In 1998 Michelle Alexander had just been hired by the northern-California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to head its Racial Justice Project. She was running to catch the bus to her new office when she glimpsed a bright orange poster proclaiming, “The Drug War Is The New Jim Crow.”

“Jim Crow” refers to local and state laws enacted between 1876 and 1965, mainly in the South, that mandated racial discrimination and segregation. At the time she saw the poster, Alexander considered it absurd. “I clung to the notion that the evils of Jim Crow are behind us,” she writes. But after a few years of working for the ACLU on issues of racial profiling and drug enforcement, she was forced to reevaluate: “I began awakening to the reality that this criminal-justice system is not just another institution infected with racial bias, but the primary engine of racial inequality and stratification in the U.S. today.”

Alexander now believes that the “War on Drugs” was the creation of conservative political strategists who wanted to appeal to poor and working-class whites resentful of the gains African Americans made during the civil-rights era. That it resulted in disproportionate drug-arrest rates in poor communities of color may even have been part of the plan, she says. In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press), Alexander cites some alarming statistics: for example, in 2004, 75 percent of all people imprisoned for drug offenses were black or Latino, despite the fact that the majority of the country’s illegal-drug users and dealers are white.

The child of an interracial couple (her mother is white; her father, now deceased, was African American), Alexander witnessed directly the challenges of racial integration. After her parents had married in Chicago in 1965, Alexander’s mother was promptly disowned by her family and excommunicated from her church. The newlyweds ended up moving to Stelle, Illinois, a three-hundred-person progressive intentional community, where Alexander was born in 1967. When she was eight, her father, who worked for IBM, was transferred to San Francisco, and the family moved to the Bay Area. Although he was one of the office’s top salespeople, he was unable to climb the corporate ladder and ended up leaving his job. Alexander attended many schools, both public and private, which exposed her to people from diverse backgrounds. Later, when she saw how severely black youths are treated by the criminal-justice system, she recalled how often she’d seen white teens participate in the same criminal activities.

Alexander’s maternal grandparents eventually did accept their daughter’s husband and their granddaughter. Seeing them come around gave Alexander hope that society can change. “My grandfather was extremely hostile to my mother marrying my father,” she says, “and he ended up voting for Jesse Jackson for president.”

No longer a practicing attorney, Alexander currently teaches courses on race, civil rights, and criminal justice at Ohio State University. She stays busy caring for her three children and spreading the information in her book to those behind bars and to communities affected by mass incarceration.


422 - Michelle Alexander


Cooper: In the preface to your book you say you wrote it for “people like me — the person I was ten years ago.”

Alexander: Before I began my work on criminal-justice reform at the ACLU, I believed a lot of our society’s myths about drug use and crime in the black community. For example, I believed that people of color were more likely to sell drugs than whites. Not true. I believed that incarceration rates could be explained by crime rates. Not true. Only after years of working on these issues did my eyes open.

Cooper: You’ve written that “nearly a quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line today, approximately the same percentage as in 1968.” The poverty rate among black children is actually higher now than it was during the civil-rights era. What went wrong?

Alexander: What happened is the movement of the 1960s was left unfinished. People assumed that mere changes to the laws would produce a major social transformation, even if our underlying consciousness didn’t change. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly reminded us that there were going to be black mayors and legislators and other elected officials, but these developments in and of themselves would not produce the necessary social change. We need a radical restructuring of our economy and our society in order to ensure that poor people of all colors gain equal access to opportunity, jobs, housing, and healthcare.

The energy and passion of the civil-rights movement dissipated once lawyers took over and attention shifted to the enforcement of antidiscrimination laws and the implementation of affirmative action. A sprinkling of people of color throughout institutions of higher learning and in positions of power created the illusion of greater progress than had actually been made. It also helped distract us when the backlash to the civil-rights movement gave birth to the “get tough on crime” era and the rise of mass incarceration.

Cooper: But you do agree that reform had to begin with changes in the laws?

Alexander: We certainly needed antidiscrimination laws. Absolutely. It’s not as if the laws in and of themselves were a mistake. What was a mistake was the abandonment of the poor-people’s movement that King and others were launching at the end of his life. Civil-rights activists didn’t anticipate that the right wing and former segregationists would build a new system of control that literally locked up those who were left behind.

Cooper: You’ve said that a racial caste system — slavery — was written into the original Constitution.

Alexander: The Constitution was largely a compromise struck with the Southern states, which wanted assurance that they’d be able to retain their slaves as property. So the “three-fifths clause,” which counted each slave as three-fifths of a human being, was included in the Constitution. Without that compromise we would not have emerged as a unified nation. That racial caste system has remained with us in some form or another ever since.

Cooper: What do you say to those who view the Constitution as the final word on our freedoms?

Alexander: I believe in the Constitution as a living document. The original Constitution denied the right to vote to women, slaves, black people, and even white men who didn’t own property. That document isn’t much to be proud of, except that it contained the seed of an egalitarian democracy. It’s this seed that is deserving of our reverence and respect. But a blind loyalty to the original document amounts to a commitment to preserving the wealth and political power of a few.

Cooper: People are generally familiar with the term “Jim Crow,” but I’m not sure they know its origin.

Alexander: Jim Crow laws were state and local laws enacted after the Civil War mandating “separate but equal” status for African Americans. The most infamous example was the segregation of public schools, public restrooms, public transportation, and so on. These laws authorized discrimination in employment, housing, education — virtually all aspects of life.

The phrase “Jim Crow” is typically attributed to “Jump Jim Crow,” a song-and-dance caricature of African Americans performed by white actors in blackface in the early nineteenth century. The laws themselves were part of an effort by the political and economic elites in the South to decimate a growing coalition between poor whites and former slaves and their descendants during the agricultural depression of the late 1800s, when the Populist movement was born. This movement challenged the corporate power of railroads and the plantation owners. It was one of the first major, meaningful political alliances between poor whites and blacks in the country, and it was having amazing success. The white ruling class was alarmed and proposed laws that would disenfranchise blacks. It waged campaigns that appealed to racial biases, resentments, and stereotypes of black people — essentially persuading poor whites not to align themselves with poor blacks, because whites were “better than that.” Poor whites also feared that the disenfranchisement laws aimed at African Americans could be aimed at them as well if they failed to distance themselves from their black allies. So many poor whites joined the effort to secure the Jim Crow laws, believing that removing blacks from politics would help facilitate economic reforms.

Cooper: Let’s talk about the “new Jim Crow”: the rising incarceration rates among young black men. In a sense this is more insidious, since it’s covert.

Alexander: Yes, during the original Jim Crow era Whites Only signs hung over drinking fountains, and black people were forced to sit at the back of the bus. There was no denying the existence of the caste system. But today people in prison are largely invisible to the rest of us. We have more than 2 million inmates warehoused, but if you’re not one of them, or a family member of one of them, you scarcely notice. Most prisons are located far from urban centers and major freeways. You literally don’t see them, and when inmates return home, they’re typically returned to the segregated ghetto neighborhoods from which they came, leaving the middle class unaware of how vast this discriminatory system has become in a very short time.

Adding to prisoners’ invisibility is the fact that they are erased from unemployment and poverty statistics. If you factor in prisoners, the black unemployment rate shoots up by as much as 24 percentage points.

Cooper: And this all started in the 1980s with the U.S. government’s War on Drugs?

Alexander: Yes. Most people imagine that the War on Drugs was launched in response to rising drug crime. In fact, when the drug war was officially declared in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan, drug crime was on the decline. The drug war was part of a conservative political strategy designed to appeal to poor and working-class whites who were anxious about busing, desegregation, and affirmative action. Beginning in the 1960s, when the civil-rights movement was in full swing, segregationists and conservative politicians found that they could successfully appeal to racial resentments by using “get tough” rhetoric on issues of crime and welfare. This tactic convinced many poor and working-class whites to defect from the Democratic to the Republican Party.

Cooper: So where were the liberal Democrats at this time?

Alexander: Many liberals didn’t want to talk about crime in poor black communities because they were afraid it would distract from their antidiscrimination agenda. They were also busy pursuing affirmative action, litigation, and lobbying strategies for enforcing the gains that had been achieved. Once the get-tough movement was underway, Democrats decided they needed to use similar tactics to appeal to white swing voters, and they began competing with Republicans to see who could be tougher on crime. President Bill Clinton escalated the drug war far beyond what Reagan had done.

People in prison are largely invisible to the rest of us. We have more than 2 million inmates warehoused, but if you’re not one of them, or a family member of one of them, you scarcely notice.

Cooper: Were any politicians on the other side of the issue?

Alexander: There were voices, but they were lonely ones. New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had been maligned by the Left for his 1965 report on the state of the black family, which many believe served to reinforce the worst racial stereotypes about African Americans. But when the War on Drugs was unleashed, Moynihan foresaw the outcome and said that if this were a conspiracy, it would be one of the most brilliant ever devised: encourage people to believe that crack is the source of all social ills in the black community, offer harsh punishment as the solution, and all the while ignore the problems of poverty and despair.

Cooper: You’ve said yourself that crack was a “godsend to the Right.”

Alexander: Reagan declared his War on Drugs a few years before crack hit the streets. As soon as it emerged, the administration recognized an opportunity to build support for the drug war. They hired staff whose job was to find reports of inner-city crack users, crack dealers, crack babies, and crack whores and to feed those horror stories to the media. The media-saturation coverage of crack was no accident. It was a deliberate campaign that fueled the race to incarcerate. Legislators began passing ever harsher mandatory-minimum sentences in response to the media frenzy.

Cooper: Cocaine had an almost glamorous image in the eighties, with beautiful people snorting it through hundred-dollar bills, whereas crack, which is simply a different form of cocaine, was seen as a grimy street drug.

Alexander: That perception was directly responsible for the so-called hundred-to-one disparity in sentencing: to get a five-year sentence, you had to possess five hundred grams of powder cocaine but just five grams of crack.

It’s fair to say that crack’s association with inner-city black people is what made it possible for legislators, prosecutors, and the public to agree that such sentences were reasonable. The media campaign also gave rise to a lot of misconceptions about crack and its addictiveness and the harm it caused, which served to justify the sentencing disparity. Since then science has shown that crack cocaine is not significantly more dangerous and addictive than its powder counterpart, if it’s more dangerous at all. Last year the New York Times reported that alcohol is more harmful to a fetus than cocaine, yet the “crack baby” image is synonymous with hopeless birth defects.

Cooper: Is crack used more often by blacks than by whites?

Alexander: Studies do indicate that, although people of all races use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates, there are slightly higher rates of crack use among African Americans and slightly higher rates of meth use among white Americans. So the drug of choice may vary somewhat by race, but in raw numbers there are more white crack users in the United States than there are black crack users.

Cooper: What are some other myths promoted by the drug war?

Alexander: A big one is that the war is aimed primarily at violent offenders and drug kingpins. In truth the drug war has primarily resulted in the incarceration of nonviolent, low-level offenders. One reason for this is that federal funding for the War on Drugs flows to state and local law-enforcement agencies based on the sheer number of drug arrests, not the “quality” of the arrests. In other words, law-enforcement agencies are rewarded as much for arresting addicts as they are for bringing down the big bosses. This gives them an incentive to go into poor communities and round up as many users as possible by employing mass stop-and-frisk operations, or by stopping cars and searching them for drugs, or by sweeping housing projects. In 2005 about four out of five drug arrests were for possession; only one in five was for sales. Almost half of all drug arrests are for marijuana offenses. In the 1990s, the period of greatest expansion in the drug war, 82 percent of the increase in drug arrests could be attributed to arrests for marijuana possession.

The other big myth is that most people who use and sell drugs are African American. When we picture a drug dealer, we typically imagine an African American kid on a street corner. But studies have consistently shown that people of color are no more likely than whites to use or sell illegal drugs. Users typically buy drugs from someone of their own race, and plenty of drugs are sold in suburbs, in rural white communities, on college campuses, and so forth. But the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color.

Cooper: You’ve said that “virtually all constitutionally protected civil liberties have been undermined by the drug war.” That’s a pretty strong statement.

Alexander: But it’s an accurate statement. The War on Drugs has authorized an incredible amount of government surveillance and intrusion into people’s private lives. For example, there was a time when a police officer could not just stop and search you without any evidence of criminal activity, but today, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s full endorsement of the drug war, police have license to stop and search just about anyone, provided that the person grants consent. Now, “consent” is very broadly interpreted by the courts. If a police officer says, “May I search you?” and you nod or put up your arms so the search can be conducted, that’s consent. If the police officer says, “May I ask you a few questions?” and you respond, that’s consent. Very few people will refuse when a police officer with his hand on his gun says, “May I search your bag?” — particularly people of color, who feel powerless in their interactions with police already.

Cooper: This past June the Supreme Court ruled that a suspect must explicitly invoke the right to remain silent. Simply being silent isn’t enough. And any voluntary reply can be construed as a waiver of that right. It was seen as a move to strengthen law enforcement in the so-called War on Terror, but is there a connection to the drug war?

Alexander: Few observers of the legal system were surprised by the decision, given the clear trend since the start of the War on Drugs toward granting police greater and greater authority and drastically curtailing the rights of suspects. Of course, the change in the interpretation of the law will affect a tiny number of suspected terrorists — and millions of people arrested for minor drug offenses. I’m sure the justices in favor of the decision were aware of this.

Cooper: Let’s talk about “colorblindness.” Liberals often see it as part of fulfilling the dream of racial equality. Do most black people agree with that?

Alexander: I don’t know whether most black people would agree or disagree, but for decades the civil-rights community has consistently endorsed the idea of colorblindness and framed affirmative action as a necessary exception. Once we reach this colorblind nirvana, civil-rights leaders assure us, racial consciousness won’t be necessary anymore.

But, in my view, colorblindness has proved disastrous for African Americans. The concept has been interpreted to mean we should be indifferent to someone’s race, when the goal of civil-rights advocates in the 1960s was to encourage citizens to care about people of other races, not to be blind or indifferent to them. Colorblindness has inspired callousness. When people say, “I don’t care if he’s black,” what they’re really saying is that they’re not willing to view his experience in racial terms.

Not caring about a person’s race is presented as some kind of virtue, as if it will lead us to act in a fair and nondiscriminatory way. In fact, not caring can be a form of cruelty. I firmly believe that we should be encouraging people to see and appreciate racial differences, to celebrate the contributions made by those of other ethnicities, and to care about the suffering of groups who are defined by race. Racial-justice advocates need to change the language they use and abandon this quest for colorblindness.

Colorblindness has inspired callousness. When people say, “I don’t care if he’s black,” what they’re really saying is that they’re not willing to view his experience in racial terms. Not caring about a person’s race is presented as some kind of virtue, as if it will lead us to act in a fair and nondiscriminatory way. In fact, not caring can be a form of cruelty. I firmly believe that we should . . . abandon this quest for colorblindness.

Cooper: How do liberals and conservatives differ in their attitudes regarding colorblindness?

Alexander: For conservatives colorblindness is linked to their commitment to individualism. In their view only individual perseverance and hard work determine whether a person succeeds or fails, so gross racial disparities in education and wealth shouldn’t be of interest to our government, and racial identity should remain a private matter.

For liberals the idea of colorblindness is linked to the hope that one day none of us will “see” race anymore, because it will lose all social significance and won’t correlate with education, wealth, health, and mortality rates. It’s too difficult for us to imagine a society in which we are conscious of race yet still act toward one another in a positive and constructive way. In this view only blindness to racial difference can bring equality.

Cooper: What impact do you think President Obama has had on the issue of race relations?

Alexander: Obviously his election had tremendous symbolic significance, but there’s a real risk that it has been misinterpreted, not only in communities of color but around the world. It’s tempting to believe that this represents a final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow. And it’s true that most whites have rejected the old Jim Crow idea that all black people are inferior. But black exceptionalism — having some black people who are visibly successful — actually strengthens the current caste system of mass incarceration, which is predicated on the notion that most blacks choose lives of crime, and that if they just made different choices, they could be successful like Barack Obama.

Cooper: You do point out that he could have ended up a felon for his drug use.

Alexander: Absolutely. That’s the great irony. Barack Obama is held up as an example of what’s possible for black men today if only they followed the rules, but Obama himself has admitted to having violated drug laws. If he hadn’t been raised by his white grandparents in Hawaii and attended predominantly white schools and universities, he might be cycling in and out of the criminal-justice system, unable to get a job and perhaps denied the right to vote, much less become president of the United States.

Cooper: You were disturbed by Obama’s failure to acknowledge that a majority of young black men in large urban areas are currently controlled by the criminal-justice system.

Alexander: He gave a speech on Father’s Day while he was still on the campaign trail in which he chastised black fathers and said too many of them were acting like boys instead of men. He didn’t acknowledge that many black men haven’t abandoned their families voluntarily; they’ve been hauled away in handcuffs. And, once branded as felons, black men are frequently unable to find work or get housing and therefore can’t contribute economically to a family. To say that black men have failed to be responsible fathers is to ignore the reality of unfair sentencing and selective enforcement.

I think Obama is well aware of the number of black men behind bars and the devastating consequences of the War on Drugs. He has spoken over the years about the harmful effects of mandatory-minimum drug sentences. He’s spoken about racial profiling in the drug war. On the campaign trail he said he wanted to inspire a national conversation about race, but it’s pretty clear the last thing Obama wants to discuss as president is race. That’s because it’s difficult to talk about race and still win over those white swing voters that Reagan so successfully appealed to through racially coded language about getting tough on crime and welfare.

Obama has chosen to shut down conversations about race before they begin. For example, when former president Jimmy Carter said that a good amount of the Tea Party movement’s rhetoric is really rooted in racial bias, the White House press secretary immediately said the Tea Partyers’ complaints have nothing to do with race. Obama has said publicly that he believes those who disagree with or oppose him are not motivated by race. Now, how he could possibly know this is beyond me. But I think his avoidance of race and denial of its relevance closes off public dialogue.

Cooper: Comedian and political commentator Bill Maher often says that he laments not having a “real black man” in the White House. What do you think about that?

Alexander: Well, it’s hard for me to respond without having heard precisely what he said, but I resist the idea that there is a “real” black person — that to be authentically black, one must hold a certain set of views. I sometimes ask myself, however, what’s the point of having a black president if he is unable to talk openly about issues that affect black communities?

Some say that just because Obama is black doesn’t mean he’s obligated to address black issues, that he should have the freedom to ignore black people just like all the white presidents before him. [Laughs.] I do believe that African Americans who support Obama need to expect more from him than just looking good in the White House. We need to hold him accountable on the issues of greatest concern to communities of color.

One of the dangers of the Obama presidency is that African Americans — the very people who are most harmed by mass incarceration — are unlikely to challenge Obama on the issue, because they don’t want to cause problems for him. A side effect of having relatively few black people in positions of power is that when they do attain those positions, it can have a silencing effect on the African American community. An incident of police brutality that might have produced protests if the police chief were white may be given a more charitable spin if the police chief is black. African Americans often worry about hurting black people in positions of power because, to some extent, we experience their success vicariously and want to defend them against criticism. Unfortunately the problems the black community faces today are traceable not to the limited number of blacks in positions of power, but rather to the structure of our criminal-justice system. And if we make individuals the subject of our concern rather than the structure of the system itself, we will continue to spin our wheels.

Black youth embrace gangsta culture in an effort to carve out a positive self-image in a society that stigmatizes them. . . . [They] take what’s been labeled bad and make it good.

Cooper: In Obama’s defense, wouldn’t it be political suicide for him to dive into the race conversation?

Alexander: Not necessarily. Obama has proven that he’s capable of talking about race without alienating whites. He did that successfully during the campaign, when his political opponents tried to tie him to fiery sermons made by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor. Whether or not you agree with everything Obama said in that response, he talked about race openly, honestly, and forcefully. Far from alienating people, he actually inspired and brought around many who had been suspicious of him or concerned about his motivations. So to say that talking about race is “political suicide” gives a pass to Obama for avoiding the issue.

Cooper: Right-wing talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh has said that the only reason Barack Obama got elected was because he’s black. Do you think Obama should have responded to that?

Alexander: I think there have been countless opportunities for Obama to speak about race. I’m not sure being baited by Rush Limbaugh is the best one. [Laughs.] I was disappointed, though, with the way Obama handled the 2009 arrest of African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. — on suspicion of breaking into his own house. I thought that was an excellent opportunity not to chastise an individual police officer but rather to talk broadly about how our criminal-justice system divides society along race lines. But Obama was not eager to explore it.

Cooper: You would agree, though, that he does have a lot on his plate right now.

Alexander: True, but I believe that the mass incarceration of poor people of color is the most pressing racial-justice issue of our time and is worthy of his attention. We have nearly a million black people doing time in the United States, families being destroyed, parents taken away from their children for minor drug offenses. People are being branded as felons and rendered unemployable for the rest of their lives. The notion that the president has more important issues to deal with doesn’t acknowledge the immeasurable harm being done.

Cooper: You say that most racism reflects “automatic, unconscious thought processes, not careful deliberation.” Is an unconscious bias worse than a deliberate one?

Alexander: There’s not a sharp division between what’s conscious and what’s unconscious. It’s more of a continuum. Sometimes we’re not fully aware of the extent of our bias. We know we harbor some stereotypes, but we don’t realize how much they influence our actions and our thought patterns. The bottom line is, when we see larger percentages of blacks in prison or being convicted of certain crimes, do we stop and ask ourselves whether it’s a result of racism in the system and in the culture? I think the refusal to ask those questions is rooted in racial bias. Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, the harm caused is the same.

Cooper: If you commit a felony, you can’t vote while incarcerated — nor, in a majority of states, after you’ve been released. What’s the rationale behind such voting restrictions?

Alexander: Theoretically your punishment is supposed to stop once you’ve been released from prison. The Supreme Court has said that the denial of the right to vote can’t properly be understood as a punishment; it’s a “civil consequence” of one’s criminal conviction. The rationale offered is that people who violate our nation’s laws can no longer be trusted to use the ballot wisely. I am aware of no studies that show people with past felony convictions are more likely to abuse the political process than those who have a clean record. And the idea that those who have been caught committing a crime should lose their right to vote, even temporarily, is antithetical to democracy.

Cooper: Has this been challenged in the courts?

Alexander: There is an awareness among some in the judiciary that the criminal-justice system is rife with bias, but the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld felon-disenfranchisement laws repeatedly. Many people don’t realize that these laws were often passed alongside laws requiring poll taxes and voter-literacy tests. They were all part of the effort to disenfranchise African Americans. But while poll taxes and literacy tests have been eliminated, felon-disenfranchisement laws continue. So the legacy of discrimination hasn’t been eliminated.

Cooper: Are felon-disenfranchisement laws common in the rest of the world?

Alexander: No, most other Western democracies allow prisoners the right to vote. There are even voting drives in prisons. Those countries believe it’s good for prisoners to feel connected to the society to which most of them will return. There’s also the notion that in a democracy everyone has a say, and those who are locked up may have relevant views about the justice system and the law.

Cooper: In what way does mass incarceration affect how we view offenders and how they view themselves?

Alexander: The stigmatizing effect of incarceration is similar to the stigmatizing effect of race in the Jim Crow era. Just as under Jim Crow many light-skinned blacks would try to pass as whites, today people branded as felons try to pass, not just to employers or housing officials but to friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Family members conceal the criminal histories of loved ones. This process of shaming and stigmatizing extends beyond those who have actually been convicted to those who “look like” criminals. A Princeton sociologist has found that employers are more likely to hire a white person with a criminal record than a black person without one.

Cooper: What about the “gangsta” image embraced by some black youth?

Alexander: I strongly believe that black youth embrace gangsta culture in an effort to carve out a positive self-image in a society that stigmatizes them. One of the most basic coping strategies for groups that have been severely stigmatized is to take what’s been labeled bad and make it good. These youths are saying, in effect, “You think I’m nothing but a criminal? Well, maybe I am a criminal, and proud of it.” A similar phenomenon can be found among gays who embrace the word queer.

Unfortunately embracing gangsta criminality is self-defeating and self-destructive. It’s critically important to help black youth carve out a positive identity that doesn’t involve being gangsta.

Cooper: In your book you bring up a little-known aspect of the Rosa Parks story: that she wasn’t the first African American to refuse to give up her seat on a bus. But she was light skinned, and her record was untainted by any arrest. Wasn’t it logical for the black community to choose a model citizen to challenge discrimination?

Alexander: Yes, it’s understandable, and this strategy has been successful. But challenging mass incarceration requires that civil-rights advocates do something they’ve long been reluctant to do: advocate on behalf of criminals. The major exception has been the death penalty. NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] lawyers have championed the rights of those condemned to die, whether they are believed to be innocent or guilty. But we’re in a position where we must show compassion for those who have been demonized and criminalized by the current caste system.

Cooper: You close your book by recounting the 2007 incident in Jena, Louisiana, where six black teens were charged with attempted second-degree murder for beating up a white classmate. What happened there?

Alexander: It was essentially a schoolyard fight. The attack was allegedly in retaliation for an incident in which nooses were hung from a tree in the schoolyard. Quite rightly, many in the African American community were outraged at the attempted-murder charges, and there were mass protests. The charges were eventually reduced to battery. But if the fight hadn’t been in response to the hanging of nooses in the school’s courtyard, if there hadn’t been such a blatant reminder of old Jim Crow racism, then the trumped-up charges against those youths would likely have stuck.

So long as we require a noose or the use of the N-word for the mass of people to take notice of racism, this caste system will continue to function. Most white Americans agree we shouldn’t be hanging nooses in courtyards and calling people the N-word. That’s a public consensus that was achieved through the civil-rights movement. It’s my hope that we will build a new civil-rights movement that is focused not on combating blatant racism but on dismantling the racial caste system. Until we do that, we will continue blaming the victims of the system for their condition, and the system will continue to hum along.