The New Jim Crow? Not Even Close
The dominant narrative on the far left these days is that American society is not just racist in the old conventional way; it's "structurally racist." Doesn't that sound dreadfully, awfully serious?
But what does it actually mean?
Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow is one of the left's sacred books on this concept. In Alexander's vision, American society is a seamless system of structural racism, perfectly and malignly organized to accomplish its goal: the subjugation of black people. Alexander claims that this vast "caste system" dooms blacks to lives of misery and oppression. Some might escape, by accident or luck, but the purview of the system is universal in theory. The central arm of this "caste system" is the war on drugs and its imprisonment of vast numbers of nonviolent black drug offenders for inordinately long periods of time. Through this mechanism, black lives are irreparably destroyed, and black America is kept locked in second-class status.
But what is the argument, and what are the facts behind the claim? That is, what is the evidence of this monstrous structural racism?
As of 2017, there are about 180,000 people in federal prisons, and about half of these are serving time for drug offenses. (All data in this paragraph are from the 2017 U.S. Department of Justice report on prison statistics.) There are many more prisoners, 1,300,000 or so, in state prisons, but only 15% of these (i.e., around 200,000) have a drug offense as their most serious offense. This gives a total of around 300,000 people in the whole country in prison for drugs — out of a total prison population of just under 1,500,000. This amounts to about a fifth of the whole prison population.
There are about 325 million people in the U.S., so the total number of people in prison for drug offenses is 0.09%, some one tenth of 1% of the overall American population. Blacks make up about 14% of the American population — a total of around 47 million blacks. Even if we assumed that all of the people in prison for drug offenses are black, which is not close to the truth, we would be talking about 300,000 out of 47 million. This works out to 0.6%, or a little more than one half of 1%.
But perhaps we are not counting correctly. Alexander claims there are some seven million people currently "under correctional control," by which she means the total of those in prison and those on probation and paroled. As of 2017, the number stood at around 6.5 million. Even if all of these were black, we would have a "caste system" in which 15% of the black population were enmeshed, with fully 85% of blacks, nearly nine of every ten, being free of that system.
But we know the seven million are not all black. Far from it. Typically, whites and Hispanics together make up more than half the prison population at any given time. They are around 54% of prisoners in the 2017 BJS data cited above, and blacks are about 33%. Roughly the same distribution holds true for the overall population of former prisoners. If we reasonably assume that the portion of the seven million who are black is equal to the portion of current prisoners who are black, we get 2.3 million blacks, or about 5% of blacks, in the "caste system" and 95% outside it.
Yet another downward correction needs to be made. Recall that it is the war on drugs and differential sentencing on drug offenses that are the central method of the "caste system" Alexander describes. Most of those who are under correctional control are not drug offenders and former drug offenders. They are people who have committed other serious offenses — murder, rape, robbery, etc.
If we assume that the percentage of all those under correctional control who are convicted drug offenders is roughly the same as the percentage currently in prison for drug offenses, we get only a fifth of the total, or 1,400,000 of those under correctional control. If all of this total were black, that would give us 3% of the total American black population. But if we assume, quite reasonably from current prison data, that only about 33% of this figure is made up of black offenders, that leaves 460,000 blacks altogether who are in prison, paroled, or on probation for drug offenses.
Do the math: 460,000 out of the 47 million blacks in the U.S. yields less than 1% of all blacks in the country who are under the control of the "caste system" Alexander describes. More than 99% of blacks are not under the control of this insidious "system" that Alexander presents as equivalent to Jim Crow.
The great majority of the 460,000 are male, so how effective is her "caste system" at controlling the lives of that part of the black demographic? Roughly half the black population is male. So, among black males only, the "caste system" affects about 2% and leaves 98% outside the system.
And Alexander's is an analysis that simply brackets the question of the details of cases. She points to a few cases in her book that she claims illustrate the unequal treatment blacks receive for drug offenses they have committed, but presumably, she has to admit that this cannot be true of every single case. There certainly must be at least some cases of black offenders among the 460,000 in which, once we had a look at the details of the crime and the sentence, and then looked at the comparative data for non-black offenders, we would be forced to acknowledge that these defendants had gotten about what they deserved, and that white and other non-black defendants who had committed similar offenses had received similar penalties. We do not know how many of these there might be among the 460,000, but they would certainly bring that number down still more, and they would thereby demonstrate that the "caste system" is even less effective at incorporating blacks under its aegis than revealed in the preceding analysis.
By the very numbers Alexander presents, then, this is the explanatory power of the claimed "structural racism" of "the New Jim Crow": a tiny percentage of the overall black population is directly affected, and no argument or evidence is presented to show, even for this tiny percentage, that their situation is inevitably a matter of systematic injustice rather than the legitimate functioning of a system designed to punish those who break laws.
In the preface to The New Jim Crow, Alexander admits the book is "not for everyone." Her audience, she goes on, comprises "people like me" — that is, those already fully convinced of the claim that America is a deeply racist society, basically unchanged since the existence of slavery. She is here acknowledging, however unknowingly, how unsatisfactory the argumentative logic of the book, and of the notions of "the New Jim Crow" and "structural racism," will prove to be for any reader with the slightest willingness to critically examine her claims.