The New Jim Crow and Are Prisons Obsolete.


The New Jim Crow book starts by observing the historical injustice perpetrated against black people in the United States of America. The Jim Crow laws and effects of slavery denied the African-American community the basic rights. The book brings to light the injustices happening in the current era characterized by mass incarceration. The author had for a long time held the view that the on-going mass incarceration was a new form of Jim Crow. Her experience as a racial justice advocate at the American Civil Liberties made her realize that this was a system characterized by racialized social control (Alexander, 2010).

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In her book, Alexander brings out the notion that racism adapts and takes different shapes to match a particular era. America has had a taste of different racial caste systems indicating a cycle for racial systems. The colonial period was characterized by black people being brought to America for cheap labor and the system of slavery placed them at the lowest social class. The Jim Crow laws replaced slavery but were based on similar principles of monitoring, regulating and suppressing the black. The other system that followed was the War Drugs where the black people were once again subjected to aggression and incarceration from the police (Alexander, 2010).

In her book, “Are Prison Obsolete,” Angela Davis brings out the common assumption that an increase in the number of people incarcerate would make a majority of the US population feel freer and secure. The commonly held notion is that prisons are places where those who possess undesirable characters are kept by placing social and economic barriers. The number of prison and their inhabitants have continued to increase exponentially from the 1970s. Using California as the perfect example, Davis shows how this growth has occurred. Between 1852 and 1952, California only established three prison facilities. However, between 1984 to present over 80 facilities have been put up (Davis, 2003). Thirty years ago, the whole prison population accounted to 200,000. Currently, the facilities in California alone have approximately 160,000 people. Being put in prison has become a component of a life especially for people the working class from Black, Latino, and Native American communities. The book by Davis ponders the existence of the prisons by bringing out the historical and reasons of why prison exists. She also proposes what seems like an acceptable way of eradicating prisons with social accommodative and acceptable solutions (Davis, 2003). This paper will seek to bring out the similarities between “The New Jim Crow” and “Are Prisons Obsolete?”


One common similarity lies in the manner in which the two authors bring out their arguments in their works of literature. Each other represents their main theme as a cyclic occurrence that moves from one cycle to another. In her work, Davis regards the growth of prisons as a means of establishing a cycle of events related to incarceration and joblessness (Davis, 2003). In her work, Michelle Alexander shows the evolution journey and the stages that racism has undergone in the United States. Racism against the blacks was introduced with slavery in the US where the black was lowly considered. The cycle changed to Jim Crow laws that continued the oppression and suppression of the black. This would later a new face in the War on Drugs. The two authors in their arguments that the two social problems do not happen at one point in life but rather adapt to a different era by taking the proliferation in different forms (Alexander, 2010).

The tone used by the two writers in their literary works indicate disappointment in the current issues being tackled. In discovering more about the history of prisons, Davis observes that they were started as a form of punishment, “if carried out in isolation, behind the walls of the prison- would stop being revenge but reform the law-breakers.” What started as a noble cause ended up putting people in isolation and oppression through hard labor (Davis, 2003). The prisons took over from the institution of slavery. In her work, Alexander expresses her disappointment on how the problem of racism has failed to be solved but rather have been allowed to flourish through transformation into states that fit a particular era as she notes, ‘the cycle of different systems of racist control prove that racism is adaptable and will change to suit a particular era” she points how it has shifted from slavery, Jim Crow laws  on segregation, and the War on Drugs all which have offered an opportunity for the oppression of the black (Alexander, 2010).

Another similarity between similarities between The New Jim Crow and are prisons obsolete is the approach that the two authors use in developing their works. They take an approach that includes giving a historical perspective on the issue at hand then present the current status of the social occurrence. In her work, Alexander provides a historical analysis of the racial discrimination against the blacks in the form of slavery, segregation laws and War on Drugs. She offers some light on the current situation that continues the practices of inequalities such as the criminal justice system especially on the War on Drugs where “80-90% of those sent to prison on drugs charges are African American, This indicates the racial injustice in the mass incarceration (Alexander, 2010). Davis brings out the connection between the current situations in the prisons with the past. She states that “slavery was a normal thing just as prisons are today.” (Davis, 2003) With this, she puts a hope that just like we all concluded that slavery was wrong, we might be headed to make a similar connection on prisons. Davis makes a comparison of how slavery was used to oppress the Black where the White enjoyed more privileges than Black thereby taking advantage of the Blacks. Following this example, Davis shows how the same concept has been borrowed in prisons where prisoners have not rights just like the Blacks in the past. Prisoners provide free labor which is leaf directly borrowed from slavery. The two writes used this approach of using a historical approach to lay the foundation of their perspectives were current vices in the society today are associate to historical injustices that continue to affect the society (Davis, 2003).

The two authors are critical of the actions of some stakeholders whose actions or inactions do not help improve the situation. This is well brought out in the critical tone and criticizing language. Alexander states that “Colorblindness, though widely touted as the solution is the problem…Colorblindness has proved to be catastrophic for African Americans.” (Alexander, 2010) She observed that the problem of mass incarceration had not been addressed in solidarity by African-American leaders like was the case for action against Jim Crow Laws. She also criticizes the inaction by civil rights lawyers who ought to have more awareness on the matter as compared to the general public. The civil rights lawyers who in the freedom fight in the 1950s were on the frontline of fighting the inequalities are now seemingly focused on issued affecting the middle-class and the wealthy. Davis criticizes the increased engagement of corporation in establishing prison facilities, security, healthcare delivery and food programs. They have adopted the concept of using prison labor. Davis observes that “many corporations with global markets now rely on prisons as an important source of profits helps us to understand the rapidity with which prisons began to proliferate at a time when official studies indicated that the crime rate was falling.’ This indicates that the groups by either their action or inactions have contributed to increased inequalities through mass incarceration and prison boom (Davis, 2003).


As discussed above there are similarities between the New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and are Prisons Obsolete by Angel Davis. This can be found in the tone, language, theme, and approach. They both use a historical perspective to elaborate on the seriousness of the issue. They express their story in a disappointment tone for the continued proliferation of inequalities. They all criticize the role some groups play in fueling the continued injustices. Also, both writers in their work tackle the issue of inequality and oppression of some in the society. As Alexander closes her work, “We will be free, when they are.”

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