Mass Incarceration and the “New Jim Crow”

Amaya Sullivan

In light of recent events in the United States, African-Americans are outraged over the recent shootings, deaths, police brutality, and incarceration of blacks. Many families are hurting, torn apart, and seek justice for their lost love ones. Tensions between white police officers and black citizens remain. Although these recent events are devastating to hear and watch, what is most disconcerting is how the problem has not been rectified.

behind bars_0.jpg

Photographer Unk. Title Unk. July 13th 2016

African Americans have overcome freedom from slavery, civil rights, Jim Crow, and continue to strive to be seen as equal and accepted as a person. Mass incarceration of African Americans, racial profiling and discrimination, and inequality remain at the forefront of America’s social problems. The advances made in technology such as cell phones and video recording, has exposed these issues as truths and evidence that reform needs to occur.

How can we, as a nation, rectify such a social problem? What changes are needed to occur for America to understand that, not just African Americans, but people regardless of race, color, and ethnicity should be treated equally?

First, let’s look at some numbers. Becky Pettit, a Sociology Professor at the University of Washington, and Bruce Western, Director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy & Professor of Sociology, wrote an article in the American Sociology Review entitled, “Mass Incarceration and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in the U.S. Incarceration.” used surveys and census data and found;

“…men born between 1965 and 1969, 3 percent of whites and 20 percent of blacks had served time in prison by their early thirties.”[1] In terms of education, “…black men born during this period, 30 percent of those without college education and nearly 60 percent of high school dropouts went to prison by 1999.”[2] 

While these numbers are troubling many scholars found that education, race, and socio-economic status play an important role to the mass incarceration of African Americans.

James Forman Jr, a Clinical Professor of Law at Yale Law School, wrote about the mass incarceration of African Americans. He takes the position how the New Jim Crow law analogy represents how “race-neutral criminal justice policies unfairly target black communities,” yet he argues how it can lead to obscurity.”[3]

Michelle Alexander, a civil rights activist lawyer, address this problem in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass of Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she takes us on the path that when slavery was abolished the Jim Crow laws was there to replace it, and once the Jim Crow laws was declared unconstitutional, mass incarceration also known as “The New Jim Crow” was born. Her first chapter provides us with a history lesson, and an account of Jarvious Cotton. Since Cotton was labeled a felon he could not vote.[4] However, Forman points out how she never divulges how Cotton was convicted of murder and failed to acknowledge his crime. Forman agrees with Alexander “that even though Cotton was convicted of murder, his status as a felon should not carry a lifetime of disenfranchisement.” [5]

This is where we see Forman’s argument is very clear. There needs to be reform how we punish those who break the law. He lists four steps to scale back our prison system and reduce the damage that incarceration causes:

  1. Combating mass incarceration will require a multiracial movement.
  2. Moral appeals on behalf of mass incarceration’s direct targets be combined with broader arguments on behalf of community safety.
  3. Increased attention to how we treat prisoners.
  4. Advocates for a more parsimonious use of punishment must take violence, and the fear of violence, seriously.[6]

Forman and Alexander hit the nail on the head. Mass incarceration is heavily influenced by race. “If whites and Hispanics disappear from view in discussions of mass incarceration, they are less likely to see a campaign against it as speaking to and for them.”[7] Keep in mind that Hispanics and other races, even Caucasians, are being included in the mix as well, yet the numbers are higher for African Americans.

With that being said, remember Martin Luther King Jr’s I Dream a Dream speech, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” While this is still true today, you must understand that Martin Luther King Jr. also advised African Americans to keep in mind that, “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people.”



[1] Pettit and Western, 1.

[2] Pettit and Western, 1.

[3] Forman, 102-103.

[4] Alexander, 1.

[5] Forman, 128.

[6] Forman, 141-145.

[7] Forman, 142.


Alexander, Michelle, and Cornel West. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, NY: New Press, 2012.
Forman, James Jr, “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow” (2012). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 3599.
“Martin Luther King I Have a Dream Speech – American Rhetoric.” Martin Luther King I Have a Dream Speech – American Rhetoric. Accessed July 13, 2016.
Pettit, Becky, and Bruce Western. “Mass imprisonment and the life course: Race and class inequality in US incarceration.” American sociological review 69, no. 2 (2004): 151-169.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s