DescriptionCLJ 355: PUNISHMENT, PRISONS & CORRECTIONS
Each paper should contain the following:
Brief summary of EACH reading: In 1-2 paragraphs, summarize each text’s main point/s using these
1. What is the MAIN argument
• Try using the “W”s: Who, When, What, Why
• Do not focus solely on what the author said in the first 2 pages of the reading, that
makes it impossible for me to know if you read the article in its entirety; and often the
main argument does not appear until midway through the article/chapter
• What does the author add or complicate in relation to existing theories, myths, scholarly
literature, especially that we have read in this course?
2. Exemplify. Use a quote or example to illustrate the point/s from the reading.
• Be sure to provide evidence from the assigned text. Using specific quotes from the text is
desirable (just make sure you use proper citation)
• you need to summarize ALL readings for that time period (specified in the syllabus by author’s
last name; if a film is specified, summarize that too).
• If you are unsure of precisely what the author is saying in each piece, then talk me through what
you do understand (and ask your questions!). You must demonstrate that you have read and
thought about the articles/chapters. Providing examples from the text is often the best strategy.
Thesis/Synthesis statement/reflection: Each response paper should have a reflection, which presents
an argument or a point of view in relation to an issue the articles has brought forth for you AS A GROUP.
• What was memorable or of interest to you?
• How do these readings relate to each other?
• What did you learn?
Think about any new or interesting insights the readings gave you as a whole- what was the
focus in the last few weeks?
How are the readings connected? Do some authors disagree with each other? What are some
points of continuity and some points of contention? Do they all focus on the same thing or is
one lacking in an area that the other ones focus on?
Relate it to other materials we have read in class or a film we have watched or your own
experiences outside of class- such as your work, family, or other classes.
Are there specific sections or arguments that really hit home or alternatively that you disagree
with? Provide as much specificity and examples as possible.
You are welcome to be creative in how you approach your response. The main point is to engage with
the readings in a critical and complex way. You may also want to use these responses as an opportunity
to think through your final paper.
FORMAT AND STRUCTURE:
Formats that can be used to convey the response:
– Paper format (in .doc or .docx or PDF): approx. 1000 words on (all) the readings for that week.
PowerPoint slide/s, using text and images
Artistic: Short video, poem, spoken word, drawing etc., with a short text explaining the work’s
connection to the reading (if needed)
Audio (recorded on your phone, for example, and submitted as MP4 or VoiceThread through Bb)
Infographic or text/image combo (using Canva https://www.canva.com/ for example) lifting
parts of the text
Respond by making it ‘your own’ using apps like https://padlet.com/
Responses will be evaluated on the depth of the work; thoughtfulness and level of engagement with the
material; creativity or writing competency; overall understanding of concepts and ideas discussed in
class; connection with the readings and course material; Creativity and quality of writing/presentation of
material; timeliness and your ability to follow the guidelines listed above. See Rubric for specific criteria.
Papers should be about 3 well-written pages (around 1000 words), carefully edited, doublespaced with 11 or 12-pt. font, 1” margins.
Papers should begin with a clear introductory paragraph summarizing your topic or the aims and
ambitions of your paper and your overall thesis. The body of the paper should be comprised of
summaries of each reading and then a response/synthesis of all the readings for this time
period. The paper should have a clear concluding paragraph where you restate your thesis, raise
any questions or state what you learned from doing this paper.
Provide examples but do not overuse quotes – if a quote is used, citation must be provided (APA:
“things are not like they used to be” (Jones, 2001, p. 119).
APA citation Style preferred. Use the Purdue Owl Citation Style Chart to help with your citations
You must cite all sources used, otherwise your paper will be considered plagiarized.
“ Michelle Alexander’s brave and bold new book paints a haunting picture in which dreary felon
garb, post-prison joblessness, and loss of voting rights now do the stigmatizing work once
done by colored-only water fountains and legally segregated schools. With dazzling candor,
Alexander argues that we all pay the cost of the new Jim Crow.”
— l ani guinier, professor at Harvard Law School and author of The Miner’s Canary:
Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy
“ For every century there is a crisis in our democracy, the response to which defines how
future generations view those who were alive at the time. In the eighteenth century it
was the transatlantic slave trade, in the nineteenth century it was slavery, in the twentieth
century it was Jim Crow. Today it is mass incarceration. Alexander’s book offers a timely and
original framework for understanding mass incarceration, its roots to Jim Crow, our modern
caste system, and what must be done to eliminate it. This book is a call to action.”
— benjamin todd jealous, president and CEO, NAACP
“ With imprisonment now the principal instrument of our social policy directed toward poorly
educated black men, Michelle Alexander argues convincingly that the huge racial disparity of
punishment in America is not the mere result of neutral state action. She sees the rise of mass
incarceration as opening up a new front in the historic struggle for racial justice. And, she’s
right. If you care about justice in America, you need to read this book!”
— glenn c. loury, professor of economics at Brown University and author of Race,
Incarceration, and American Values
“ After readingThe New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s stunning work of scholarship, one gains
the terrible realization that, for people of color, the American criminal justice system resembles
the Soviet Union’s gulag—the latter punished ideas, the former punishes a condition.”
—david levering lewis, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian at NYU and the author of
W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963
“ We need to pay attention to Michelle Alexander’s contention that mass imprisonment in the
United States constitutes a racial caste system. Her analysis reflects the passion of an advocate
and the intellect of a scholar.”
— marc mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project and the author
of Race to Incarcerate
The New Jim Crow
A longtime civil rights advocate and litigator,
michelle alexander won a 2005 Soros
Justice Fellowship and now holds a joint appointment
at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. Alexander served for several years as director
of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern
California, and subsequently directed the Civil Rights
Clinics at Stanford Law School, where she was an associate professor. Alexander is a former law clerk for
Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court and
has appeared as a commentator on CNN, MSNBC, and
NPR. The New Jim Crow is her first book.
advance praise for the new jim crow
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
THE NEW PRESS
Jacket photograph courtesy istock
Author photograph by the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
Jacket design by Pollen, New York
THE NEW PRESS
$ 2 7. 9 5 U. S.
“A powerful analysis of why and how mass
incarceration is happening in America, The New Jim
Crow should be required reading for anyone working
for real change in the criminal justice system.”
—ronald e . hampton,
executive director, National Black Police Association
as the united states celebrates
the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of
Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or labeled
felons for life. Jim Crow laws were wiped off the books
decades ago, but today an astounding percentage of
the African American community is warehoused in
prisons or trapped in a permanent, second-class status—much like their grandparents before them, who
lived under an explicit system of control.
In this stunning and incisive critique, civil rights
lawyer-turned-legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues
that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have
simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting
black men through the War on Drugs and decimating
communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system
functions as a contemporary system of racial control. In
the current era, it is no longer permissible to use race,
explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion,
and social contempt. Yet it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was
once legal to discriminate against African Americans.
The old forms of discrimination—discrimination in
employment, housing, education, and public benefits,
denial of the right to vote, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal once you’re labeled a felon.
Alexander challenges the civil rights community,
and all of us, to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.
The New Jim Crow
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the
Age of Colorblindness
MIC HE L L E A L E X A N D E R
THE NEW PRESS
LO ND O N
© 2010 by Michelle Alexander
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, in any form,
without written permission from the publisher.
Request for permission to reproduce selections from this book should be mailed to:
Permissions Department, The New Press, 38 Greene Street, New York, NY 10013.
Published in the United States by The New Press, New York, 2010
Distributed by Perseus Distribution
library of congress cataloging-in-publication data
The new Jim Crow : mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness / Michelle Alexander.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-59558-103-7 (hc. : alk. paper) 1. Criminal justice, Administration of—
United States. 2. African American prisoners—United States. 3. Race discrimination—
United States. 4. United States—Race relations. I. Title.
The New Press was established in 1990 as a not-for-profit alternative to the large,
commerical publishing houses currently dominating the book publishing industry.
The New Press operates in the public interest rather than for private gain, and
is committed to publishing, in innovative ways, works of educational, cultural,
and community value that are often deemed insufficiently profitable.
Composition by NK Graphics
This book was set in Fairfield LH Light
Printed in the United States of America
For Nicole, Jonathan, and Corinne
Chapter 1: The Rebirth of Caste
Chapter 2: The Lockdown
Chapter 3: The Color of Justice
Chapter 4: The Cruel Hand
Chapter 5: The New Jim Crow
Chapter 6: The Fire This Time
It is often said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In my case, it has taken a
village to write this book. I gave birth to three children in four years, and in
the middle of this burst of joyous activity in our home, I decided to write this
book. It was written while feeding babies and during nap times. It was written at odd hours and often when I (and everyone else in the household) had
little sleep. Quitting the endeavor was tempting, as writing the book proved
far more challenging than I expected. But just when I felt it was too much
or too hard, someone I loved would surprise me with generosity and unconditional support; and just when I started to believe the book was not worth
the effort, I would receive—out of the blue—a letter from someone behind
bars who would remind me of all the reasons that I could not possibly quit,
and how fortunate I was to be sitting in the comfort of my home or my office,
rather than in a prison cell. My colleagues and publisher supported this effort, too, in ways that far exceeded the call of duty. I want to begin, then, by
acknowledging those people who made sure I did not give up—the people
who made sure this important story got told.
First on this list is Nancy Rogers, who was dean of the Moritz College of
Law at Ohio State University until 2008. Nancy exemplifies outstanding
leadership. I will always remember her steadfast encouragement, support,
and flexibility, as I labored to juggle my commitments to work and family.
Thank you, Nancy, for your faith in me. In this regard, I also want to thank
john powell, director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Eth-
nicity. He immediately understood what I hoped to accomplish with this
book and provided critical institutional support.
My husband, Carter Stewart, has been my rock. Without ever once uttering a word of complaint, he has read and reread drafts and rearranged his
schedule countless times to care for our children, so that I could make progress with my writing. As a federal prosecutor, he does not share my views
about the criminal justice system, but his different worldview has not, even
for a moment, compromised his ability to support me, lovingly, at every turn
in my efforts to share my truth. I made the best decision of my life when I
My mother and sister, too, have been blessings in my life. Determined to
ensure that I actually finished this book, they have exhausted themselves
chasing after the little people in my home, who are bundles of joy (and more
than a little tiring). Their love and good humor have been food for my soul.
Special thanks is also owed Nicole Hanft, whose loving kindness in caring
for our children will forever be appreciated.
I deeply regret that I may never be able to thank, in person, Timothy
Demetrius Johnson, Tawan Childs, Jacob McNary, Timothy Anderson, and
Larry Brown-Austin, who are currently incarcerated. Their kind letters and
expressions of gratitude for my work motivated me more than they could
possibly know, reminding me that I could not rest until this book was done.
I am also grateful for the support of the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation, as well as for the generosity of the many people who have
reviewed and commented on portions of the manuscript or contributed to it
in some way, including Sharon Davies, Andrew Grant-Thomas, Eavon Mobley, Marc Mauer, Elaine Elinson, Johanna Wu, Steve Menendian, Hiram
José Irizarry Osorio, Ruth Peterson, Hasan Jeffries, Shauna Marshall, and
Tobias Wolff. My dear friend Maya Harris is owed special thanks for reading
multiple drafts of various chapters, never tiring of the revision process.
Lucky for me, my sister, Leslie Alexander, is an African American history
scholar, so I benefited from her knowledge and critical perspective regarding
our nation’s racial history. Any errors in fact or judgment are entirely my
own, of course. I also want to express my appreciation to my outstanding editor and publisher, Diane Wachtell of The New Press, who believed in this
book before I had even written a word (and waited very patiently for the final
word to be written).
A number of my former students have made important contributions to
this book, including Guylando Moreno, Monica Ramirez, Stephanie Beckstrom, Lacy Sales, Yolanda Miller, Rashida Edmonson, Tanisha Wilburn,
Ryan King, Allison Lammers, Danny Goldman, Stephen Kane, Anu Menon,
and Lenza McElrath. Many of them worked without pay, simply wanting to
contribute to this effort in some way.
I cannot close without acknowledging the invaluable gifts I received from
my parents, who ultimately made this book possible by raising me. I inherited determination from my mother, who astounds me with her ability to
overcome extraordinary obstacles and meet each day with fresh optimism. I
owe my vision for social justice to my father, who was a dreamer and never
ceased to challenge me to probe deeper, for greater truth. I wish he were still
alive to see this book; though I suspect he knows something of it still. This
book is for you, too, Dad. May you rest in peace.
This book is not for everyone. I have a specific audience in mind—people
who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do
not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color
as a result of mass incarceration. In other words, I am writing this book for
people like me—the person I was ten years ago. I am also writing it for another audience—those who have been struggling to persuade their friends,
neighbors, relatives, teachers, co-workers, or political representatives that
something is eerily familiar about the way our criminal justice system operates, something that looks and feels a lot like an era we supposedly left behind, but have lacked the facts and data to back up their claims. It is my
hope and prayer that this book empowers you and allows you to speak your
truth with greater conviction, credibility, and courage. Last, but definitely
not least, I am writing this book for all those trapped within America’s latest
caste system. You may be locked up or locked out of mainstream society, but
you are not forgotten.
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 family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote
for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. 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.1
Cotton’s story illustrates, in many respects, the old adage “The more things
change, the more they remain the same.” In each generation, new tactics
have been used for achieving the same goals—goals shared by the Founding
Fathers. Denying African Americans citizenship was deemed essential to the
formation of the original union. Hundreds of years later, America is still not
an egalitarian democracy. The arguments and rationalizations that have been
trotted out in support of racial exclusion and discrimination in its various
forms have changed and evolved, but the outcome has remained largely the
same. An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are
legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most
of American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in
the new jim crow
employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as
their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were.
What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the
basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. 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.
I reached the conclusions presented in this book reluctantly. Ten years ago,
I would have argued strenuously against the central claim made here—
namely, that something akin to a racial caste system currently exists in the
United States. Indeed, if Barack Obama had been elected president back
then, I would have argued that his election marked the nation’s triumph over
racial caste—the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow. My elation would have
been tempered by the distance yet to be traveled to reach the promised land
of racial justice in America, but my conviction that nothing remotely similar
to Jim Crow exists in this country would have been steadfast.
Today my elation over Obama’s election is tempered by a far more sobering awareness. As an African American woman, with three young children
who will never know a world in which a black man could not be president of
the United States, I was beyond thrilled on election night. Yet when I walked
out of the election night party, full of hope and enthusiasm, I was immediately reminded of the harsh realities of the New Jim Crow. A black man was
on his knees in the gutter, hands cuffed behind his back, as several police
officers stood around him talking, joking, and ignoring his human existence.
People poured out of the building; many stared for a moment at the black
man cowering in the street, and then averted their gaze. What did the election of Barack Obama mean for him?
Like many civil rights lawyers, I was inspired to attend law school by the
civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s. Even in the face of growing social and political opposition to remedial policies such as affirmative action,
I clung to the notion that the evils of Jim Crow are behind us and that, while
we have a long way to go to fulfill the dream of an egalitarian, multiracial
democracy, we have made real progress and are now struggling to hold on to
the gains of the past. I thought my job as a civil rights lawyer was to join with
the allies of racial progress to resist attacks on affirmative action and to
eliminate the vestiges of Jim Crow segregation, including our still separate
and unequal system of education. I understood the problems plaguing poor
communities of color, including problems associated with crime and rising
incarceration rates, to be a function of poverty and lack of access to quality
education—the continuing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Never did I seriously consider the possibility that a new racial caste system was operating in
this country. The new system had been developed and implemented swiftly,
and it was largely invisible, even to people, like me, who spent most of their
waking hours fighting for justice.
I first encountered the idea of a new racial caste system more than a decade ago, when a bright orange poster caught my eye. I was rushing to catch
the bus, and I noticed a sign stapled to a telephone pole that screamed in
large bold print: The Drug War Is the New Jim Crow. I paused for a moment and skimmed the text of the flyer. Some radical group was holding a
community meeting about police brutality, the new three-strikes law in California, and the expansion of America’s prison system. The meeting was being held at a small community church a few blocks away; it had seating
capacity for no more than fifty people. I sighed, and muttered to myself
something like, “Yeah, the criminal justice system is racist in many ways, but
it really doesn’t help to make such an absurd comparison. People will just
think you’re crazy.” I then crossed the street and hopped on the bus. I was
headed to my new job, director of the Racial Justice Project of the American
Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Northern California.
When I began my work at the ACLU, I assumed that the criminal justice
system had problems of racial bias, much in the same way that all major institutions in our society are plagued with problems associated with conscious
the new jim crow
and unconscious bias. As a lawyer who had litigated numerous class-action
employment-discrimination cases, I understood well the many ways in
which racial stereotyping can permeate subjective decision-making processes at all levels of an organization, with devastating consequences. I was
familiar with the challenges associated with reforming institutions in which
racial stratification is thought to be normal—the natural consequence of
differences in education, culture, motivation, and, some still believe, innate
ability. While at the ACLU, I shifted my focus from employment discrimination to criminal justice reform and dedicated myself to the task of working
with others to identify and eliminate racial bias whenever and wherever it
reared its ugly head.
By the time I left the ACLU, I had come to suspect that I was wrong
about the criminal justice system. It was not just another institution infected with racial bias but rather a different beast entirely. The activists who
posted the sign on the telephone pole were not crazy; nor were the smattering of lawyers and advocates around the country who were beginning to
connect the dots between our current system of mass incarceration and earlier forms of social control. Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly
comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that
functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.
In my experience, people who have been incarcerated rarely have difficulty identifying the parallels between these systems of social control. Once
they are released, they are often denied the right to vote, excluded from
juries, and relegated to a racially segregated and subordinated existence.
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. They
are legally denied the ability to obtain employment, housing, and public
benefits—much as African Americans were once forced into a segregated,
second-class citizenship in the Jim Crow era.
Those of us who have viewed that world from a comfortable distance—yet
sympathize with the plight of the so-called underclass—tend to interpret the
experience of those caught up in the criminal justice system primarily
through the lens of popularized social science, attributing the staggering increase in incarceration rates in communities of color to the predictable,
though unfortunate, consequences of poverty, racial segregation, unequal
educational opportunities, and the presumed realities of the drug market,
including the mistaken belief that most drug dealers are black or brown.
Occasionally, in the course of my work, someone would make a remark
suggesting that perhaps the War on Drugs is a racist conspiracy to put
blacks back in their place. This type of remark was invariably accompanied
by nervous laughter, intended to convey the impression that although the
idea had crossed their minds, it was not an idea a reasonable person would
Most people assume the War on Drugs was launched in response to the
crisis caused by crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods. This view holds
that the racial disparities in drug convictions and sentences, as well as the
rapid explosion of the prison population, reflect nothing more than the
government’s zealous—but benign—efforts to address rampant drug crime
in poor, minority neighborhoods. This view, while understandable, given the
sensational media coverage of crack in the 1980s and 1990s, is simply wrong.
While it is true that the publicity surrounding crack cocaine led to a dramatic increase in funding for the drug war (as well as to sentencing policies
that greatly exacerbated racial disparities in incarceration rates), there is no
truth to the notion that the War on Drugs was launched in response to crack
cocaine. President Ronald Reagan officially announced the current drug war
in 1982, before crack became an issue in the media or a crisis in poor black
neighborhoods. A few years after the drug war was declared, crack began to
spread rapidly in the poor black neighborhoods of Los Angeles and later
emerged in cities across the country.2 The Reagan administration hired staff
to publicize the emergence of crack cocaine in 1985 as part of a strategic effort to build public and legislative support for the war.3 The media campaign
was an extraordinary success. Almost overnight, the media was saturated
with images of black “crack whores,” “crack dealers,” and “crack babies”—
images that seemed to confirm the worst negative racial stereotypes about
impoverished inner-city residents. The media bonanza surrounding the “new
demon drug” helped to catapult the War on Drugs from an ambitious federal
policy to an actual war.
The timing of the crack crisis helped to fuel conspiracy theories and general speculation in poor black communities that the War on Drugs was part
of a genocidal plan by the government to destroy black people in the United
States. From the outset, stories circulated on the street that crack and other
drugs were being brought into black neighborhoods by the CIA. Eventually,
the new jim crow
even the Urban League came to take the claims of genocide seriously. In its
1990 report “The State of Black America,” it stated: “There is at least one
concept that must be recognized if one is to see the pervasive and insidious
nature of the drug problem for the African American community. Though
difficult to accept, that is the concept of genocide.”4 While the conspiracy
theories were initially dismissed as far-fetched, if not downright loony, the
word on the street turned out to be right, at least to a point. The CIA admitted in 1998 that guerilla armies it actively supported in Nicaragua were
smuggling illegal drugs into the United States—drugs that were making
their way onto the streets of inner-city black neighborhoods in the form of
crack cocaine. The CIA also admitted that, in the midst of the War on Drugs,
it blocked law enforcement efforts to investigate illegal drug networks that
were helping to fund its covert war in Nicaragua.5
It bears emphasis that the CIA never admitted (nor has any evidence
been revealed to support the claim) that it intentionally sought the destruction of the black community by allowing illegal drugs to be smuggled into
the United States. Nonetheless, conspiracy theorists surely must be forgiven for their bold accusation of genocide, in light of the devastation
wrought by crack cocaine and the drug war, and the odd coincidence that
an illegal drug crisis suddenly appeared in the black community after—not
before—a drug war had been declared. In fact, the War on Drugs began at a
time when illegal drug use was on the decline.6 During this same time period, however, a war was declared, causing arrests and convictions for drug
offenses to skyrocket, especially among people of color.
The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than thirty years,
the U.S penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than
2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase.7
The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world,
dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those
in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany, 93
people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United
States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000.8
The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No
other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. 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.9 Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities
These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime.
Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably
similar rates.10 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.11 That is not what one would
guess, however, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, black men
have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times
greater than those of white men.12 And in major cities wracked by the drug
war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of
their lives.13 These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.
It may be surprising to some that drug crime was declining, not rising, when
a drug war was declared. From a historical perspective, however, the lack of
correlation between crime and punishment is nothing new. 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. Michael Tonry explains in Thinking
About Crime: “Governments decide how much punishment they want, and
these decisions are in no simple way related to crime rates.”14 This fact, he
points out, can be seen most clearly by putting crime and punishment in
comparative perspective. Although crime rates in the United States have
not been markedly higher than those of other Western countries, the rate
of incarceration has soared in the United States while it has remained
stable or declined in other countries. Between 1960 and 1990, for example,
official crime rates in Finland, Germany, and the United States were close
to identical. Yet the U.S. incarceration rate quadrupled, the Finnish rate
fell by 60 percent, and the German rate was stable in that period.15 Despite similar crime rates, each government chose to impose different levels
Today, due to recent declines, U.S. crime rates have dipped below the
international norm. Nevertheless, the United States now boasts an incar-
the new jim crow
ceration rate that is six to ten times greater than that of other industrialized
nations16—a development directly traceable to the drug war. The only country in the world that even comes close to the American rate of incarceration
is Russia, and no other country in the world incarcerates such an astonishing percentage of its racial or ethnic minorities.
The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of
social control unparalleled in world history. And while the size of the system
alone might suggest that it would touch the lives of most Americans, the primary targets of its control can be defined largely by race. This is an astonishing development, especially given that 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.
The growing consensus among experts was perhaps best reflected by the
National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals,
which issued a recommendation in 1973 that “no new institutions for adults
should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed.”17
This recommendation was based on their finding that “the prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is
overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.”18
These days, activists who advocate “a world without prisons” are often
dismissed as quacks, but only a few decades ago, the notion that our society
would be much better off without prisons—and that the end of prisons was
more or less inevitable—not only dominated mainstream academic discourse in the field of criminology but also inspired a national campaign by
reformers demanding a moratorium on prison construction. Marc Mauer,
the executive director of the Sentencing Project, notes that what is most remarkable about the moratorium campaign in retrospect is the context of imprisonment at the time. In 1972, fewer than 350,000 people were being
held in prisons and jails nationwide, compared with more than 2 million
people today. The rate of incarceration in 1972 was at a level so low that it
no longer seems in the realm of possibility, but for moratorium supporters,
that magnitude of imprisonment was egregiously high. “Supporters of the
moratorium effort can be forgiven for being so naïve,” Mauer suggests, “since
the prison expansion that was about to take place was unprecedented in human history.”19 No one imagined that the prison population would more
than quintuple in their lifetime. It seemed far more likely that prisons would
Far from fading away, it appears that prisons are here to stay. And despite the
unprecedented levels of incarceration in the African American community,
the civil rights community is oddly quiet. One in three young African American men is currently under the control of the criminal justice system—in
prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole—yet mass incarceration tends to
be categorized as a criminal justice issue as opposed to a racial justice or
civil rights issue (or crisis).
The attention of civil rights advocates has been largely devoted to other
issues, such as affirmative action. During the past twenty years, virtually
every progressive, national civil rights organization in the country has mobilized and rallied in defense of affirmative action. The struggle to preserve
affirmative action in higher education, and thus maintain diversity in the nation’s most elite colleges and universities, has consumed much of the attention and resources of the civil rights community and dominated racial justice
discourse in the mainstream media, leading the general public to believe
that affirmative action is the main battlefront in U.S. race relations—even
as our prisons fill with black and brown men.
My own experience reflects this dynamic. When I first joined the ACLU,
no one imagined that the Racial Justice Project would focus its attention on
criminal justice reform. The ACLU was engaged in important criminal justice reform work, but no one suspected that work would eventually become
central to the agenda of the Racial Justice Project. The assumption was that
the project would concentrate its efforts on defending affirmative action.
Shortly after leaving the ACLU, I joined the board of directors of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Although
the organization included racial justice among its core priorities, reform of
the criminal justice system was not (and still is not) a major part of its racial
justice work. The Lawyers’ Committee is not alone.
In January 2008, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights—an organiza-
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tion composed of the leadership of more than 180 civil rights organizations—
sent a letter to its allies and supporters informing them of a major initiative
to document the voting record of members of Congress. The letter explained
that its forthcoming report would show “how each representative and senator cast his or her vote on some of the most important civil rights issues of
2007, including voting rights, affirmative action, immigration, nominations,
education, hate crimes, employment, health, housing, and poverty.” Criminal justice issues did not make the list. That same broad-based coalition
organized a major conference in October 2007, entitled Why We Can’t Wait:
Reversing the Retreat on Civil Rights, which included panels discussing
school integration, employment discrimination, housing and lending discrimination, economic justice, environmental justice, disability rights, age
discrimination, and immigrants’ rights. Not a single panel was devoted to
criminal justice reform.
The elected leaders of the African American community have a much
broader mandate than civil rights groups, but they, too, frequently overlook
criminal justice. In January 2009, for example, the Congressional Black
Caucus sent a letter to hundreds of community and organization leaders
who have worked with the caucus over the years, soliciting general information about them and requesting that they identify their priorities. More than
thirty-five topics were listed as areas of potential special interest, including
taxes, defense, immigration, agriculture, housing, banking, higher education, multimedia, transportation and infrastructure, women, seniors, nutrition, faith initiatives, civil rights, census, economic security, and emerging
leaders. No mention was made of criminal justice. “Re-entry” was listed, but
a community leader who was interested in criminal justice reform had to
check the box labeled “other.”
This is not to say that important criminal justice reform work has not been
done. Civil rights advocates have organized vigorous challenges to specific
aspects of the new caste system. One notable example is the successful
challenge led by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to a racist drug sting operation in Tulia, Texas. The 1999 drug bust incarcerated almost 15 percent
of the black population of the town, based on the uncorroborated false
testimony of a single informant hired by the sheriff of Tulia. More recently,
civil rights groups around the country have helped to launch legal attacks
and vibrant grassroots campaigns against felon disenfranchisement laws and
have strenuously opposed discriminatory crack sentencing laws and guidelines, as well as “zero tolerance” policies that effectively funnel youth of
color from schools to jails. The national ACLU recently developed a racial
justice program that includes criminal justice issues among its core priorities and has created a promising Drug Law Reform Project. And thanks to
the aggressive advocacy of the ACLU, NAACP, and other civil rights organizations around the country, racial profiling is widely condemned, even by
members of law enforcement who once openly embraced the practice.
Still, despite these significant developments, there seems to be a lack of
appreciation for the enormity of the crisis at hand. There is no broad-based
movement brewing to end mass incarceration and no advocacy effort that
approaches in scale the fight to preserve affirmative action. There also remains a persistent tendency in the civil rights community to treat the criminal justice system as just another institution infected with lingering racial
bias. The NAACP’s Web site offers one example. As recently as May 2008,
one could find a brief introduction to the organization’s criminal justice work
in the section entitled Legal Department. The introduction explained that
“despite the civil rights victories of our past, racial prejudice still pervades
the criminal justice system.” Visitors to the Web site were urged to join the
NAACP in order to “protect the hard-earned civil rights gains of the past
three decades.” No one visiting the Web site would learn that the mass incarceration of African Americans had already eviscerated many of the hardearned gains it urged its members to protect.
Imagine if civil rights organizations and African American leaders in the
1940s had not placed Jim Crow segregation at the forefront of their racial
justice agenda. It would have seemed absurd, given that racial segregation
was the primary vehicle of racialized social control in the United States
during that period. This book argues that mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow and that all those who care about social justice
should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system.
Mass incarceration—not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil rights
enforcement—is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against
the Civil Rights Movement. The popular narrative that emphasizes the death
of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with
the election of Barack Obama, is dangerously misguided. The colorblind public consensus that prevails in America today—i.e., the widespread belief that
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race no longer matters—has blinded us to the realities of race in our society
and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system.
Clearly, much has changed in my thinking about the criminal justice system
since I passed that bright orange poster stapled to a telephone pole ten years
ago. For me, the new caste system is now as obvious as my own face in the
mirror. Like an optical illusion—one in which the embedded image is impossible to see until its outline is identified—the new caste system lurks invisibly within the maze of rationalizations we have developed for persistent
racial inequality. It is possible—quite easy, in fact—never to see the embedded reality. Only after years of working on criminal justice reform did my
own focus finally shift, and then the rigid caste system slowly came into
view. Eventually it became obvious. Now it seems odd that I could not see
Knowing as I do the difficulty of seeing what most everyone insists does
not exist, I anticipate that this book will be met with skepticism or something worse. For some, the characterization of mass incarceration as a “racial
caste system” may seem like a gross exaggeration, if not hyperbole. Yes, we
may have “classes” in the United States—vaguely defined upper, middle,
and lower classes—and we may even have an “underclass” (a group so estranged from mainstream society that it is no longer in reach of the mythical
ladder of opportunity), but we do not, many will insist, have anything in this
country that resembles a “caste.”
The aim of this book is not to venture into the long-running, vigorous debate in the scholarly literature regarding what does and does not constitute
a caste system. I use the term racial caste in this book the way it is used in
common parlance to denote a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom. Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems.
So is our current system of mass incarceration.
It may be helpful, in attempting to understand the basic nature of the new
caste system, to think of the criminal justice system—the entire collection
of institutions and practices that comprise it—not as an independent system
but rather as a gateway into a much larger system of racial stigmatization and
permanent marginalization. This larger system, referred to here as mass incarceration, is a system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls—walls that are
invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws
once did at locking people of color into a permanent second-class citizenship.
The term mass incarceration refers not only to the criminal justice system
but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control
those labeled criminals both in and out of prison. Once released, former
prisoners enter a hidden underworld of legalized discrimination and permanent social exclusion. They are members of America’s new undercaste.
The language of caste may well seem foreign or unfamiliar to some. Public
discussions about racial caste in America are relatively rare. We avoid talking
about caste in our society because we are ashamed of our racial history. We
also avoid talking about race. We even avoid talking about class. Conversations about class are resisted in part because there is a tendency to imagine
that one’s class reflects upon one’s character. What is key to America’s understanding of class is the persistent belief—despite all evidence to the
contrary—that anyone, with the proper discipline and drive, can move from
a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult,
but the key to our collective self-image is the assumption that mobility is always possible, so failure to move up reflects on one’s character. By extension, the failure of a race or ethnic group to move up reflects very poorly on
the group as a whole.
What is completely missed in the rare public debates today about the
plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free
to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor
schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so.
And the major institutions with which they come into contact are designed
to prevent their mobility. To put the matter starkly: The current system of
control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates
through our criminal justice institutions, but it functions more like a caste
system than a system of crime control. Viewed from this perspective, the socalled underclass is better understood as an undercaste—a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream
society. Although this new system of racialized social control purports to be
colorblind, it creates and maintains racial hierarchy much as earlier systems
of control did. 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.
the new jim crow
This argument may be particularly hard to swallow given the election of
Barack Obama. Many will wonder how a nation that just elected its first
black president could possibly have a racial caste system. It’s a fair question.
But as discussed in chapter 6, 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. Others may wonder how a racial caste system could exist
when most Americans—of all colors—oppose race discrimination and endorse colorblindness. Yet as we shall see in the pages that follow, 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 fortyfive years ago.
The recent decisions by some state legislatures, most notably New York’s,
to repeal or reduce mandatory drug sentencing laws have led some to believe
that the system of racial control described in this book is already fading
away. Such a conclusion, I believe, is a serious mistake. Many of the states
that have reconsidered their harsh sentencing schemes have done so not out
of concern for the lives and families that have been destroyed by these laws
or the racial dimensions of the drug war, but out of concern for bursting state
budgets in a time of economic recession. In other words, the racial ideology
that gave rise to these laws remains largely undisturbed. Changing economic
conditions or rising crime rates could easily result in a reversal of fortunes
for those who commit drug crimes, particularly if the drug criminals are perceived to be black and brown. Equally important to understand is this:
Merely reducing sentence length, by itself, does not disturb the basic architecture of the New Jim Crow. So long as large numbers of African Americans continue to be arrested and labeled drug criminals, they will continue
to be relegated to a permanent second-class status upon their release, no
matter how much (or how little) time they spend behind bars. The system of
mass incarceration is based on the prison label, not prison time.
Skepticism about the claims made here is warranted. There are important
differences, to be sure, among mass incarceration, Jim Crow, and slavery—
the three major racialized systems of control adopted in the United States
to date. Failure to acknowledge the relevant differences, as well as their
implications, would be a disservice to racial justice discourse. Many of the
differences are not as dramatic as they initially appear, however; others serve
to illustrate the ways in which systems of racialized social control have managed to morph, evolve, and adapt to changes in the political, social, and legal
context over time. Ultimately, I believe that the similarities between these
systems of control overwhelm the differences and that mass incarceration,
like its predecessors, has been largely immunized from legal challenge. If
this claim is substantially correct, the implications for racial justice advocacy are profound.
With the benefit of hindsight, surely we can see that piecemeal policy reform or litigation alone would have been a futile approach to dismantling
Jim Crow segregation. While those strategies certainly had their place, the
Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the concomitant cultural shift would never
have occurred without the cultivation of a critical political consciousness in
the African American community and the widespread, strategic activism
that flowed from it. Likewise, the notion that the New Jim Crow can ever be
dismantled through traditional litigation and policy-reform strategies that
are wholly disconnected from a major social movement seems fundamentally misguided.
Such a movement is impossible, though, if those most committed to abolishing racial hierarchy continue to talk and behave as if a state-sponsored
racial caste system no longer exists. If we continue to tell ourselves the popular myths about racial progress or, worse yet, if we say to ourselves that the
problem of mass incarceration is just too big, too daunting for us to do anything about and that we should instead direct our energies to battles that
might be more easily won, history will judge us harshly. A human rights
nightmare is occurring on our watch.
A new social consensus must be forged about race and the role of race in
defining the basic structure of our society, if we hope ever to abolish the
New Jim Crow. This new consensus must begin with dialogue, a conversation that fosters a critical consciousness, a key prerequisite to effective social action. This book is an attempt to ensure that the conversation does not
end with nervous laughter.
It is not possible to write a relatively short book that explores all aspects of
the phenomenon of mass incarceration and its implications for racial justice. No attempt has been made to do so here. This book paints with a broad
brush, and as a result, many important issues have not received the attention they deserve. For example, relatively little is said here about the unique
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experience of women, Latinos, and immigrants in the criminal justice system, though these groups are particularly vulnerable to the worst abuses and
suffer in ways that are important and distinct. This book focuses on the experience of African American men in the new caste system. I hope other
scholars and advocates will pick up where the book leaves off and develop
the critique more fully or apply the themes sketched here to other groups
and other contexts.
What this book is intended to do—the only thing it is intended to do—is
to stimulate a much-needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United
States. 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. The fact that more than half of the young black
men in any large American city are currently under the control of the criminal justice system (or saddled with criminal records) is not—as many argue—
just a symptom of poverty or poor choices, but rather evidence of a new
racial caste system at work.
Chapter 1 begins our journey. It briefly reviews the history of racialized
social control in the United States, answering the basic question: How did
we get here? The chapter describes the control of African Americans through
racial caste systems, such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die but
then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the
time. As we shall see, there is a certain pattern to the births and deaths of
racial caste in America. Time and again, the most ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have succeeded in creating new caste systems by triggering a
collapse of resistance across the political spectrum. This feat has been
achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class
whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they
never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American totem pole.
This pattern, dating back to slavery, has birthed yet another racial caste system in the United States: mass incarceration.
The structure of mass incarceration is described in some detail in chapter 2, with a focus on the War on Drugs. Few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the drug war, and enormous financial incentives have been
granted to law enforcement to engage in mass drug arrests through militarystyle tactics. Once swept into the system, one’s chances of ever being truly
free are slim, often to the vanishing point. Defendants are typically denied
meaningful legal representation, pressured by the threat of lengthy sentences into a plea bargain, and then placed under formal control—in prison
or jail, on probation or parole. Upon release, ex-offenders are discriminated
against, legally, for the rest of their lives, and most will eventually return to
prison. They are members of America’s new undercaste.
Chapter 3 turns our attention to the role of race in the U.S. criminal justice system. It describes the method to the madness—how a formally raceneutral criminal justice system can manage to round up, arrest, and imprison
an extraordinary number of black and brown men, when people of color are
actually no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes and many other offenses
than whites. This chapter debunks the notion that rates of black imprisonment can be explained by crime rates and identifies the huge racial disparities at every stage of the criminal justice process—from the initial stop,
search, and arrest to the plea bargaining and sentencing phases. In short,
the chapter explains how the legal rules that structure the system guarantee
discriminatory results. These legal rules ensure that the undercaste is overwhelmingly black and brown.
Chapter 4 considers how the caste system operates once people are released from prison. In many respects, release from prison does not represent
the beginning of freedom but instead a cruel new phase of stigmatization
and control. Myriad laws, rules, and regulations discriminate against exoffenders and effectively prevent their meaningful re-integration into the
mainstream economy and society. I argue that the shame and stigma of the
“prison label” is, in many respects, more damaging to the African American
community than the shame and stigma associated with Jim Crow. The criminalization and demonization of black men has turned the black community
against itself, unraveling community and family relationships, decimating
networks of mutual support, and intensifying the shame and self-hate experienced by the current pariah caste.
The many parallels between mass incarceration and Jim Crow are explored in chapter 5. The most obvious parallel is legalized discrimination. Like
Jim Crow, mass incarceration marginalizes large segments of the African
American community, segregates them physically (in prisons, jails, and ghettos), and then authorizes discrimination against them in voting, employment,
housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. The federal court system has effectively immunized the current system from challenges on the
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grounds of racial bias, much as earlier systems of control were protected and
endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The parallels do not end there, however. Mass incarceration, like Jim Crow, helps to define the meaning and
significance of race in America. Indeed, the stigma of criminality functions
in much the same way that the stigma of race once did. It justifies a legal,
social, and economic boundary between “us” and “them.” Chapter 5 also
explores some of the differences among slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, most significantly the fact that mass incarceration is designed to
warehouse a population deemed disposable—unnecessary to the functioning of the new global economy—while earlier systems of control were designed to exploit and control black labor. In addition, the chapter discusses
the experience of white people in this new caste system; although they have
not been the primary targets of the drug war, they have been harmed by it—
a powerful illustration of how a racial state can harm people of all colors.
Finally, this chapter responds to skeptics who claim that mass incarceration
cannot be understood as a racial caste system because many “get tough on
crime” policies are supported by African Americans. Many of these claims, I
note, are no more persuasive today than arguments made a hundred years
ago by blacks and whites who claimed that racial segregation simply reflected “reality,” not racial animus, and that African Americans would be
better off not challenging the Jim Crow system but should focus instead on
improving themselves within it. Throughout our history, there have been African Americans who, for a variety of reasons, have defended or been complicit with the prevailing system of control.
Chapter 6 reflects on what acknowledging the presence of the New Jim
Crow means for the future of civil rights advocacy. I argue that nothing short
of a major social movement can successfully dismantle the new caste system. Meaningful reforms can be achieved without such a movement, but
unless the public consensus supporting the current system is completely
overturned, the basic structure of the new caste system will remain intact.
Building a broad-based social movement, however, is not enough. It is not
nearly enough to persuade mainstream voters that we have relied too heavily
on incarceration or that drug abuse is a public health problem, not a crime.
If the movement that emerges to challenge mass incarceration fails to confront squarely the critical role of race in the basic structure of our society,
and if it fails to cultivate an ethic of genuine care, compassion, and concern
for every human being—of every class, race, and nationality—within our
nation’s borders (including poor whites, who are often pitted against poor
people of color), the collapse of mass incarceration will not mean the death
of racial caste in America. Inevitably a new system of racialized social control will emerge—one that we cannot foresee, just as the current system of
mass incarceration was not predicted by anyone thirty years ago. No task is
more urgent for racial justice advocates today than ensuring that America’s
current racial caste system is its last.
The Rebirth of Caste
[T]he slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again
—W.E.B Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America
For more than one hundred years, scholars have written about the illusory
nature of the Emancipation Proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln issued
a declaration purporting to free slaves held in Southern Confederate states,
but not a single black slave was actually free to walk away from a master in
those states as a result. A civil war had to be won first, hundreds of thousands
of lives lost, and then—only then—were slaves across the South set free.
Even that freedom proved illusory, though. As W.E.B. Du Bois eloquently
reminds us, former slaves had “a brief moment in the sun” before they were
returned to a status akin to slavery. Constitutional amendments guaranteeing African Americans “equal protection of the laws” and the right to vote
proved as impotent as the Emancipation Proclamation once a white backlash against Reconstruction gained steam. Black people found themselves yet
again powerless and relegated to convict leasing camps that were, in many
ways, worse than slavery. Sunshine gave way to darkness, and the Jim Crow
system of segregation emerged—a system that put black people nearly back
where they began, in a subordinate racial caste.
Few find it surprising that Jim Crow arose following the collapse of slavery.
The development is described in history books as regrettable but predictable,
given the virulent racism that gripped the South and the political dynamics
the rebirth of caste
of the time. What is remarkable is that hardly anyone seems to imagine that
similar political dynamics may have produced another caste system in the
years following the collapse of Jim Crow—one that exists today. The story
that is told during Black History Month is one of triumph; the system of racial caste is officially dead and buried. Suggestions to the contrary are frequently met with shocked disbelief. The standard reply is: “How can you say
that a racial caste system exists today? Just look at Barack Obama! Just look at
The fact that some African Americans have experienced great success in
recent years does not mean that something akin to a racial caste system no
longer exists. No caste system in the United States has ever governed all
black people; there have always been “free blacks” and black success stories,
even during slavery and Jim Crow. The superlative nature of individual black
achievement today in formerly white domains is a good indicator that Jim
Crow is dead, but it does not necessarily mean the end of racial caste. If history is any guide, it may have simply taken a different form.
Any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge that
racism is highly adaptable. The rules and reasons the political system employs to enforce status relations of any kind, including racial hierarchy,
evolve and change as they are challenged. The valiant efforts to abolish slavery and Jim Crow and to achieve greater racial equality have brought about
significant changes in the legal framework of American society—new “rules
of the game,” so to speak. These new rules have been justified by new rhetoric, new language, and a new social consensus, while producing many of the
same results. This dynamic, which legal scholar Reva Siegel has dubbed
“preservation through transformation,” is the process through which white
privilege is maintained, though the rules and rhetoric change.1
This process, though difficult to recognize at any given moment, is easier
to see in retrospect. Since the nation’s founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow,
which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs
and constraints of the time. As described in the pages that follow, there is a
certain pattern to this cycle. Following the collapse of each system of control, there has been a period of confusion—transition—in which those who
are most committed to racial hierarchy search for new means to achieve
their goals within the rules of the game as currently defined. It is during this
period of uncertainty that the backlash intensifies and a new form of racial-
the new jim crow
ized social control begins to take hold. The adoption of the new system of
control is never inevitable, but to date it has never been avoided. The most
ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have consistently succeeded in implementing new racial caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across
the political spectrum. This feat has been achieved largely by appealing to
the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites, a group of people who are
understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at
the bottom of the American hierarchy.
The emergence of each new system of control may seem sudden, but history
shows that the seeds are planted long before each new institution begins to
grow. For example, although it is common to think of the Jim Crow regime following immediately on the heels of Reconstruction, the truth is more complicated. And while it is generally believed that the backlash against the Civil
Rights Movement is defined primarily by the rollback of affirmative action
and the undermining of federal civil rights legislation by a hostile judiciary,
the seeds of the new system of control—mass incarceration—were planted
during the Civil Rights Movement itself, when it became clear that the old
caste system was crumbling and a new one would have to take its place.
With each reincarnation of racial caste, the new system, as sociologist
Loïc Wacquant puts it, “is less total, less capable of encompassing and controlling the entire race.”2 However, any notion that this evolution reflects
some kind of linear progress would be misguided, for it is not at all obvious
that it would be better to be incarcerated for life for a minor drug offense
than to live with one’s family, earning an honest living under the Jim Crow
regime—notwithstanding the ever-present threat of the Klan. Moreover, as
the systems of control have evolved, they have become perfected, arguably
more resilient to challenge, and thus capable of enduring for generations to
come. The story of the political and economic underpinnings of the nation’s
founding sheds some light on these recurring themes in our history and the
reasons new racial caste systems continue to be born.
The Birth of Slavery
Back there, before Jim Crow, before the invention of the Negro or the white
man or the words and concepts to describe them, the Colonial population con-
the rebirth of caste
sisted largely of a great mass of white and black bondsmen, who occupied
roughly the same economic category and were treated with equal contempt by
the lords of the plantations and legislatures. Curiously unconcerned about their
color, these people worked together and relaxed together.3
—Lerone Bennett Jr.
The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past
few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world’s people
been classified along racial lines.4 Here, in America, the idea of race emerged
as a means of reconciling chattel slavery—as well as the extermination of
American Indians—with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the
In the early colonial period, when settlements remained relatively small,
indentured servitude was the dominant means of securing cheap labor. Under this system, whites and blacks struggled to survive against a common
enemy, what historian Lerone Bennett Jr. describes as “the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against black and white bondsmen.”5 Initially, blacks brought to this country were not all enslaved; many
were treated as indentured servants. As plantation farming expanded, particularly tobacco and cotton farming, demand increased greatly for both labor and land.
The demand for land was met by invading and conquering larger and larger
swaths of territory. American Indians became a growing impediment to white
European “progress,” and during this period, the images of American Indians
promoted in books, newspapers, and magazines became increasingly negative.
As sociologists Keith Kilty and Eric Swank have observed, eliminating “savages”
is less of a moral problem than eliminating human beings, and therefore American Indians came to be understood as a lesser race—uncivilized savages—
thus providing a justification for the extermination of the native peoples.6
The growing demand for labor on plantations was met through slavery.
American Indians were considered unsuitable as slaves, largely because native tribes were clearly in a position to fight back. The fear of raids by Indian
tribes led plantation owners to grasp for an alternative source of free labor.
European immigrants were also deemed poor candidates for slavery, not
because of their race, but rather because they were in short supply and enslavement would, quite naturally, interfere with voluntary immigration to the
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new colonies. Plantation owners thus viewed Africans, who were relatively
powerless, as the ideal slaves. The systematic enslavement of Africans, and
the rearing of their children under bondage, emerged with all deliberate
speed—quickened by events such as Bacon’s Rebellion.
Nathaniel Bacon was a white property owner in Jamestown, Virginia, who
managed to unite slaves, indentured servants, and poor whites in a revolutionary effort to overthrow the planter elite. Although slaves clearly occupied
the lowest position in the social hierarchy and suffered the most under the
plantation system, the condition of indentured whites was barely better, and
the majority of free whites lived in extreme poverty. As explained by historian
Edmund Morgan, in colonies like Virginia, the planter elite, with huge land
grants, occupied a vastly superior position to workers of all colors.7 Southern
colonies did not hesitate to invent ways to extend the terms of servitude, and
the planter class accumulated uncultivated lands to restrict the options of
free workers. The simmering resentment against the planter class created
conditions that were ripe for revolt.
Varying accounts of Bacon’s rebellion abound, but the basic facts are these:
Bacon developed plans in 1675 to seize Native American lands in order to
acquire more property for himself and others and nullify the threat of Indian
raids. When the planter elite in Virginia refused to provide militia support
for his scheme, Bacon retaliated, leading an attack on the elite, their homes,
and their property. He openly condemned the rich for their oppression of the
poor and inspired an alliance of white and black bond laborers, as well as
slaves, who demanded an end to their servitude. The attempted revolution
was ended by force and false promises of amnesty. A number of the people
who participated in the revolt were hanged. The events in Jamestown were
alarming to the planter elite, who were deeply fearful of the multiracial alliance of bond workers and slaves. Word of Bacon’s rebellion spread far and
wide, and several more uprisings of a similar type followed.
In an effort to protect their superior status and economic position, the
planters shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance. They abandoned
their heavy reliance on indentured servants in favor of the importation of
more black slaves. Instead of importing English-speaking slaves from the
West Indies, who were more likely to be familiar with European language
and culture, many more slaves were shipped directly from Africa. These
slaves would be far easier to control and far less likely to form alliances with
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Fearful that such measures might not be sufficient to protect their interests,
the planter class took an additional precautionary step, a step that would
later come to be known as a “racial bribe.” Deliberately and strategically, the
planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive
a wedge between them and black slaves. White settlers were allowed greater
access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police
slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that
free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves
and poor whites. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the
existence of a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they were not slaves. Once the planter elite
split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and
sought ways to expand their racially privileged position.8
By the mid-1770s, the system of bond labor had been thoroughly transformed into a racial caste system predicated on slavery. The degraded status
of Africans was justified on the ground that Negros, like the Indians, were
an uncivilized lesser race, perhaps even more lacking in intelligence and
laudable human qualities than the red-skinned natives. The notion of white
supremacy rationalized the enslavement of Africans, even as whites endeavored to form a new nation based on the ideals of equality, liberty, and justice
for all. Before democracy, chattel slavery in America was born.
It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the
basic structure of American society. The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste
system—slavery—while at the same time affording political and economic
rights to whites, especially propertied whites. The southern slaveholding
colonies would agree to form a union only on the condition that the federal
government would not be able to interfere with the right to own slaves.
Northern white elites were sympathetic to the demand for their “property
rights” to be respected, as they, too, wanted the Constitution to protect their
property interests. As James Madison put it, the nation ought to be constituted “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”9 Consequently, the Constitution was designed so the federal government would be
weak, not only in its relationship to private property, but also in relationship
to the rights of states to conduct their own affairs. The language of the Constitution itself was deliberately colorblind (the words slave or Negro were
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never used), but the document was built upon a compromise regarding the
prevailing racial caste system. Federalism—the division of power between
the states and the federal government—was the device employed to protect
the institution of slavery and the political power of slaveholding states. Even
the method for determining proportional representation in Congress and
identifying the winner of a presidential election (the electoral college) were
specifically developed with the interest of slaveholders in mind. Under the
terms of our country’s founding document, slaves were defined as threefifths of a man, not a real, whole human being. Upon this racist fiction rests
the entire structure of American democracy.
The Death of Slavery
The history of racial caste in the United States would end with the Civil War
if the idea of race and racial difference had died when the institution of slavery was put to rest. But during the four centuries in which slavery flourished,
the idea of race flourished as well. Indeed, the notion of racial difference—
specifically the notion of white supremacy—proved far more durable than
the institution that gave birth to it.
White supremacy, over time, became a religion of sorts. Faith in the idea
that people of the African race were bestial, that whites were inherently superior, and that slavery was, in fact, for blacks’ own good, served to alleviate
the white conscience and reconcile the tension between slavery and the
democratic ideals espoused by whites in the so-called New World. There
was no contradiction in the bold claim made by Thomas Jefferson in the
Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” if Africans
were not really people. Racism operated as a deeply held belief system based
on “truths” beyond question or doubt. This deep faith in white supremacy
not only justified an economic and political system in which plantation owners acquired land and great wealth through the brutality, torture, and coercion of other human beings; it also endured, like most articles of faith, long
after the historical circumstances that gave rise to the religion passed away.
In Wacquant’s words: “Racial division was a consequence, not a precondition of slavery, but once it was instituted it became detached from its initial
function and acquired a social potency all its own.”10 After the death of slavery, the idea of race lived on.
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One of the most compelling accounts of the postemancipation period is
The Strange Career of Jim Crow, written by C. Vann Woodward in 1955.11
The book continues to be the focal point of study and debate by scholars and
was once described by Martin Luther King Jr. as the “historical bible of the
Civil Rights Movement.” As Woodward tells the story, the end of slavery created an extraordinary dilemma for Southern white society. Without the labor
of former slaves, the region’s economy would surely collapse, and without
the institution of slavery, there was no longer a formal mechanism for maintaining racial hierarchy and preventing “amalgamation” with a group of
people considered intrinsically inferior and vile. This state of affairs produced a temporary anarchy and a state of mind bordering on hysteria, particularly among the planter elite. But even among poor whites, the collapse
of slavery was a bitter pill. In the antebellum South, the lowliest white person at least possessed his or her white skin—a badge of superiority over even
the most skilled slave or prosperous free African American.
While Southern whites—poor and rich alike—were utterly outraged by
emancipation, there was no obvious solution to the dilemma they faced. Following the Civil War, the economic and political infrastructure of the South
was in shambles. Plantation owners were suddenly destitute, and state governments, shackled by war debt, were penniless. Large amounts of real estate
and other property had been destroyed in the war, industry was disorganized,
and hundreds of thousands of men had been killed or maimed. With all of
this went the demoralizing effect of an unsuccessful war and the extraordinary challenges associated with rebuilding new state and local governments.
Add to all this the sudden presence of 4 million newly freed slaves, and the
picture becomes even more complicated. Southern whites, Woodward explains, strongly believed that a new system of racial control was clearly required, but it was not immediately obvious what form it should take.
Under slavery, the racial order was most effectively maintained by a large
degree of contact between slave owners and slaves, thus maximizing opportunities for supervision and discipline, and minimizing the potential for active resistance or rebellion. Strict separation of the races would have
threatened slaveholders’ immediate interests and was, in any event, wholly
unnecessary as a means of creating social distance or establishing the inferior status of slaves.
Following the Civil War, it was unclear what institutions, laws, or customs
would be necessary to maintain white control now that slavery was gone.
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Nonetheless, as numerous historians have shown, the development of a new
racial order became the consuming passion for most white Southerners. Rumors of a great insurrection terrified whites, and blacks increasingly came to
be viewed as menacing and dangerous. In fact, the current stereotypes of
black men as aggressive, unruly predators can be traced to this period, when
whites feared that an angry mass of black men might rise up and attack them
or rape their women.
Equally worrisome was the state of the economy. Former slaves literally
walked away from their plantations, causing panic and outrage among plantation owners. Large numbers of former slaves roamed the highways in the
early years after the war. Some converged on towns and cities; others joined
the federal militia. Most white people believed African Americans lacked
the proper motivation to work, prompting the provisional Southern legislatures to adopt the notorious black codes. As expressed by one Alabama planter:
“We have the power to pass stringent police laws to govern the Negroes—
this is a blessing—for they must be controlled in some way or white people
cannot live among them.”12 While some of these codes were intended to
establish systems of peonage resembling slavery, others foreshadowed Jim
Crow laws by prohibiting, among other things, interracial seating in the firstclass sections of railroad cars and by segregating schools.
Although the convict laws enacted during this period are rarely seen as
part of the black codes, that is a mistake. As explained by historian William
Cohen, “the main purpose of the codes was to control the freedmen, and the
question of how to handle convicted black law breakers was very much at
the center of the control issue.”13 Nine southern states adopted vagrancy
laws—which essentially made it a criminal offense not to work and were applied selectively to blacks—and eight of those states enacted convict laws
allowing for the hiring-out of county prisoners to plantation owners and private companies. Prisoners were forced to work for little or no pay. One vagrancy act specifically provided that “all free negroes and mulattoes over the
age of eighteen” must have written proof of a job at the beginning of every
year. Those found with no lawful employment were deemed vagrants and
convicted. Clearly, the purpose of the black codes in general and the vagrancy laws in particular was to establish another system of forced labor. In
W.E.B. Du Bois’s words: “The Codes spoke for themselves. . . . No openminded student can read them without being convinced they meant nothing
more nor less than slavery in daily toil.”14
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Ultimately, the black codes were overturned, and a slew of federal civil
rights legislation protecting the newly freed slaves was passed during the
relatively brief but extraordinary period of black advancement known as the
Reconstruction Era. The impressive legislative achievements of this period
include the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery; the Civil Rights Act
of 1866, bestowing full citizenship upon African Americans; the Fourteenth
Amendment, prohibiting states from denying citizens due process and “equal
protection of the laws”; the Fifteenth Amendment, providing that the right
to vote should not be denied on account of race; and the Ku Klux Klan Acts,
which, among other things, declared interference with voting a federal offense and the violent infringement of civil rights a crime. The new legislation
also provided for federal supervision of voting and authorized the president
to send the army and suspend the writ of habeas corpus in districts declared
to be in a state of insurrection against the federal government.
In addition to federal civil rights legislation, the Reconstruction Era
brought the expansion of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the agency charged with
the responsibility of providing food, clothing, fuel, and other forms of assistance to destitute former slaves. A public education system emerged in the
South, which afforded many blacks (and poor whites) their first opportunity
to learn to read and write.
While the Reconstruction Era was fraught with corruption and arguably
doomed by the lack of land reform, the sweeping economic and political developments in that period did appear, at least for a time, to have the potential to seriously undermine, if not completely eradicate, the racial caste
system in the South. With the protection of federal troops, African Americans began to vote in large numbers and seize control, in some areas, of the
local political apparatus. Literacy rates climbed, and educated blacks began
to populate legislatures, open schools, and initiate successful businesses. In
1867, at the dawn of the Reconstruction Era, no black man held political
office in the South, yet three years later, at least 15 percent of all Southern
elected officials were black. This is particularly extraordinary in light of the
fact that fifteen years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—
the high water mark of the Civil Rights Movement—fewer than 8 percent of
all Southern elected officials were black.15
At the same time, however, many of the new civil rights laws were proving
largely symbolic.16 Notably absent from the Fifteenth Amendment, for example, was language prohibiting the states from imposing educational, resi-
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dential, or other qualifications for voting, thus leaving the door open to
the states to impose poll taxes, literacy tests, and other devices to prevent
blacks from voting. Other laws revealed themselves as more an assertion of
principle than direct federal intervention into Southern affairs, because enforcement required African Americans to take their cases to federal courts,
a costly and time-consuming procedure that was a practical impossibility for
the vast majority of those who had claims. Most blacks were too poor to sue
to enforce their civil rights, and no organization like the NAACP yet existed
to spread the risks and costs of litigation. Moreover, the threat of violence
often deterred blacks from pressing legitimate claims, making the “civil
rights” of former slaves largely illusory—existing on paper but rarely to be
found in real life.
Meanwhile, the separation of the races had begun to emerge as a comprehensive pattern throughout the South, driven in large part by the rhetoric of
the planter elite, who hoped to re-establish a system of control that would
ensure a low-paid, submissive labor force. Racial segregation had actually
begun years earlier in the North, as an effort to prevent race-mixing and preserve racial hierarchy following the abolition of Northern slavery. It had
never developed, however, into a comprehensive system—operating instead
largely as a matter of custom, enforced with varying degrees of consistency.
Even among those most hostile to Reconstruction, few would have predicted
that racial segregation would soon evolve into a new racial caste system as
stunningly comprehensive and repressive as the one that came to be known
simply as Jim Crow.
The Birth of Jim Crow
The backlash against the gains of African Americans in the Reconstruction
Era was swift and severe. As African Americans obtained political power and
began the long march toward greater social and economic equality, whites
reacted with panic and outrage. Southern conservatives vowed to reverse
Reconstruction and sought the “abolition of the Freedmen’s Bureau and all
political instrumentalities designed to secure Negro supremacy.”17 Their
campaign to “redeem” the South was reinforced by a resurgent Ku Klux Klan,
which fought a terrorist campaign against Reconstruction governments and
local leaders, complete with bombings, lynchings, and mob violence.
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The terrorist campaign proved highly successful. “Redemption” resulted
in the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the effective abandonment of African Americans and all those who had fought for or supported an egalitarian racial order. The federal government no longer made
any effort to enforce federal civil rights legislation, and funding for the
Freedmen’s Bureau was slashed to such a degree that the agency became
Once again, vagrancy laws and other laws defining activities such as “mischief ” and “insulting gestures” as crimes were enforced vigorously against
blacks. The aggressive enforcement of these criminal offenses opened up an
enormous market for convict leasing, in which prisoners were contracted
out as laborers to the highest private bidder. Douglas Blackmon, in Slavery
by Another Name, describes how tens of thousands of African Americans
were arbitrarily arrested during this period, many of them hit with court
costs and fines, which had to be worked off in order to secure their release.18
With no means to pay off their “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, farms, plantations, and dozens of
corporations throughout the South. Death rates were shockingly high, for
the private contractors had no interest in the health and well-being of their
laborers, unlike the earlier slave-owners who needed their slaves, at a minimum, to be healthy enough to survive hard labor. Laborers were subject to
almost continual lashing by long horse whips, and those who collapsed due
to injuries or exhaustion were often left to die.
Convicts had no meaningful legal rights at this time and no effective redress. They were understood, quite literally, to be slaves of the state. The
Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had abolished slavery but
allowed one major exception: slavery remained appropriate as punishment
for a crime. In a landmark decision by the Virginia Supreme Court, Ruffin v.
Commonwealth, issued at the height of Southern Redemption, the court put
to rest any notion that convicts were legally distinguishable from slaves:
For a time, during his service in the penitentiary, he is in a state of penal
servitude to the State. He has, as a consequence of his crime, not only
forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the
law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being a slave of
the State. He is civiliter mortus; and his estate, if he has any, is administered like that of a dead man.19
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The state of Mississippi eventually moved from hiring convict labor to organizing its own convict labor camp, known as Parchman Farm. It was not
alone. During the decade following Redemption, the convict population grew
ten times faster than the general population: “Prisoners became younger and
blacker, and the length of their sentences soared.”20 It was the nation’s first
prison boom and, as they are today, the prisoners were disproportionately
black. After a brief period of progress during Reconstruction, African Americans found themselves, once again, virtually defenseless. The criminal justice system was strategically employed to force African Americans back into
a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to
prove successful for generations to come. Even as convict leasing faded
away, strategic forms of exploitation and repression emerged anew. As Blackmon notes: “The apparent demise . . . of leasing prisoners seemed a harbinger of a new day. But the harsher reality of the South was that the new
post–Civil War neoslavery was evolving—not disappearing.”21
Redemption marked a turning point in the quest by dominant whites for
a new racial equilibrium, a racial order that would protect their economic,
political, and social interests in a world without slavery. Yet a clear consensus
among whites about what the new racial order should be was still lacking.
The Redeemers who overthrew Reconstruction were inclined to retain such
segregation practices as had already emerged, but they displayed no apparent disposition to expand or universalize the system.
Three alternative philosophies of race relations were put forward to compete for the region’s support, all of which rejected the doctrines of extreme
racism espoused by some Redeemers: liberalism, conservatism, and radicalism.22 The liberal philosophy of race relations emphasized the stigma of segregation and the hypocrisy of a government that celebrates freedom and
equality yet denies both on account of race. This philosophy, born in the
North, never gained much traction among Southern whites or blacks.
The conservative philosophy, by contrast, attracted wide support and was
implemented in various contexts over a considerable period of time. Conservatives blamed liberals for pushing blacks ahead of their proper station in
life and placing blacks in positions they were unprepared to fill, a circumstance that had allegedly contributed to their downfall. They warned blacks
that some Redeemers were not satisfied with having decimated Reconstruction, and were prepared to wage an aggressive war against blacks throughout
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the South. With some success, the conservatives reached out to African
American voters, reminding them that they had something to lose as well as
gain and that the liberals’ preoccupation with political and economic equality presented the danger of losing all that blacks had so far gained.
The radical philosophy offered, for many African Americans, the most
promise. It was predicated on a searing critique of large corporations, particularly railroads, and the wealthy elite in the North and South. The radicals
of the late nineteenth century, who later formed the Populist Party, viewed
the privileged classes as conspiring to keep poor whites and blacks locked into
a subordinate political and economic position. For many African American
voters, the Populist approach was preferable to the paternalism of liberals.
Populists preached an “equalitarianism of want and poverty, the kinship of a
common grievance, and a common oppressor.”23 As described by Tom Watson, a prominent Populist leader, in a speech advocating a union between
black and white farmers: “You are kept apart that you may be separately
fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that
hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism that enslaves
you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race
antagonism perpetuates a monet…
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