For Congregation-wide Study of ‘The New Jim Crow’


Salient quotations, concepts, and key questions for Christians

The Rev. Vance P. Ross, senior pastor of Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., and The Rev. Eric Brown of the Children’s Defense Fund have created a collection of quotations, concepts and questions for Christians coming together to read and discuss The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.

Summary of Chapter: The Rebirth of Caste

Chapter One traces the history of American strategies of social control based on race. The chapter explains how a racialized caste system began prior to the creation of the United States and prior to the arrival of African Americans in large numbers. It illustrates how this caste system, based on race, has appeared in different forms throughout American history, first under slavery, then during the Jim Crow Era, and currently in the form of mass incarceration of African-American men. It also illustrates how, throughout this history, lower-class whites have been used by white elites to perpetuate the racialized caste system.

Key Quotations

  • “The emergence of each new system of control may seem sudden, but history shows that the seeds are planted long before each new institution begins to grow.” (p. 22)
  • “With each reincarnation of racial caste, the new system, as sociologist Loic Wacquant puts it, “is less total, less capable of encompassing and controlling the entire race.” (p. 22)
  • “Moreover, as new systems of control have evolved, they have become perfected, arguably more resilient to challenge, and thus capable of enduring for generations to come.” (p. 22)
  • “It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society.”  (p. 25)

Key Concepts

  • Racialized Caste System (p. 21)
  • Jim Crow (p. 35)
  • Law and Order (p. 40)
  • Mass Incarceration (p. 18)
  • Collapse of Resistance across the Political Spectrum (p. 16)
  • Racial Bribe (p. 25)
  • Reconstruction (p. 29)
  • Redemption of the South after Reconstruction (p. 32)
  • The New Deal (p. 47)

Statements for Deep Reflections  

True or False

  1. A racialized caste system no longer exists in America.
  2. Specific actions of U.S. presidents have perpetuated a racialized caste system.
  3. A racialized caste system would be capable of controlling the entire black community.
  4. White supremacy is a religion.
  5. The Civil Rights Movement is no longer allied with key goals of the poor.
  6. During the New Deal, blacks and Whites worked together to achieve the same goals.
  7. Mass incarcerations serve as deterrents against crime.

Short Answer

Please explain your answers with examples from personal experience and examples from the text.

  1. Describe the caste system in America prior to slavery.
  2. Describe the caste system within the plantation system in the antebellum south.
  3. Describe “Jim Crow.”
  4. How was slavery preserved in Jim Crow?
  5. Describe “Law and Order.”
  6. How was “Jim Crow” preserved in “Law and Order?”
  7. Describe mass incarceration.
  8. What relationship is there between mass incarceration and a racialized caste system?
  9. What roles have poor/lower-class whites played in the processes described in questions 1-7 above?

Connecting to African American History and Culture

The capture, branding, removing, seasoning, and selling of African humanity during the course of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade System lasted over centuries. From enslavement to various forms of subsequent caste status as a function of race, color and former slave status, the mass incarceration system today is but a rebirth of a 21st century caste. The resistance to the continual and various forms of dehumanization begins with an attack against one’s identity and belief in God.

Michelle Alexander argues that “The New Jim Crow” is the “unfinished business” of the ongoing quest for justice by people of African ancestry or people of color in the U.S. How do these quotations by others support her claim?

“The crisis had been a long time coming.  It went back to the Founding Fathers who gave in to southern threats, compromised and wrote slavery into the Constitution. They were not little men, the Founding Fathers, and they were ashamed of what they were doing:  they could not bring themselves to write the ugly word “slave”; they used instead weasel words like “persons held to service or labor” and they contented themselves with the idle hope that slavery would wither and die.” (Lerone Bennett Jr.)

“I saw no African people in the printed and illustrated Sunday school lessons. I began to suspect at this early age that someone had distorted the image of my people. My long search for the true history of African people the world over began…My main point here is that if you are the child of God and God is a part of you then in your imagination, God’s suppose[d]to look like you.  And when you accept a picture of the deity assigned to you by another people you become the spiritual prisoners of that other people.” (Dr. John Henrik Clarke)

“First the last two decades of the twentieth century produced a penal system that is without precedent in American history, and unlike any other in the advanced democracies…race and class disparities in imprisonment are large, and class disparities have grown dramatically…The criminal justice system has become so pervasive that we should count prisons and jails among the key institutions that shape the life course of recent birth cohorts of African American men.” (Bruce Western).

Connecting to the Faith

Biblical Reference: Gen. 47 – Exodus 1 “Now a new king arose in Egypt, who did not know Joseph.  He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.  Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor… Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw in the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.” (Exodus 1:8-10, 22)

In African-American faith traditions, accounts in Exodus, serve as Biblical images that come to mind when we consider creation of a caste system perpetuated through mass incarceration and unmitigated violence against bthe lack boys and men and the poor. To ease the potentially debilitating pain, from which we have found no relief, and to engender possibilities for hope, we focus our attention on the divinely instigated mass liberation – a crossing through parted waters.

However, reading the Exodus story as a continuation of the Joseph narrative in Genesis is essential to fully understanding the Exodus story, and more importantly, to answer the question of “Why does this keep happening?” Paralleled with interpretations of “what men meant for evil God turns to good,” is the systematic creation of a caste system implemented by unjust economic policies. On the surface, they seem compassionate; but in fact, they simultaneously instigate the first mortgage crisis precipitating loss of property and enslavement of both Hebrews and Egyptians.

The question is, how did this happen? The answer is “systematically.” First, a religious doctrine, (seemingly without history) establishes the spiritual component of a caste system as divine order. It destroys possibilities for intimate relationships between peoples of different heritages who share a common experience.  During a time of famine, when it was difficult to find food, it was deemed an abomination for Egyptians to eat with Hebrews. (Genesis 43:32)

Second, the system establishes the ethical component of a caste system.  An economic solution addressing the immediate concern (acquiring food to eat), depletes financial resources (money and investments), destroys possibilities for future generational recovery (loss of land), extends political power of the wealthy, and engenders complete gratefulness and loyalty (Hebrews give themselves as slaves). Yet with such devastating effects, the economic recovery plan was accepted by the masses because fear and insecurity desires only relief from the immediate crisis with no consideration for long-term consequences the “no”. (Genesis 47:13-25)

Third, the system establishes the moral keepers of caste. Two laws were enacted that guaranteed policies needed to create a permanent underclass and a perpetual class of wealth.  The first law was an extension of the economic solution beyond the end of the crisis (20% tax on the labor of the masses, none on the wealthy). The second law was exemption from taxation, protection from loss of land, and uninterrupted stipend payments for the priest supported by and supportive of the investments of the wealthy. (Genesis 47:26)

Faithful action and authentic freedom from this contemporary caste system require us to divest in all of its components. How have we and the institutions we love participated in and benefitted from any manifestation of these components? In which ways are we willing to invite change?


Faithful Action

Kujichagulia (Swahili for self-determination”) – To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.

Sankofa Statement: African-American ancestors have acted with kujichagulia in the past as Freedom Riders courageously made declarative statements of self-worth and equality. As we move forward let us acknowledge that our silence in the face of the “War on Drugs” (which produces and sustains an inhumane radicalized caste system), is a betrayal of African-American worth, value and identity. To explore what we can do to build on the self-determination and the resilience of African-American elders, we affirm the self-worth and equality of all of God’s children and that African Americans are equally and fully created in the image of God! Let us walk with bold self-determination as we strive to disarm the War on Drugs and dismantle the system of mass incarceration and purse the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement – with vision, by faith, through action.

Review some of the data in the Charts and Tables section, and collect other facts about your community and the issues surrounding “The New Jim Crow.” Please note and discuss any specific ideas you and/or your faith community might pursue to make a difference in our collective efforts to dismantle “The New Jim Crow.”

(Adapted from various resources from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, The Riverside Church in New York, the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., and other study guides developed to accompany Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, published by The New Press: 2012.)


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