MEEKS: Dismantling the new racial caste system

July 2, 2014 

“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander addresses the issue of criminal justice which impacts communities of color (especially African- American and Latino) more than many others. The lack of the equitable distribution of justice contributes to many of the ills that face these communities and all of us who live in them.

Before going further let me say a word about Michelle Alexander. She is a faculty member of Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law and has an appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Formerly, she directed the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Northern California and Civil Rights Clinics at Stanford University’s School of Law where she served as an associate professor. She has been a commentator on MSNBC, CNN and NPR. This is her first book.

Professor Alexander says, “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.” She goes on to say, “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 -- the widespread belief that race no longer matters -- has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system.”

Many of us know the truth of those words. We realize we have to keep a vibrant conversation alive about this issue of putting African-American males in the criminal justice system at an early age and making sure their lives are controlled by that fact alone until they go to prison for life or die. We know this, but it is a bit of an immobilizing reality. We find ourselves lamenting this fact and then go on to something else.

Professor Alexander was slow herself in coming to the conclusion that we do indeed have a new form of Jim Crow which is designed to do what the old Jim Crow did, and that is to keep African-American men in particular, and other people of color as well as women, controlled and in their place.

“In less than 30 years the United States penal population has gone from 300,000 to more than 2 million. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any nation in the world including Russia, China and Iran. In Germany there are 93 people in prison for every 100,000 -- in the U.S. it is 750 for every 100,000. In Washington D.C., three out of four young black men can expect to serve time. We imprison a larger percentage of black people than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.”

The major challenge before us as a nation is to refocus our lenses and begin the search for new ways to curb our high rates of incarceration by finding ways to offer alternatives to young people that can lead them onto more productive paths than the ones that lead to short and long-term incarceration.

It is important to change this pattern because it is costly to all of us. The greatest loss is in the talented young people who are missing the opportunity to use their gifts and talents to help foster productive lives for themselves and in developing stronger communities. It costs more to maintain prisons than it does to foster positive human growth and development. The return on this process is worth the investment.

This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at

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