Trained as a civil rights lawyer, Alexander lays out a searing indictment of the War on Drugs as the central engine of the New Jim Crow. Through page after page of data and the narratives of the victims of this "war," she reveals how it perpetuates racial caste. The process works in three phases. The first phase involves vast numbers of people being rounded up by the police who conduct this war primarily in communities of color with near unlimited discretion to stop, interrogate and search whomever they choose. The second phase is the conviction, where many lack effective legal representation and are pressured to plead guilty through the threat of lengthy sentences if they don't. Like the police, prosecutors have near unlimited discretion during this process. Due to the harshness of drug laws, once convicted people spend long periods of their lives under the formal control of the criminal justice system.
The final phase begins after people are no longer under formal control, but now are locked out of mainstream society, some for the rest of their lives due to laws that allow discrimination in housing, employment, public assistance, education and so on. Alexander argues that these "invisible punishments" are in some ways worse than the original sentence. The most disconcerting part of the book however, may be her description of the ways in which the Supreme Court has aided and abetted this machinery of the Drug War. Not only has the court legitimized these procedures and laws, but it has made it virtually impossible to fight them through arguing they are racially discriminatory.
Alexander not only indicts the War on Drugs, but also traditional civil rights organizations for failing to fight as hard for its abolition as they have for other issues such as affirmative action. Some may find this portion of the book hard to read as it exposes how so many of us have been complacent and complicit as this human rights nightmare has unfolded over the past three decades.