Is mass incarceration the new caste system?

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 4/18/2012, 7:30 a.m.
After the dismantling of segregation nearly...

After the dismantling of segregation nearly a half-century ago, African Americans have made tremendous strides: winning the right to vote, upward economic mobility and even the presidency. But alongside these achievements, something else happened — the prison population exploded.

In just 30 years, between 1980 and 2000, the number of U.S. prisoners skyrocketed from 300,000 to more than 2 million, most of them poor people of color. The United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and imprisons a higher percentage of black people than South Africa did under apartheid.

This phenomenon, says law professor Michelle Alexander, has become the country’s newest racial caste system. In her award-winning book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Alexander explains how America’s criminal justice system is no longer a “system of crime prevention,” but one of “social and racial control,” similar to segregation in the South.

In an interview with the Banner, Alexander, who will be speaking in Cambridge next Wednesday at 6 p.m., discusses mass incarceration, the fallacy of colorblindness, Trayvon Martin, the “George Zimmerman-mindset” and more.

What do you mean when you say mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow?

It’s important for people to understand that the system of mass incarceration isn’t primarily a system of crime prevention and control. It has become in recent decades a system of social and racial control. I refer to it as the new Jim Crow because even in this age of Obama, even in this era of so-called colorblindness, we’ve managed to recreate something akin to a caste system.

Thanks largely to the war on drugs and the get-tough movement, millions of people — overwhelmingly poor people of color — have been swept into our criminal justice system mainly for nonviolent and drug offenses, branded criminals and felons.Then [they are] ushered into a parallel social universe in which they are stripped of many of the civil and human rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement: the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free from legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.

Many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind in the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon. That’s why I saw we haven’t ended racial caste in America — we’ve just redesigned it.

How did this happen?

One of the greatest myths about mass incarceration is that it’s been driven by crime and crime rates, when in fact our prison population has exploded — quintupled — in a period of a few short decades. We went from a prison population of about 300,000 in the 1970s and into the early 1980s, to now well over 2 million.

We now have the highest rates of incarceration in the world, a penal system unprecedented in world history, and this occurred in an astonishingly short period of time — a few short decades. During those decades, crime rates fluctuated. Today, crime rates are at historic lows, but incarceration rates, especially black incarceration rates, have consistently soared.