American Prisons Keep Jim Crow Racism Alive

Roughly 2.4 million people are behind bars in the U.S. If you include those bound by probation or parole, the number increases to almost 8 million. Just 40 years ago, fewer than 350,000 people were incarcerated in this country. The prison system consumes more than $212 billion a year and employs 2.4 million people. There are more than 1800 prisons across the country, not counting local jails, juvenile lockups, and immigration facilities.

Press play to listen to Your Call with Rose Aguilar: “American Prisons Keep Jim Crow Alive”:

Press play to listen to Your Call with Rose Aguilar: “American Prisons Keep Jim Crow Alive”:

Although blacks and latinos make up less than a fourth of the U.S. population, they fill approximately 60 percent of prisons. During the height of Jim Crow, blacks went to prison at roughly four times the rate of whites; today the black imprisonment rate is seven times that of whites.

The Civil Rights Movement was supposed to lead us down the path to racial equality, but that clearly hasn’t happened, so how did we end up where we are now? In her new book, “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander writes, “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

Robert Perkinson, author of “Texas Tough,” says if you want to assess the U.S. prison system, you have to focus on Texas, the most locked down state in the country. He writes, “Tracing the evolution of Texas and American justice over two centuries, the book explains how reform movements arose and were beaten back; how the divisive, fearful politics of law and order helped vanquish the hopes of Reconstruction and, later, integration; and how the specters of slavery survived to haunt the present. In short, it explains how the land of the free became the most incarcerated society in the history of democratic governance.”


Michelle Alexander is author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Michelle served for several years as director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, which spearheaded the national campaign against racial profiling. She also directed the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School and clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court. She’s currently a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

Robert Perkinson is author of “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire.” Robert became interested in criminal justice as a college student in Colorado, where prisons were springing up faster than Wal-Marts in the 1980s and 1990s. In graduate school at Yale, he focused his research on the history of racism and criminal justice in the South. He is currently a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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