Introducing the Language of Caste

On this day, marked as the 52nd anniversary of Malcolm X’s death, I am analyzing the introduction to Michelle Alexander’s, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This anniversary is relevant to Alexander’s intention for her written word.  Malcolm X tried provoking consciousness within the minority community because he believed that many were mental slaves to the political institutions.  Michelle Alexander explicitly stated on page four, paragraph two, “Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow,” to prove that she had to be awoken through her own personal journey to social consciousness.  On page three, paragraph 3, she reminisces on the time she overlooked the hyperbole – or what she thought was overdramatic at the time – “THE DRUG WAR IS THE NEW JIM CROW”.  When she first came into contact with “radicals” she thought they were crazy; throughout the introduction, she elaborates on how her experiences working at the ACLU started uprooting her from her  ~ somewhat ~ comfortable slumber.  Now that she looks back at how her mind used to view racial injustice, she knows that anyone is capable of coming to new understandings.  On page sixteen, paragraph two, she says that what this book is intended to do is, “to stimulate a much-needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States”.  The motivation seems to be the fact that Alexander has come to realize that Social Justice is not a contest of perfection; it is a process of growth, and we can all grow in some way, shape, or form.  If Malcolm X were alive, he would be proud of her realization and attempt to provide information for those who have not been exposed to this type of dialogue previously.

Alexander’s argument is simple, yet complex.  She wants to detail how people of color have been locked out of mainstream society into a permanent second-class citizenship (page thirteen, paragraph one).  Here is where it starts getting complex: how are people of color being locked out of mainstream society?  Her claim is that there is a new caste system, a new system of control used to stigmatize people of color: mass incarceration.  “Mass incarceration is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement” because it affects the black community disproportionately more than it affects the white community, creating the noticeable racial dimension (page eleven, paragraph three).

To help the reader wrap his or her mind around the message of the book, Alexander starts off the introduction with an anecdote.  This allows the reader to relate to the author and to think, “Oh, so it’s not just me that has been through a rigorous journey of trying to understand the complexities of the evolution of racism in the United States.”  She then shifts from what she learned from working at the ACLU to stating the main problem of institutionalized racism being mass incarceration.  She then proceeds to define and describe what that entails so that the reader becomes familiar with her language and approach to the matter.  Because this is such a controversial work, she has to be very picky with her word choice so the readers will not be so quick to give in to misunderstandings.  In my opinion, this ties into her framework.  She constructs her own analytical system of defining the concerning topics, labeling it as a “language of caste” (page thirteen, paragraph two) and distinguishing how the language of caste has evolved.  Alexander does not give the reader the option to evaluate if the evolution is present or not; what the reader can analyze is how the evolution of the language of caste has affected his or her life, and what he or she can do to fully remove its existence from society.  I have inferred that she will also establish an “Us” vs. “Them” dynamic.  Finally, she transitions into how each of the six chapters focuses on to relate back to the main topic.  Her objects of study for this are specifically black males and their experiences under the new caste system.  I appreciate that on pages fifteen and sixteen, paragraphs five and one respectively, she states, “Relatively little is said here about the unique experience of women, Latinos, and immigrants in the criminal justice system, though these groups are vulnerable to the worst abuses and suffer in ways that are important and distinct.” By addressing this, the reader knows that she acknowledges the diverse shackles of oppression, but can not fit all of them into one small book.

Even in the introduction, there was a beautiful call to action: We have to “cultivate an ethic of genuine care, compassion, and concern for every human being–of every class, race, and nationality–within our nation’s borders, or the collapse of mass incarceration will not mean the death of racial caste in America.” After reading the introduction, I have become more motivated to self-educate in order to ensure that the current racial caste system is this country’s last.


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