Black Mass Incarceration ---- Is It New? Is It Jim Crow? Is the Prison-Industrial Complex Real? And What Difference Does It Make

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

Michelle Alexander's 2010 book “New Jim Crow” provided a language to talk about the prison state that we never had before. But is it entirely accurate? Is the prison industrial complex real? What's the difference between fighting against racism or a “new jim crow” or a “prison industrial complex” and confronting the reality of the prison state?

Black Mass Incarceration ---- Is It New? Is It Jim Crow? Is the Prison-Industrial Complex Real? And What Difference Does It Make?

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

The short answers are yes, not exactly, not really, and a whole lot, which tells more about the inadequacies of short answers than it does about whether “New Jim Crow” is a really useful description, and who it's most useful to.

Is it New?

Prisons are certainly not new, and the employment of prisons to enforce a racially unjust social order isn't new either.  The post-civil war Black Codes prescribed heavy penalities for all sorts of infractions by African Americans.  But the scale of the modern US prison state simply has no precedent.  Nobody has ever locked up this many people for as little, for as long.  Whatever you want to call the present situation with prisons, prisoners and US society, you have to call it something brand new.

Is it Jim Crow?

Not exactly.

Michelle Alexander's 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, was a breakthrough in many ways. It came at a time when just about every African American family knew there was a crisis, when the shadow of prison literally squatted in the homes of hundreds of thousands, but when the black political class --- the gaggle of preachers, politicians and business types we imagine to be our “leaders” lacked even the language to discuss it, apart from tropes inherited from the jailers themselves, like “personal responsibility”, and “do the crime, do the time.”

Describing the prison state as a “New Jim Crow” played to the imagined history of the current black political class, which never stops celebrating the fifties and sixties victories over the old Jim Crow which made its birth possible, and which incorrectly advertises itself as the author of those victories, rather than the after-the-fact beneficiaries of them. In truth, the struggle against Jim Crow wasn't conducted by black politicians because there weren't many of them, especially in the South. Some black business people supported that struggle but they didn't lead it either, and most black preachers stood aside as well. The cutting edge that broke Jim Crow and carried out the final wave of organizing in the South which resulted in the Voting Rights Act were black youth.

“New Jim Crow” also absolved the black political class, at least initially, from responsibility for the prison state. They were the “civil rights leaders” and such, after all, you could hardly blame them for Jim Crow, old or new. And above all, by evoking the imagined spirit of class-blind racial unity which prevailed during the struggle against the old Jim Crow, “New Jim Crow” as a sort of descriptive slogan strengthened the credibility of the black political class.

Alexander's persistent calls for a mass movement to be raised against the “New Jim Crow” are on target. But where do we imagine that movement will come from? College students? Not likely, as today's students are burdened by debt as no others before them in history, and college-educated blacks are by relatively exempt from the depredations of the police and prison state. A college educated black male today stands a third the chance his uncle in 1980 did of going to prison, while today's black male high school dropout is several times more likely to serve prison time sometimes during his life than his uncle the same age and status in 1980. Business people just don't lead mass movements --- ever --- so that's not worth thinking about, and the black church, which often makes the historically absurd claim that it was the fount and wellspring of the fifties and sixties Freedom Movement won't do it either. Neither will our black political class, who are deeply implicated in the day to day running of the prison state.

Alexander herself notes that if US incarceration rates were to be rolled back to 1980 levels, not only would more than a million prisoners walk free, but a million prison guards, sheriffs, judges, bail bondsmen contractors, and others would suddenly be jobless. A lot of their faces are black, which brings us to a second difference between the old and “new” Jim Crows. In the old Jim Crow, apart from black business people who had captive markets white firms didn't compete with them over, it's hard to identify any stratum of black people who had a material interest in keeping the old system. You can't say the same about this “New Jim Crow.”

The closer one looks, in fact, the more “New Jim Crow” looks like a slogan, a metaphor, rather than accurate analysis. To her credit, Ms. Alexander's is pretty clear on the question of class within the black community, noting that she had to make a personal journey of her own to begin to see lower-class black males and through them their families and communities as the principal victims of the predatory penal state.

But not everybody who throws around “New Jim Crow” as a slogan has or will ever bother to read the book. And not all who do read the book bother to read it carefully or closely. “New Jim Crow” is an acceptable term for the prison state for the black political class and even for much of white America precisely because it seems to blame “racism” for everything, and in blaming “racism” actual human beings and governments they act through tend to be obscured.

It's the job of intellectuals to come up with not just catchy slogans and malleable metaphors, but actual analysis. Anyone who deals with actual people on the ground knows that people will, after a short while, begin to treat catchy slogans as if they ARE analysis. You plan for it, it's just the way you expect a lot of people to operate. For example, during Occupy Atlanta last year there were misguided souls in the (non)leadership who took anti-immigrant positions because they imagined that “we are the 99%” meant they should adhere to whatever positions the vast majority of Americans did, and most Americans were thought to be (if you read the mainstream media) hostile toward immigrants.

It's more useful and concrete to note that police, prisons, courts and criminal laws are are functions of government than it is to say they are “racist institutions” being run in a “racist” way. Under one formulation we are fighting the state, trying to re-make the state. If our enemy is racism and New Jim Crow, exactly who or what are we fighting, and by what means?

Is the Prison Industrial Complex Real?

Finally, for the sake of clarity, we should look at the problematic term “prison industrial complex.”

It seems to say that the growth in prisons during the last thirty years was motivated by profit. The facts don't seem to back this up. Most prisoners are not working, not performing any economic activity. Better than 90% of all prisoners any given day are simply languishing in their dorms or cells, period, not doing anything. Federal prison industries in several of the last few years, have failed even to make a profit. There are plenty of contractors, who handle everything from feeding prisoners to medical services, and they are raking it in. But they aren't dictating the growth of prisons over the last thirty years. Politicians do that, for reasons that have lots to do with sustaining their own careers, and asserting the authority of the state over supposed delinquent segments of the population, teaching them “a lesson”, supposedly deterring crime, ensuring public safety and all that. In short, prisons cost money, they don't make money and the money that is being made from prisons is far too small to account for the six and sevenfold increase in US prisoners over the last 40 years.

Those of us on the left generally and correctly regard privatization as evil, so it's hard to imagine anything more evil than a privatized prison. Although a number of very profitable private prison outfits DO exist, the fact is that the percentage of prisoners housed in privatized prisons is growing very slowly, and most of that growth is confined to a single sector, the incarceration of immigrants.

It seems that private prison companies want to make profits. The least profitable prisoners are the old, the sick and those requiring extra security precautions. Immigrants came here to work. They are mostly young, mostly healthy, and not especially disposed to violence, which makes them the most profitable prisoners. The trouble is that the Obama administration has rounded up and is deporting record numbers of immigrants, and with the unemployment levels remaining quite high, immigration as a whole is declining. So the boom in immigrant prisons is not sustainable either.

Think about it. Can anyone seriously argue that the drive for profit has fueled the six and sevenfold growth of US prisons over the last 40 years? For this to be true there would have to be not a handful, but dozens, perhaps hundreds of prison billionaires, just as there are hundreds of billionaires connected with military contracting. But these do not exist. There are profiteers, but not a hundredth as many even as in the field of rapidly privatizing education. Prisons have never been especially profitable.

Lock-em-up laws, aggressive policing, runaway prosecutions and racist policing have all been about enforcing a new social order on population segments whose labor is no longer needed as it was 50 years ago, and for whom no jobs, training, quality housing or meaningful education will be provided. Prisons are about showing somebody who's boss, about perceived “public safety”, about enforcing an unjust social order.

To fight the “prison industrial complex” , like generating a movement against the “new jim crow”, is to fight a ghost. Neither of them are real. What's real is 2 million plus people in US prisons and jails. Prisons are real, and prisons are about statecraft, not about runaway profits, not about “neo-slavery”, whatever that is, and not about “racism”, which is everywhere anyhow.

A movement that challenges the prison state must come in part from the prisoners and former prisoners and their families. It will have to be a movement that challenges the way we are governed, the way housing, health care, jobs and resources are distributed, the way we educate our young and care for our elders. The prison state is another aspect, along with privatizations and austerity, of neoliberal capitalism. That's what's real. Time to wash the “new jim crow” pixie dust from our eyes.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a state committee member of the GA Green Party. He can be contacted via this site's contact page or at bruce.dixon(at)



You said: "A college educated black male today stands a third the chance his uncle in 1980 did of going to prison, while today's black male high school dropout is several times more likely to serve prison time sometimes during his life than his uncle the same age and status in 1980."

I'm curious as to the source of this. Is that the "New Jim Crow" or elsewhere?

Thank you.

Financial Incentives for Prison Industrial Complex

I just had to comment on the financial incentives for the P I C.

"Lock-em-up laws, aggressive policing, runaway prosecutions and racist policing" are actual things in the world.  Of course, they are not "people" - people we can point our fingers at.

But at the heart of all of those manifestations of the corruption of power lie with the people that asked for them -- politicians, cops, das, judges and the blind or willingly complicit citizenry that supports them. Racism just makes locking up some groups people a whole lot easier. 

Look and see who had an enjoyable ride up the payscale the last 30 years (this seen from my home in California) -- politicians (no need to say how scummy they are), cops with 90-95% pensions and exorbitant pay (compared to similar job requirements), judges (need I say more).

The worst of the worst, in California, was and is the Prison Guards Union. 

"The growth of California’s incarceration system, and the decline of its quality, tracks the accession to power of the state’s prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (“CCPOA”).  The CCPOA has played a significant role in advocating pro-incarceration policies and opposing pro-rehabilitative policies in California. "


It is not the drive for profit but the drive for a big (relatively) PAYCHECK.  Scare tactics, racial injustice (or just plain injustice) and the growing police state is just a bonus.

The lucrative privatization of law enforcement.

“Traffic tickets are a multi-billion industry.
They have virtually nothing to do with highway safety, but they have everything to do with money.

When you begin to grasp the full magnitude of the public and private interests that depend on ripping off motorists through traffic tickets, you begin to understand why this unethical system continues to expand every year.

No one knows how many traffic tickets are actually issued. Many local units of government deliberately hide this information so they don’t have to split their traffic ticket revenue with the state. Not including parking tickets, we can estimate that somewhere between 25 and 50 million traffic tickets are issued each year. Assuming an average ticket cost of $150.00, the total up front profit from tickets ranges from 3.75 to 7.5 billion dollars.”


It seems that law enforcement has progressed dramatically since the days of chain gangs.  But not for the better.  Now prisoners provide free labor for corporations, not the state.

And enforcing traffic violations has become a lucrative industry.

After not getting a traffic ticket in more than 25 years, I’ve gotten a half dozen in the last two years for some very questionable violations.  Many of my friends have similar complaints.  Winning in court is possible, but time consuming and expensive.  And if you just pay the fine, you don’t get any points against your driver’s license.

On the brighter side, perhaps this trend will be extended into the war against drugs.  Instead of being arrested, you will be able to mail in a fine of several thousand dollars. No points, no hard time, no arrest record.

And if God exists, which I doubt, maybe you can pay off those sins of killing, stealing, and lusting after your neighbor's wife with cash instead of doing time in Purgatory.


As a former prisoner for a

As a former prisoner for a NON violent drug offense....I find it extremely disheartening that one of my FAVORITE commentators has decided to  over analyze an oppinion from a fellow sister that champions our cause...


"The New Jim Crow " is just a statement to attempt to identify  policies that have been implemented as a result of the " War on Drugs," since the 70's .


If Michelle Alexander wants to try and tie this disastorous policy to  former "Black Codes" , and or Jim Crow " So Be it...


The point is that  Americas drug policy has been routinely focused on  the African American Community ...

The incarceration rate has never matched our population rate or the rate of  usage or involvement in the drug trade....

Lets just focus on the solutions , and not an  absolute  perfect description of what is happening to our communities all over.

The policies are WRONG , and our black political leaders including the President havent lifted  one finger to change it....

Unless you want to count a a small incremental change for sentencing disparity between  crack vs powder....


Request for elaboration..

Prisons are real, and prisons are about statecraft, not about runaway profits, not about “neo-slavery”, whatever that is, and not about “racism”, which is everywhere anyhow.

I am really interested in hearing more about this statement. What do you mean? How do you define statecraft in this situation? I mean sure it's about statecraft in the sense that all countries are constantly in the process of crafting their state, but then what is the basis for that statecraft and what are its foundational principles? And how are they at play in this situation (profits? race?) You say racism is everywhere anyhow, which I completely agree with. But then how is the prison system not about racism or neo-slavery? In other words, can you please elaborate more on what what it is about? Why does the US have the largest and largest growing prison system in the world and how would you better categorize the racial dimension of that fact? 

I definitely appreciate the analysis of profitability in this article; it removes the attempt to sloganeer.

Thank you

For the first time since the Emancipation Proclamation......

The greatest deterrent to the malaise that exists in the inner-city (code word for black) is respect for, execution and enforcement of the Constitution and its laws.

For the first time since the Emancipation Proclamation, publication of the book title Theft by Court  holds other Americans accountable to the rule of law where an inner city youth has been violated.

"Character is doing what's right -- when no one is looking." said former Congressman J.C. Watts.

It is shameful that far too many elected officials, especially those who hold office in black America-the freest nation on earth,  place very little or no significance on the Constitution and laws when citizens over whom they exercise jurisdiction are violated.

The greatest deterrent to the malaise that exists in the inner-city (code word for black)  is respect for, execution and enforcement of  the Constitution and its laws.

Best Regards,


The only argument that this very strange example of bogus debunking seems to be making is that the New Jim Crow can't be the New Jim Crow because class is intertwined with race.   But that's always been the case.  Of course it's important to see that race and class issues are intertwined.  An article on that, rather than purporting to debunk, would have been valuable.   This article comes off as a shark-jumping moment for BAR.


Talk about bogus debunking--it's easy to criticize when you're arguing against a strawman.

"The only argument that this very strange example of bogus debunking seems to be ... class is intertwined with race."

Where in the essay is that argument made? If anything, I saw one passing mention of class within the black race, but that's about it.

You ask hard questions, Mr. Dixon; hard facts, new ideas to test

You made several good points.  I had seen prisons as government control, etc. but there's much in your piece I hadn't linked together.  I have known several people who were incarcerated, long pen-pal correspondence.  All have been released.  All seem to want to forget that they were incarcerated, as indicated by their last letters of goodbye. I spoke to one right after release, also.  It's hard for people on parole to organize to fight, yes?  The prison population kept getting younger and younger in the adult prisons, as one pen-pal kept me regularly informed.  He did informal teaching as education programs were mostly eliminated in NYS.  Mumia Abu-Jamal's Prison Radio commentaries are coming now from his being in the general population in PA prison, but still facing a life-imprison without parole.


One More Thing

To further bolster my claim of over anaylzing Michelles Alexanders book ...I will post a video from LEAP..A.K.A Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.....

Now after watching this you tell me if our current "War on Drugs" isnt the "New Jim Crow"

Bruce you should clarify your position... because I suspect a large number of readers would beg to differ on your oppionon on the "War on Drugs" , and just how effectively it has decimated afformentioned communities. We better learn to get on the correct side of the issues , and not allow ourselves to be caught up with knitpicking , and hairsplitting trivial professorial positions that serve no purpose other than to alienate, and cause rifts in a movement that needs COMPLETE  solidarity within the black community.

White Supremacy

People reading The New Jim Crow should also read David Roediger's Working Toward Whiteness and everying Derrick Bell has written.  And of course Oliver Cox.  About how racism has always mainly been about social control.  Not of people of color but of the white masses.  During the early 1900s, White Supremacy was sold as the better antidote to social injustice than socialism.  And it was bought.  Is still bought.  It constitutes the core premise of the Tea Party.  The greatest fear of Power is that whites will figure out what a hollow promise it really is.  

daw13 is right

Wonderful point, daw13.

Most of the "bad" -isms are about social control.  As are most of the infringements on any form of liberty.  

Censorship is about more than just blocking others from viewing porn or negative ideas about those with Power.  It also is about blocking your own mind from looking at other things.

Too bad there are too many people unwilling or unable to open their eyes.

Oh the poor white masses . .

Oh the poor white masses . . . .

duped by white supremacy to carry out its heinous crimes. To fight its wars of genocide against defenceless and gentle peoples around the globe. 

Kiss teet. 

Yeh - there probably is some truth in the assertion that most white supremacist policy is designed to keep white masses from rising up.  

Thing is . . . it's a policy that works. As long as there are black people to be "better than", to scapegoat, to exploit, to torment . . . the white masses remain pacified. So what the hell use is this "revelation" to me as a victim of white supremacy?

If their elites no longer want to share the loot begotten from their crimes, which let's not forget, are aided and abetted by the white masses, then why should I give a damn?

Good and fuck em all to hell. 


Jim Crow Sr. and Jim Crow Jr.

I have the feeling that Bruce rather over-shoots his target. He speaks of the old Jim Crow without mentioning its primary aspect: the disenfranchisement of former slaves to shut them out of the political process and deny their citizenship rights.

This is what Prof. Alexander refers to as the "new Jim Crow":  the fact that – as a felon – one is refused participation in the body politic and nearly all rights of citizenship.

The debate about who overthrew Jim Crow Sr. can have little bearing on, who has to overthrow Jim Crow Jr. I agree that the second has to include those directly effected – the prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. Still I would say that it is the realization that this, being an albatross around the necks of the progressive development of the entire society, behooves everyone, with a stake in democracy and progress, to take up the cause to cease its growth, stop its spread, and terminate its existence.

Yours for Peace and Justice,
George Pumphrey,
Berlin, Germany



While I think the question of who is incarcerated is important, I would hope it would not stop a bigger question of 'WHY'.  Placing those convicted of drug crimes in prisons does not solve anything.  It does not end drug use and it does not create jobs.  Spending $50K per year to wharehouse a drug user while spending only $10K per year on a public school student is just stupid.

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