Teaching the New Jim Crow

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As discussed in a previous post “But we have a Black President!” teaching and discussing social stratification and inequality can be a challenge. A recent best selling and award-winning book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander, addresses these challenges as they relate to the criminal justice system. Alexander explains that “the book’s main argument—that the stunning, unprecedented rise in U.S. incarceration during the past 30 years marked the birth of a new system of racial and social control reminiscent in many respects of Jim Crow segregation.” In her book, she documents how the legal system of the United States works to construct and maintain racial disadvantages.

Teaching the New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander recently coordinated with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program in releasing a Teacher’s Guide for The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The guide gives multiple suggestions for lessons, as well as a wealth of resources for in-class exercises, discussions and readings. The first lesson prepares students to discuss the often uncomfortable topics of race and racism with the following objectives:

• Students will reflect on their own comfort level when talking about race.
• Students will distinguish between intent and impact and reflect on what it means in the context of class discussions about The New Jim Crow.
• Students will describe how stereotypes inform our implicit biases and how implicit bias impacts our interactions.
• Students will establish norms and learn strategies for having open and honest conversations about the content of The New Jim Crow.

This introduction prepares students for 9 more lessons based on excerpts from the book, and related classroom exercises and discussions that bring students through a history of racialized social control from slavery and Jim Crow, to the current state of mass incarceration. The final lesson, “The Fire This Time,” focuses on students’ thinking about and taking action regarding the question “What is needed to end mass incarceration and permanently eliminate racial caste in the United States?”

While the curriculum is designed for high school students, the lessons could be easily adapted for the undergraduate, or even graduate level.

Carl Root & Anne Lee

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