A Reflection on “The New Jim Crow” and the Myth of Racial Progress

Michelle Alexander, author of the New Jim Crow

About “The New Jim Crow”

As writer, legal scholar, civil rights litigator and activist Michelle Alexander stated in “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” progress towards racial equity is not linear. Her 2010 bestseller came across my radar two years ago in an undergraduate class on mass incarceration in America. It arguably revolutionized the discourse around racial justice in the United States.

Alexander describes how the same systemic racism and oppression targeting Black people during chattel slavery and the Jim Crow era has become masqueraded through mass incarceration and hyper-policing of Black people in the United States. Alexander documents how Black folks have been relegated to a lower social caste over time. In other words, racial hierarchy has persisted over generations. This persistence is evident in nearly every institution in society (i.e. education, employment, health care, etc.). Alexander’s case study of the criminal justice system is masterful.

I remember how this framing in “The New Jim Crow” showed a clear historical thread, from slavery to the prison industrial complex as we know it today. If you haven’t read Alexander’s work, it’s a drop-everything kind of book for learning about the racism baked into the criminal justice system. It allows one to develop a new understanding how institutional racism is virulent and has evolved through recent American history.

 

Debunking The Myth

Michelle Alexander makes it abundantly clear that we are not in a mythical post-racial society. Yes *eyeroll*. Even though Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, or because Oprah Winfrey has enjoyed a success story. A number of other Black scholars have challenged attempts to declare the United States a post-racial society. For me, a few columns in The Atlantic so aptly challenged the post-racial rhetoric. This is so often touted by white conservative politicians aiming to sustain a racial hierarchy. I think of them every time I hear something like “America is not racist” or “I don’t see color.”

 

Fellow proponents of Alexander’s perspective

Jennifer Richeson,PhD – social psychologist at Yale University, advisor at the White House, and scholar on racial identity – agrees with Alexander.

Dr. Richeson captures exactly the problem with this kind of ideology. She writes, “the mythology of racial progress distorts our perceptions of reality; perhaps more significantly, it absolves us of responsibility for changing that reality. Progress is seen as natural and inevitable—inescapable, like the laws of physics. Backsliding is unlikely. Vigilance is unnecessary.”

We fail to acknowledge the racist systems that exist today, merely because we’ve moved quickly and linearly beyond “when things were worse.”

Ibram X. Kendi – Antiracist activist, author, professor, and historian – provides insight as well.

Kendi wrote another amazing piece for The Atlantic, dutifully sharing his reactions to Obama’s election and calling attention to many of the inequities between white and Black people in the US. COVID, health care, income, police violence, college debt, insurance, congressional representation. You name it. Kendi affirms it’s no surprise these gaps exist given the deeply rooted nature of systemic racism in US culture. He joins Alexander, Richeson, and a host of other Black scholars in warning just how pervasive the post-racial myth can be. He writes,

“The sophistication of the post-racial myth is simple: Eliminating the explanation of racism for racial inequity ensures that the believers willingly consume and cook up their own racist ideas to explain the racial inequity all around them.”

 

Moving Forward

Really, in the everlasting wake of George Floyd’s death (among countless others at the hands of police), it couldn’t be clearer how wrong the post-racial narrative truly is. Not only wrong, but harmful. It justifies the unacceptable status quo we live in.

In 2022, Michelle Alexander’s warning of a new reified racial caste system is still salient. Let’s highlight the Black leaders who have shaped United States history to date. Let’s take care to celebrate the contributions and achievements of Black Americans and peoples across the African diaspora.

Simultaneously, let’s be conscious of how Black folks are still marginalized and minoritized as American history unfolds. Let’s actively challenge the myth of a post-racial society that is steeped in colorblindness and destructive to Black liberation from systems established from the legacy of slavery.

 

About Tommy Oddo

Tommy Oddo is an undergraduate student, writer, and lifelong learner about all things antiracism, community health, and health care equity. He is a white, cisgender man from Mentor, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. Tommy is currently a Political Science major at the University of Rochester with minors in Biology and Ethics and an academic interest in critical gender and sexuality studies; he is a pre-medical student and a member of the Rochester Early Medical Scholars (REMS) Program.

Tommy serves as a writing tutor and teaching assistant at UR, and he currently works as Grants Research Intern and technical support for 540WMain. He is committed to making health care and community health infrastructure more diverse, equitable, accessible, and inclusive for communities most disadvantaged historically.

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