The New Jim Crow's Equal Protection Potential

24 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2018 Last revised: 12 Feb 2019

Date Written: February 27, 2018


In 1954, the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education opinion relied on social science research to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson’s separate but equal doctrine. Since Brown, social science research has been considered by the Court in cases involving equal protection challenges to grand jury selection, death penalty sentences, and affirmative action. In 2016, Justice Sotomayor cited an influential piece of social science research, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, in her powerful Utah v. Strieff dissent. Sotomayor contended that the Court’s holding overlooked the unequal racial impact of suspicionless stops. Though the defendant in Strieff was white, Sotomayor emphasized that “it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny,” and mentioned The New Jim Crow in support of her conclusions about the role race plays in suspicionless stops. The New Jim Crow, published in 2010, has sold over 750,000 copies. It describes how the criminal justice system disproportionately targets and incarcerates black men. The book has inspired a popular movement to end mass incarceration and the racial caste system mass incarceration has created. In addition to its appearance in Strieff, The New Jim Crow was cited in United States v. Nesbeth, a well-publicized 2016 sentencing order from the Eastern District of New York in which the court imposed probation instead of the incarceration recommended by the federal sentencing guidelines. The New Jim Crow has also been cited to explain the unfair collateral consequences faced by those convicted of drug crimes, as well as convictions’ disproportionate racial impact.

This essay is the first to study The New Jim Crow’s equal protection potential. The New Jim Crow’s presence in federal decisions is reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s citation to social science research in Brown v. Board of Education. This essay considers whether The New Jim Crow sits alongside canonical works of social science research considered by the Supreme Court in cases like Brown. It examines how The New Jim Crow is sometimes cited by the federal courts in passing, as a nod to a work that has infiltrated popular culture, but not always as evidence that influences case outcomes. Noting its appearance in Judge Scheindlin’s orders finding that the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk encouraged unconstitutional racial profiling, it questions whether The New Jim Crow could successfully support equal protection claims. It concludes that citations to The New Jim Crow represent soft law, albeit soft law with hard law potential.

Keywords: civil rights, equal protection, constitutional law, disparate impact, discriminatory intent

Suggested Citation

Macfarlane, Katherine, The New Jim Crow's Equal Protection Potential (February 27, 2018). 27 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 61 (2018). Available at SSRN: or

Katherine Macfarlane (Contact Author)

University of Idaho College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 442321
Moscow, ID 83844-2321
United States

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