This Week’s Mtg: Is Our Mass Incarceration System Racist?

We’re not a book club.  Our discussions are too broad, plus no one would read the books anyway.  Yet, a book I read this year is so important that I wanted to devote an entire meeting to exploring its ideas.  It’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander.  Below are links to short articles about the book and some summaries of it’s thesis by the author.

The New Jim Crow makes the astounding charge that the American system of mass incarceration (especially its drug laws) comprise nothing less than a system of racial control – partly intentionally and partly unintentionally.  She marshals a lot of evidence and some persuasive arguments for how a formally colorblind system of laws, regulations, rules, and customs can have become a racial caste system.  Her arguments are not above criticism, of course.  But, I think this neglected topic is so important as to merit a meeting of its own.

Please try to read a few of the links below, at least the one article written by the book’s author, to get the basic idea.  On Thursday, I’ll open us up by explaining the basics of her argument.  I’ll focus not on the highly racialized impact of our mass incarceration system, which we all should know about, but on why it might be reasonable to go so far as to say the system is a deliberate system of racial control.



  1. Does our criminal justice system in fact disproportionately target people of color?  How could this be so given that our laws our formally race-neutral?
  2. Does the system create a “permanent racial caste system,” as the author says?
  3. Is this justifiable; e.g., isn’t that where all of the crime is, or at least where all of the violent crime is?
  4. If it’s not justifiable, then why do we do it?  What evidence exists that our mass incarceration system is a deliberate effort to perpetuate a racial caste system?  Could it be more from neglect and apathy than from overt racial hatred?
  5. How can we get Americans to talk about this subject in a calm, rational manner, given that race and crime and class are involved?



To be able to discuss topics like this is one of the reasons this group ostensibly exists.  One thing that might help us to do it in a civilized way:  This is not one of those problems we can just blame the Right for and be done with it.  Our mass incarceration system developed over 30 years and has been supported across the political spectrum.  Ponder that, and why that might be, in preparation for Thursday.


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