land and the exis­tence of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness. The current sys­tem of control depends on black exceptionalism; it is not disproved or undermined by it.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“Barry Goldwater, in his 1964 presidential campaign, aggressively exploited the riots and fears of black crime, laying the foundation for the “get tough on crime” movement that would emerge years later. In a widely quoted speech, Goldwater warned voters, “Choose the way of [the Johnson] Administration and you have the way of mobs in the street.”41 Civil rights activists who argued that the uprisings were directly related to widespread police harassment and abuse were dismissed by conservatives out of hand. “If [blacks] conduct themselves in an orderly way, they will not have to worry about police brutality,” argued West Virginia senator Robert Byrd.42”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


“Through a web of laws, regulations, and informal rules, all of which are powerfully reinforced by social stigma, they are confined to the margins of mainstream society and denied access to the mainstream economy.”
― Michelle Alexander, quote from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


About the author

Michelle Alexander
Born place: in Stelle, Illinois, The United States
Born date October 7, 1967
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