Michelle Alexander’s recent sensation The New Jim Crow reveals a pattern of racial oppression repeatedly reconstituting itself. Just as Jim Crow replaced slavery, the criminal justice system quickly evolved to replace Jim Crow as the dominant mechanism of racial oppression. The question Alexander poses is how we are to overcome this New Jim Crow once and for all, along with all its second lives and zombies. Alexander’s story is complex, but her diagnosis boils down to something as vague as it is simple: “a flawed public consensus” (222).
The system has a tendency to reconstitute itself, and our criminal justice system is just a reincarnation of last century’s Jim Crow. Each gain against racial oppression has been followed by a countervailing movement, redrawing the lines of political alliance to protect those in power. Those lines have tended to reproduce racial caste, relying on narratives explicitly or implicitly constructed around blackness to divide the oppressed, bribe some among them, and keep the others down and exploited. Thus, approximately, go the first few chapters of Alexander’s book. Chapter 6, the book’s concluding chapter, brings us to the hard questions. We’ve looked at the history, deconstructed some myths, revealed some shocking statistics and deeply disturbing patterns. Now what? Alexander brings her argument to a point: “to the extent that major changes are achieved without a complete shift, the system will rebound. The caste system will reemerge in a new form, just as convict leasing replaced slavery, or it will be reborn, just as mass incarceration replaced Jim Crow” (222). We need a deeper change that does not just consist of legal reforms and “disconnected advocacy strategies” (221). It is clear we need a paradigm shift.
So far, so good.
This is when Alexander hits us with it: the pinnacle of her argument, the last lingering high note in a composition full of moments that ring clear. But it comes out muffled. And a little flat. We are not sure about that sound. They key thing, says Alexander, is “public consensus.”
“The central question for racial justice advocates is this: are we serious about ending this system of control of not?” (221). All those reforms, all those piecemeal cases, will get us nowhere, unless we build a movement through and around them: “reform work is the work of movement-building, provided that it is done consciously as movement-building work. If all the reforms mentioned above were actually adopted, a radical transformation in our society would have taken place” (223). So the question is: how serious are we? We collectively. Are we building a movement? Are we changing the public view? Do we, as a society, have the right attitude to see these reforms through? “A flawed public consensus lies at the core of the prevailing caste system,” Alexander tells us (222). So what do we need? A “truly egalitarian racial consensus.” Try chanting that one.
The problem with Alexander’s book is not that she does not provide us with a wealth of stunning details. It is not that she does not deliver an intriguing and intricate history. It is rather that she produces this history, this wealth of historical information, and then misses a critical pattern that her data itself suggests.
A continuing theme of Alexander’s book is the pattern of those in power finding ways to reconstitute their power. She herself mentions many a time the role of elite interests and class in maintaining racial caste systems. For example, the early deployment of racial stratification to break the bond of black and white laborers who joined Bacon for their own liberation (sadly, and reminding us of the need for complexity, liberation with Bacon meant taking Native American land). Or in the formation of Jim Crow, how “segregation laws were proposed as part of a deliberate effort to drive a wedge between poor whites and African Americans,” who had been campaigning together against their shared exploitation (34); “As long as the poor whites directed their hatred and frustration against the black competitor, the planters were relieved of class hostility directed against them” (qtd 34). And further, that in the formative stages of today’s mass incarceration system, the law and order campaigns and Drug War were driven by a Republican elite working to gain power by once again channeling the economic frustrations of lower-class whites, “forced to compete on equal terms with blacks for jobs and status” while elite whites exploited them both. All these threads point to the role of economic power, of economic interests and exploitation, in the persistent reconstitution of the racial caste system. Alexander’s data provides the dots, but she fails to draw in the line of capitalism’s role in the New Jim Crow narrative.
This underlying narrative is one in which racialized castes consistently serve as the basis of cheap labor for capital. And one in which periods of discontent lead to political intrigue as new bribe structures and political alliances are set up. Attitudes are certainly a factor, but these grow up on the trellises of capital’s wheeling-and-dealing. Beginning with the slave system, which we all understand to be a system of providing cheap vulnerable labor for capitalist exploitation, we see capital’s role in setting up our “flawed public consensus.” Not only black and white castes, but the very notions of racial identity, were first solidified around a racial bribe. Solidarity arose spontaneously in a system of unsegregated workers laboring side-by-side, under the same exploitative conditions; racial stereotypes, though surely present, were permeable and not fixed to the categories we know today because they were not set up by larger forces in relationships of antagonism. As Theodore Allen in The Invention of the White Race explores in detail, these laborers did not identify as black or white. It was only with the quelling of Bacon’s rebellion, which mobilized both the black and white poor with the promise of land and freedom from bond-labor, that the governing classes, seeking to keep their workforce docile, drew a line of whiteness around some of their workers and singled them out for favorable treatment on the condition that they disassociate from their former fellows. The driving role of economic logic is apparent. Under Jim Crow, the division of the working class along racial lines kept economic frustrations and animosity directed inward. Blacks and whites competed for jobs and blacks functioned as a reserve labor force, to be cast off during periods of economic recession and tapped into when needed.
Brown vs. Board of Education, recounted by Alexander as a narrative of the “public consensus” not having adequately changed, is in fact a good example of the importance of recognizing the economic logics of oppression. As Alexander tells it, “’for ten years, 1954-1964, virtually nothing happened.’ … Brown did not end Jim Crow; a mass movement had to emerge first—one that aimed to create a new public consensus opposed to the evils of Jim Crow”. But it is grossly obfuscating to say that the failure of Brown vs. Board to effect change was about public consensus; this makes it sound as though change just required convincing the broad public of the need to have integrated schools, the need to “really care across color lines” (222). To do so would be to ignore the structure that underlies the status quo. As Alexander herself recognizes, when we do not make active change, legal change make no difference. And “public consensus” alone is little more substantive, as in her own tale of those who bore no hostility to integration continuing to play into the system. What then is the barrier we must actively fight against? Is it just the inertia of public opinion? What Alexander mentions but fails to draw out is the theme of economic exploitation. It takes active bussing campaigns to overcome the geographic segregation encouraged by the political logics of a capitalist order. Why is it (or is it twisted to appear) in the interests of many whites to keep a predominantly black population segregated or under lock and key? Because the system is set up such that a powerful class—including prison operators, their political supporters, and the corporations that purchase the cheap products of prison labor—benefits from prisoner exploitation and saves a little of the scraps for other segments of the proletariat that they also exploit.
To understand our current structures of racial caste, we must consider how the capitalist logic running through the criminal justice system feeds its pathologies and sucks efforts at reform back into its course. Most readers of Alexander’s work will be amply familiar with the concept of the Prison-Industrial Complex and the cluster of private prison contractors, construction companies, manufacturers and service providers who make a profit off the prison system. Unfortunately, Alexander spends a measly amount of time on explaining the economics of this system. The private prison system, symptomatic of the pathologies of mass incarceration, emerged in the early 1980s, concurrent with the boom in incarceration. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO group, the two largest private prison contractors, formed in 1983 and 1984, respectively, following closely on the heels of the War on Drugs declaration (1982) and coming right before the flooding of working class black neighborhoods with crack (~1985).
Some analyses of the boom in incarceration see it as a means of locking away and controlling surplus population not able to be employed (e.g. Wright 1997). While this is surely part of the picture—the logic of capital tends to produce surplus population and lumpen economies which then become an excuse for marginalization and oppression—such an explanation misses several other strategic functions of the prison system under capitalism. As illustrated by the financial success of the private prison sector, making $3 billion in revenue a year (ALCU 5), the War on Drugs opened up a whole new sector for ever-hungry capital’s investment; the prison system, beyond acting as a cost to capital and a means of social control, became a new source of profit. This revenue comes in two forms: taxpayer money and contract labor. Taxpayer money essentially functions as a form of primitive accumulation, opening a new source of profit for capital by levying taxes through state power and funneling it into an industry that makes over a billion in profits annually. Meanwhile, the labor of prisoners, which costs the capitalist 40 to 50 cents per hour (~5% of federal minimum wage) and no benefits (Smith and Hattery 282), takes a population previously too expensive to employ, and by subsidizing their living costs with taxpayer money, makes them once again profitable to employ. This is common practice not only in the private prison industry, which holds 130,000 of the US’s 2.3 million prisoners (ACLU 11-12), but also in public prisons. The Department of Corrections is known to skim as much as 50% off a prisoner’s paycheck to cut its own costs (Smith and Hattery 282). Other beneficiaries of prison labor include everyone from construction companies and textile manufacturers to IBM, Motorola, Texas Industries, Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret, and Revlon, who exploit it for the same grunt labor capitalists usually contract to China for, at even cheaper rates (the average Chinese laborer received $1.68/hr in 2008). Prisons represent a cheap 2.3 million-strong workforce to be drawn into work at will. Locked up, they can be employed at our disposal and disciplined too—the ideal flexible labor force. In short, our system of mass incarceration functions as a major subsidy for capital. By leveraging taxpayer money to pay for prisons, it opens up a new realm of investment for private capital. Conveniently for capital, prisons function both as a new realm of investment and a mechanism for dividing the proletariat by taking the most marginalized and locking them away, while the rest pay for their oppression and accept it. Making use of the color line was one of the easiest mechanisms for capital to do this. Criminality oriented around an implicit color bias not only makes it easier to “other” so-called criminals, but also has devalues the communities they come from as a whole, turning those communities into further pools of cheap labor.
We cannot understand the New Jim Crow or how to fight it without understanding the economic forces that drive it. The marginalization of a large, predominantly black population, their control and devaluation, is not at root a matter of a “flawed public consensus”; it is about an upper class maintaining its power and control, however masked and indirectly. And we will get nowhere with the fight to roll back our ravenous mass incarceration system if we treat it as a problem of public opinion. At best, if we are very lucky, we will have some changed view on prisons, a few reforms, a new status quo with a teeny bit more padding, and another displacement of capitalism’s wringing hand. At worst, we will get nothing much at all: economic divisions will break down our solidarity; some of us will grow more agitated; and capital will continue to pay for people in office who put those of us most militant about resistance into the prisons too. If we are going to fight the New Jim Crow, we must pay attention to the story between the lines in Alexander’s book: that this is a problem of class power and capital that must be fought as such.
In Seattle, and other cities, a movement is growing to fight the prison-industrial complex, and it is excited about Michelle Alexander’s book. The most radical segments of this movement are staunchly abolitionist. We are about getting rid of prisons. But even as this radical segment is convinced of the fundamentally flawed nature of our mass incarceration system, it does not necessarily recognize and is not explicit about the fight being a larger one of class and exploitation. We must bear in mind as we fight the fight for prison abolition that we are working in a capitalist system that has a tendency to pit the oppressed against the oppressed. Unless prison abolition is understood as a larger fight—against those who profit off prisons and by all workers in the prison-industrial complex, from prisoners themselves to those exploited to construct their facilities, look after their health, and provide their services—we will end up with another fight directed inwards, towards ourselves. Prison abolition alone could mean a flood of people back into urban ghettos, competition for already scarce jobs, loss of jobs for working class whites in prison-related industries, and renewed racial resentment. Job training and rehabilitation programs are not the solution for this. It requires something much more—a fundamental challenge to capitalist exploitation. Alexander’s “radically egalitarian public consensus” cannot be formed without radically egalitarian material relations and the reclaiming of resources by all those exploited. No public consensus except one that recognizes the nature of this exploitation and fights it can help us escape from another reconstitution of racialized class oppression.
The movement in Seattle today is shy in recognizing this. A new constellation forming in resistance to the city’s money-pumping into the juvenile detention system has started on an explicitly abolitionist basis, with a significant but not yet loud class conscious element in its core. There is a sense of the need to be prisoner led, an important factor if the movement is to be engaged in the full complexity of problems and oppressions that face prisoners and their communities. At last Thursday’s community forum, the majority of speakers spoke directly from their experience as inmates or relatives and friends of inmates in the prison system. But as a teacher and audience member at last Thursday’s community forum commented, there were few who would identify as black males sitting in the room. There were few from her community in Seattle’s South End, one of those most affected by this complex. To paraphrase her call, if this movement means business, when things get active in the South End, we need to show up and be there. Thursday discussion also failed to tackle class and capital as central frames of analysis. As Seattle’s movement grows we need to develop a clear understanding of the workings of the capitalist system that structures what we fight. We can only act effectively with that understanding in mind.
 Just one of these corporations, the CCA, made $1.2 billion in earnings in 2005.
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Manufacturing in China.” http://www.bls.gov/fls/china.htm
American Civil Liberties Union. 2011. Banking on bondage: private prisons and mass incarceration. New York, NY: ACLU. http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/bankingonbondage_20111102.pdf.
Smith, Earl, and Angela Hattery. 2007. “If We Build It They Will Come: Human Rights Violations and the Prison Industrial Complex”. Societies Without Borders. 2 (2): 273-288.
Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California / Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Podcast: “The Punitive Turn”
Private Prisons: The Public’s Problem
American Friends Service Committee, February, 2012
Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America
Sentencing Project, January, 2012
Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies
Justice Policy Institute, June, 2011