top nav spacer
You Are Here: Home » Dhamma » Understandable but Unacceptable: A Buddhist Analysis of The New Jim Crow

Understandable but Unacceptable: A Buddhist Analysis of The New Jim Crow

Understandable but Unacceptable: A Buddhist Analysis of The New Jim Crow

Happy Friday, BPFers and friends. Today we’re glad to share this Buddhist book review from a very valuable contributor to BPF and Turning Wheel, who’s been doing a lot of skillful behind-the-scenes work: Stephen Crooms. I’m excited to share this piece partly because I love the idea of reviving the Buddhist Book Reviews on Turning Wheel (feel free to submit, any time, to submissions [at] turningwheelmedia [dot] org!); partly because I’m glad Stephen is spreading the word and inviting dialogue about the racist explosion of prisons and policing as it relates to peace; and partly because I don’t entirely agree with his conclusions. And that’s exactly where engaged conversation and learning can begin. I’m gonna hold off and think about how I’d like to respond, but in the meantime, dear reader-bodhisattvas, please feel free to share your thoughts, agreements, disagreements, and questions in the comments. Thank you for being with us this week, and thank you, Stephen, for this great, thoughtful contribution to the engaged Buddhist discourse on prisons!


In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander demonstrates that the United States is in the grip of a racial caste system with the same effects as that of the Jim Crow South. Mass incarceration, as precipitated by the War on Drugs, is part of a system in which low-income communities of color are policed, terrorized, and held under control. This system began in the 1980s, and has taken the national prison population from 300,000 to 2 million.[1] Crucially, this formally race-blind system specifically targets people of color, to the point that in emblematic Washington D.C., three out of four young black men are likely to serve prison time. In the following essay, I will briefly explain the system of The New Jim Crow, as described by Alexander (which is definitely just a summary—if you want to know more, read the book!); I will then offer a Buddhist analysis of steps that might be taken to remedy the situation.

Creation of The New Jim Crow

Alexander convincingly shows that the segregationist Jim Crow system was directly transformed into the current system of mass incarceration. First, she explains that segregationist politicians often framed their appeals in terms of crime and “law and order.” In 1960, Representative John Bell Williams stated, “The exodus of Negroes from the South, and their influx into the great metropolitan centers… has been accompanied by a great wave of crime… Segregation is the only answer.”[2] Others conflated civil disobedience conducted during the Civil Rights movement with everyday crime, and blamed the integrationist Supreme Court for helping criminals.[3]

As the Seventies rose, however, explicit racism became less acceptable in the public domain. Conservatives, ever resourceful, devised a strategy to exploit ongoing racism for votes. As one of President Nixon’s advisers put it, “you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Another adviser said of Nixon’s campaign strategy, “We’ll go after the racists.”[4]

This system would come to full fruition when President Reagan, speaking of welfare queens and criminal predators, declared the War on Drugs. This was 1982, when drug use was declining, and 2% of Americans saw drugs as a top priority.[5] A massive media blitz ensued, greatly aided by racialized media depictions of crack. Harsh new sentencing was imposed, police tactics were altered, and incarceration rates exploded. Politicians competed to be the toughest on crime — far beyond the Reagan administration, among both Republicans and Democrats.  Alexander argues that “Bill Clinton—more than any other president—created the current racial undercaste.”[6] By the 1990s, the War on Drugs and accompanying mass incarceration were the norm across the political spectrum.

How The New Jim Crow Works

Having explained the conception of the War on Drugs, Alexander next delves into the substance of the system. The federal government needed to provide an incentive for local police to focus so heavily on a problem that was not considered paramount. As such, they provided millions of dollars in financial incentives for local law enforcement to focus on drugs, along with military equipment from the Pentagon.[7] Perhaps most shocking, police departments are allowed to keep assets seized in drug busts, greatly enlarging their budgets. To seize assets, police need not convict the owners, or even file criminal charges; they need only establish a “preponderance of evidence.” Alexander explains,

“A woman who knew that her husband occasionally smoked pot could have her car forfeited to the government because she allowed him to use her car. Because the ‘car’ was guilty of transporting someone who had broken a drug law at some time, she could legally lose her only form of transportation, even though she herself had committed no crime.”[8]

This perverse system has led to rampant abuse and has been incredibly lucrative for law enforcement, netting one billion dollars between 1988 and 1992 alone.[9] Finally, asset seizure gives police a disincentive to ever “finish” the drug war, as it would mean greatly reducing their budgets.

Credit: Oregon DOT

These incentives have led to an increase in the number of drug offenders in prison by more than one thousand percent, from 41,100 in 1980 to half a million in 2012. The police use numerous tactics to find suspected drug users and sellers. In the “Operation Pipeline” program, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) trains law enforcement to use traffic stops and searches to find drugs.[10] Although 95% of stops yield no illegal drugs, tens of thousands of motorists are nevertheless stopped with no probable cause provided.

Paramilitary SWAT teams are another tactic frequently used by the government. The use of such teams for domestic drug investigations has skyrocketed with the War on Drugs; Minneapolis used its SWAT team thirty-five times in 1986, but more than seven hundred in 1996. Alexander explains that,

In countless situations in which police could easily have arrested someone or conducted  a search without a military-style raid, police blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting, and pointing guns and rifles at anyone inside, often including young children. In recent years, dozens of people have been killed by police in the course of these raids, including elderly grandparents and those who are completely innocent of any crime.[11]

A Racist System

Beyond the enormous expansion of incarceration, there is also the fact that crimes are prosecuted in a racist and discriminatory manner against people of color. In 2006, 1 in 14 black men were in prison, compared with only 1 in 106 white men, largely due to the drug war; this despite the fact that whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates.[12] But if the system is theoretically colorblind, and surveys indicate that the vast majority of white Americans believe racism to be a genuine evil, then how can rampant discrimination survive in our supposedly post-racial society?

Alexander attributes much of the problem to subconscious bias due to cultural stereotypes perpetuated by the media and political establishment. Stereotypically, guilt and criminality are associated with blackness, while innocence is associated with whiteness.  For instance, when one study asked participants to describe a generic “drug user,” 95% imagined a black person. Crucially, “you [may] hold negative attitudes and stereotypes about blacks, even though you do not believe you do and do not want to.”[13]

Subconscious stereotypes become a huge problem because police and prosecutors have broad discretion, or choice, as to who to target in the War on Drugs. For instance, police may conduct traffic stops or sidewalk stops based on suspicion of drug activity; because racial bias plays a huge role in determining “suspicion,” these stops are carried out in a discriminatory manner. Similarly, prosecutors have near total discretion in deciding who to charge, and what to charge them with; again, if a prosecutor harbors conscious or unconscious racial bias, charging will be carried out in a racist manner. And indeed, Alexander cites myriad examples of police and prosecutors targeting individuals and communities of color, despite the equality of drug use in society. In the following passage cited by Alexander, a U.S. attorney describes deciding, with a colleague, whether to charge a white drug defendant:

I had an [assistant U.S. attorney who] wanted to drop the gun charge against the defendant [in the case which] there were no extenuating circumstances. I asked, “Why do you want to drop the gun offense?” And he said, “He’s a rural guy and he grew up on a farm. The gun he had with him was a rifle. He’s a good ol’ boy, and all good old boys have rifles, and it’s not like he was a gun-toting drug dealer.” But he was a gun-toting drug dealer exactly.[14]

One might assume that these practices are unconstitutional, as the Fourteenth Amendment provides for equal protection under the law. However, Alexander explains that the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld racially discriminatory practices. In one crucial case, McCleskey v. Kemp, a black death-row inmate from Georgia used statistical evidence to indicate that Georgia used the death penalty discriminatorily against African-Americans. Alexander explains how the Court ruled against McCleskey:

The court accepted the statistical evidence [of racial bias] as valid but insisted that evidence of conscious, racial bias in McCleskey’s individual case was necessary to prove unlawful discrimination. In the absence of such evidence, patterns of discrimination did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment… the Court states that discretion plays a necessary role in the implementation of the criminal justice system, and that discrimination is an inevitable by-product of discretion.[15]

Essentially, the Court legalized discrimination — as long as no prosecutor or other member of the justice system could be proved an avowed racist.  Thus, communities of color are targeted, and methods considered unconstitutional prior to the War on Drugs are now are routine in rounding up suspects.

It is worth noting that I have provided only the briefest of summaries of the breadth of the system. Alexander provides many more examples of the discriminatory effect of the system, and of the ways in which it destroys low-income communities of color, already ghettoized by other historical forms of institutional racism. Again, to find out more, please read the book!

Facing Our Demons:  Buddhist Remedies for The New Jim Crow

“Equal Justice Under Law”

Truly solving all of these problems would require a systemic and multifaceted solution. The aspect of the situation that I would like to focus on is the association of crime and people of color, because I believe it can be addressed with Buddhist practice. As explained above, the continued existence of The New Jim Crow depends largely on the subconscious association of blackness with criminality and guilt. This association is a primary reason that police focus their efforts so heavily on the ghetto, and that prosecutors are so much more likely to charge blacks than whites. Beyond this, I believe it is nearly certain that if the death penalty were applied overwhelmingly toward white defendants, and not blacks, the Supreme Court would have ruled differently in McCleskey vs. Kemp, and other similar decisions that enable the War on Drugs.

The first aspect of such a solution is increased compassion for persons in low-income communities of color. I believe this is the most obvious and easiest part of the solution (though still extremely difficult). When a person reduces a young man of color to a “criminal” or “predator,” they do not acknowledge him fully as a person.  Even if the person has committed a crime, there is no acknowledgement of context: which could include traumatic histories, failing schools, and families broken by mass incarceration. There is no assumption that this person has a valid viewpoint and history—an assumption that might well be present in the case of a white person. To acknowledge a fuller context of a person’s life, to assume complete humanity, would be to suppose that the person has far more potential than a trip to a prison cell. It would be to suppose that a “get tough” attitude is not the only answer.

Even though most Americans today would agree that racism is undesirable, America’s difficulties with compassion are intimately tied to the subconscious racism that most or perhaps all Americans carry. This racism goes at least 400 years deep, originating in slavery and continuing to Jim Crow and beyond.  Few people really want to face this history, and I believe it is here that Buddhist practices truly have a part to play. Buddhism teaches that we must make friends with, and love, the parts of ourselves and others that we do not value—such as racism. Pema Chodron writes that

“We have such strong feelings of good and evil, right and wrong. We also feel that parts of ourselves are bad or evil and parts of ourselves are good and wholesome. All these pairs of opposites…are at war with each other… the truth is that good and bad coexist… The Buddha within is bad and good coexisting, evil and purity coexisting; the Buddha within is not just all the nice stuff. The Buddha within is messy as well as clean.”[16]

Making friends with, and being truly compassionate towards the racist parts of our subconscious is the only way forward.

A compassionate approach to racism is necessary because race is so difficult to talk about, particularly for whites. Alexander states that, “One study found that some whites are so loath to talk about race and so fearful of violating racial etiquette that they indicate a preference for avoiding all contact with black people.” Further, she quotes President Obama, who wrote in The Audacity of Hope, “Rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America; even the most fair-minded of whites, those who would genuinely like to see racial inequality ended and poverty relieved, tend to push back against racial victimization—or race-specific claims based on the history of race discrimination in this country.”[17]

This mainstream white recoiling to claims of racism is entirely understandable. When we think of racism in America, we first think of slavery, burning crosses, and fire hoses. Few white Obama voters would like to be equated with such things. As such, it must be strenuously acknowledged that a person’s subconscious fear of a “criminal black man” does not automatically enroll them in the Klan. Further, one can be an overall decent person and harbor such fears. Finally, these fears are to be expected, given the fact that we are inundated by such stereotypes by the media and political establishment.

However, understandable though those fears may be, they must not be allowed to continue to run unchecked through American society. We do have a choice as to whether to act on a fear, even if that fear does not make one a George Wallace. Currently, we are empowering these fears by ignoring them. Ironically, as Alexander explains, it is the very ignoring of these fears that empowers them, and gives rise to mass incarceration. Most importantly, every moment that that fear takes hold is another moment that millions of people are imprisoned.

This is a very fine line to walk, but I believe it is the only option. If we take white Obama voters— or practically anyone else— who support the War on Drugs, and label them racist with no context, there will be no conversation. On the other hand, when we describe subconscious racism as understandable, we come close to actually endorsing racism. “Understandable but unacceptable” might therefore be the best way to evaluate the mainstream attitude towards race in America. Further, I believe this is the fundamental challenge and paradox of Buddhism; to accept things (like associations of blackness with guilt) as they are, and that they arise from a certain set of causes and conditions, and to simultaneously fight like hell to change them.

No Easy Answers: Toward A Nation Free From Racism

It is worth noting that decoupling blackness and guilt will not completely solve the problem. There are other incentives for the justice system to concentrate on the ghetto, such as the relative powerlessness of its inhabitants. Also, as stated, there are currently enormous financial incentives for the police to continue the drug war; these incentives must be changed. Finally, racism in America is not purely subconscious; there are still many who truly believe in racist stereotypes. However, Alexander states, and I agree, that most white people in America genuinely do not believe in racism on a conscious level, and that these people would probably be open to compassion towards minorities. Further, a practical approach to ending racist stereotypes that run rampant in our society would certainly be a valuable part of any anti-mass incarceration movement. Obviously, in the largely non-Buddhist United States, an explicitly Buddhist nationwide movement is unlikely, at best. But a nationwide movement commensurate with Buddhist values is certainly possible and entirely necessary.

As a basis for discussion, we might almost think of the nation as a person. We can reflect on the traumas of childhood (slavery, Jim Crow, etc.), and acknowledge them fully, but without judgment. We would further consider the ways in which these traumas linger in our present day behavior, even though they are no longer considered valuable. Treating the racist associations of color and criminality as understandable but unacceptable is the best path toward changing our national mindset, and ending mass incarceration.


[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (New York, The New Press, 2012), 6.
[2] Ibid., 41.
[3] Ibid., 42-43.
[4] Ibid., 44.
[5] Ibid., 49.
[6] Ibid., 57.
[7] Ibid., 72.
[8] Ibid., 82.
[9] Ibid., 79.
[10] Ibid., 70
[11] Ibid., 74-78.
[12] Ibid., 98.
[13] Ibid.,107.
[14] Ibid., 118.
[15] Ibid.,110-111.
[16] Pema Chodron. Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living.  Boston, Shamhala Publications, Inc., 1994.
[17] Alexander, 238.


Stephen Crooms graduated from Columbia University in 2008, and is now the Communications Officer for Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and Communications Intern for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. He enjoys Vipassana meditation and yoga.



Use these simple buttons to share!
Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on TumblrTweet about this on Twitter

Comments (1)

  • Joel

    Thanks for the article. I love that you are using a book that could make you angry and desperate and provided a real approach to how to sit with these injustices. Turning towards the vulnerability and all of the emotions that come with it: shame, injustice, disgust, the ways we dehumanize ourselves and each other. Our capacity to use those emotions and see them transform into something new is not foreign to most mystics of all paths. The practice and influence of those values on our society is lacking. Great call to action and awareness.

    My only hang up in the language around it being understandable and please know that I’m not accusing you, it’s just unclear. Racism never feels understandable to me. Do you mean regarding racism as a type of delusion/unwise view?

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Scroll to top