I thought that I understood racism. After reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, I realize that I had no idea what I'm up against. Reading this book was a trip down the rabbit hole into an alternate universe where things many of us believe no longer happen in America are the new normal.
This alternative universe, far removed from an imagined post-racial America is what she refers to the as "New Jim Crow." Simply stated, the New Jim Crow is a system which by law and custom perpetuates a largely African American racial caste locked at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. What the book does incredibly well is explain how we got here and how this system operates.
Alexander begins by reminding us that racial caste is nothing new in America. Both slavery and the original Jim Crow were racial caste systems. What is most significant in the early portion of the book is how she describes the way these systems evolve as historical circumstances change. In each era, the racial caste system is challenged, loses its equilibrium and creates a kind of existential crisis for the white elites it serves. In order to regain equilibrium the system has to adapt, generally through manipulation of the fears and resentments of poor and working-class whites. Alexander argues for example that the original Jim Crow was an adaptation to the emancipation of enslaved Africans and the progress made during the era of Reconstruction.
The New Jim Crow is presented in the book as an adaptation to the gains of the Civil Rights revolution. The difference this time was that regaining the equilibrium of the racial caste system could not be accomplished through explicit references to white supremacy. Conservative politicians of that era seized upon the rhetoric of "law and order," conflating civil disobedience, urban rebellions (so-called riots) and street crime. Declaration and prosecution of the so-called War on Drugs emerged as the favored "race neutral" tactic of the post-Civil Rights era.