Coded Order


By: Francisco Beltrán∞

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a great addition to the growing literature about the history of race, social policy, and most importantly, the long history of anti-social justice backlash in the United States. Though Alexander’s choice of title gives reason to critics to overlook her book as another suggestive narrative of sensational conspiracy, her work draws entirely from her background in the criminal justice system and her studies as a professor of law. She argues that the U.S. justice system has reproduced a racial caste system by co-opting the language of law enforcement to target African Americans and other communities of color into control.

        To say that Jim Crow is still alive in dominant media’s “age of multiracialism” almost seems taboo. But Alexander is one of those people who never drank the kool aid, or awoke just in time, to realize that the age of Obama did not mean the last nail in the coffin of Jim Crow America. In fact, she argues that racism is highly adaptable; it can resurface in new forms, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time. [1] Whereas in the past white supremacy was sustained through slavery and later through de-jure segregation of poor and minority communities framed as “separate but equal,” social and political control today is being achieved through the mass incarceration and criminalization of Black and Brown communities that have been systematically disenfranchised in the cleverest of ways.

        What I bought most from Alexander was her framing of Jim Crow and the criminal justice system as structures of shock reversal. The thirteenth and fourteenth amendments were passed with the intent to dismantle the racial order of the postbellum South, and the civil rights legislations of the 1960s were meant to break down de-facto and de-jure segregation. When the U.S. federal government forces racial equality, however, there is always backlash from the groups who stand to lose their power and influence in the revamped social order. In the Reconstruction and post-civil rights movement periods, Alexander demonstrates, that backlash came in the form of coded, race-targeted laws. The positive shock that were the amendments and civil rights legislations were hijacked and perverted by lingering reactionary forces inside a reformed government.

        Alexander’s main argument is that race, in the age of colorblindness, still defines identity. She argues this by placing white supremacy as the historical crux of order throughout U.S. history. Anything outside of this marker, including racial equality, civil rights platforms for underprivileged communities, is considered to be chaotic, lawlessness, disruptive to the lemma of American exceptionalism. Alexander centers the war on drugs to demonstrate a type of immediate-term process to restore a unilateral racial hegemony. It is a way to bring the country back into “order.” By racializing drugs, the state wages a war on race. It is a system that has been organized along racial beliefs which defines drug users and drug sellers. Racial control is a step towards restoring White order over poor and minority communities.

America was shaken by the tumultuous period of the 1960s and 1970s, and as Alexander mentioned, racial attitudes are highly adaptable. Words have historically proven to be the most influential vehicle that gets peoples, especially displaced societies, moving. This idea reminded me of the eeriness of Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential nomination acceptance speech in Oliver Stone’s Nixon. The power of coded language, especially that which targeted the “lawlessness” of the civil rights vanguard, the threat “radical dissidents” posed to good law-abiding Americans and America’s promise to prosperity, was all cleverly substituted with words and promises intent on restoring racial order. Under the guise of the war on drugs, similar to the nativist campaigns against undocumented immigration, racial attitudes have been expertly substituted with more efficient race-neutral language that actually does more harm than overt acts of bigotry. When hostile attitudes are able to hide in plain sight and operate freely within its social atmosphere and be accepted as fair, that is when democracy becomes tyrannical and oppressive. It is the return to the past, in contemporary terms.

Law enforcement officials are given carte blanche to profile groups of peoples in order for the law to work efficiently. Then there is also the monetary profit officials receive from meeting arrest quotas. The prison-industrial complex thrives off of the racialization of drugs. The justice system, using a colorblind discourse, systematically removes all possibilities to challenge racial profiling in the age of colorblindness. If the strength of the civil rights era was to make race visible to provide historically absent and disadvantaged groups the resources to escape their racially-constructed and racially-enforced markers, the forte of the war on drugs lies in making race invisible in an attempt to eliminate big government and restore the traditional racial, class, and gender roles of White, capitalist America.

As racialized criminals, minority communities are automatically marginalized from social participation. Carrying a criminal label marks the limitations of inclusion. Even the most basic, fundamental rights of a constitutional democracy are stripped away from the individual. These draconian laws are designed to punish people, rather than help them escape their drug problems. If anything, the war on drugs does not rehabilitate people. Prisons do not offer drug treatment. Prisons only create a culture of hopelessness, of continued distraught and oppression. The war on drugs is not meant to root out the problem, it is only meant to streamline it. When slap-on-the-wrist crimes are punished with sentences even liberal western European nations find repulsive, something is inherently wrong with our system of law.

The idea that Jim Crow has returned then is not as far-fetched as it seems. Alexander’s extensive use of court cases that bring to attention racial targeting, especially stop-and-frisk cases, the statistical distribution and analyses of overpopulated ethnic prisons, and the disproportionate percentages of color groups in prison, is note-worthy. It not just the social realm at work here. The media, influenced by the political and economic wings of the dominant establishment, play up stereotypes held by White America of Black, Brown, and other minority groups by framing the prototypical image of the who, how, where, the threat and the enemy lies. The war on drugs becomes a pseudonym for legalized segregation. Jim Crow is not back. That model was outdated for today’s time. This is the New Jim Crow, 2.0, adapted to the times and needs of the current age.


[1] Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010. 2012. P. 21.