Arguably the most important parallel between mass incarceration and Jim Crow is that both have served to define the meaning and significance of race in America. Indeed, a primary function of any racial caste system is to define the meaning of race in its time. Slavery defined what it meant to be black [a slave], and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black [a second-class citizen]. Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.
The temptation is to insist that black men “choose” to be criminals; the system does not make them criminals, at least not in the way that slavery made blacks slaves or Jim Crow made them second-class citizens. The myth of choice here is seductive, but it should be resisted. African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct. In fact, studies suggest that white professionals may be the most likely of any group to have engaged in illegal drug activity in their lifetime, yet they are the least likely to be made criminals. The prevalence of illegal drug activity among all racial and ethnic groups creates a situation in which, due to limited law enforcement resources and political constraints, some people are made criminals while others are not. Black people have been made criminals by the War on Drugs to a degree that dwarfs its effect on other racial and ethnic groups, especially whites. And the process of making them criminals has produced racial stigma.
Every racial caste system in the United States has produced racial stigma. Mass incarceration is no exception. Racial stigma is produced by defining negatively what it means to be black….today the stigma of race is the shame of the criminal….The shame and stigma is not limited to the individual; it extends to family members and friends—even whole communities are stigmatized by the presence of those labeled criminals. Those stigmatized often adopt coping strategies African Americans once employed during the Jim Crow era, including lying about their own criminal history or the status of their family members in an attempt to “pass” as someone who will be welcomed by mainstream society [197-198].
Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012. Print.