Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System

Racialized social control has adapted to race-neutral social and political norms in the form of mass incarceration. Criminalization stands in as a proxy for overt racism by limiting the rights and freedoms of a racially defined undercaste.
Grade Level

Teaching 'The New Jim Crow'
Lesson 7: Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System

Essential Questions

  • How does mass incarceration function as a mechanism of racialized social control in the United States today?
  • What is “the age of colorblindness” and how does it attempt to mask racial caste?


Big Idea

  • Racialized social control has adapted to race-neutral social and political norms in the form of mass incarceration. Criminalization stands in as a proxy for overt racism in limiting the rights and freedoms of a racially defined undercaste. 



  • Students will identify racial disparities in the rates of arrest, conviction and sentencing for drug crimes. 
  • Students will analyze how political rhetoric and media imagery have fed racial stereotypes about drug crime.
  • Students will define implicit bias and discuss its prevalence in drug law enforcement. 
  • Students will evaluate how the Supreme Court has ruled with regard to discrimination in the criminal justice system. 


Required Materials


Optional Materials


Background Knowledge and Knowledge Areas

  • terms related to the judicial branch of government (Supreme Court, plaintiff, defendant, plea, standing)
  • Eighth and 14th Amendments


Tier II and III vocabulary

  • arbitrary
  • chokeholds
  • discretion
  • disparity
  • exacerbating
  • lenient
  • mandatory sentencing
  • paradigm
  • rehabilitation
  • rhetoric
  • saturated
  • socioeconomic


Warm Up

Write the prompt (below) on the board and allow students time to quietly and independently respond in writing. If you have a journal procedure, use it here. Allow time for sharing and discussion.

Complete the prompts “Something I know … ”, “Something I believe … ” and “Something I wonder ... ” about each of the following (totaling nine responses): 

  1. crack cocaine
  2. media coverage of crime
  3. racial profiling


Before Reading

Prepare students for thinking about the themes and topics in the excerpt “The Color of Justice” with the strategies below.

The Anticipation Guide includes a list of statements that students engage with before reading the excerpt. Encourage them to note their gut responses and beliefs in the first column. (Students will return to this guide during the closing activity.) 

Text Graffiti exposes students to short pieces of the text prior to having them read the full excerpt. Students read selected quotes out of context, silently comment on the quote and then respond to their peers’ comments. 


During Reading

Engage students in a close reading of the excerpt. Use the text-dependent questions provided to build comprehension through textual analysis, or create your own to develop this thinking habit among students.

  1. First Read. Have students read the excerpt independently and silently, marking the text with Thinking notes. Thinking notes are annotations (highlights, underlines or symbols) that students make to document their thinking during reading. 

  2. Second Read. Facilitate a Shared Reading of the excerpt. 

You can modify shared reading for partner or paired readers with a Say Something activity, during which students take turns reading aloud to each other, stopping occasionally to comment on or question the text. 


After Reading

Facilitate a class discussion that centers on asking and answering text-dependent questions, including student-created questions. Discussions can be structured in a number of ways. Here are three suggestions: 

  • Text Talk Time is a whole class discussion structured to facilitate rich dialogue, active listening and use of textual evidence. The group setting challenges students to analyze The New Jim Crow through collaborative discussion and gives students an opportunity to practice answering questions they may later be asked to write about. 
  • Fishbowl is an engaging and student-centered strategy that builds comprehension while developing group discussion skills. In the inner circle, or fishbowl, students have a text-based discussion and practice responding to multiple points of view; students in the outer circle listen to the discussion and take notes.
  • Socratic Seminar is an inquiry-driven discussion in which students examine issues and respond to open-ended questions about the themes and topics in a text. Using dialogue rather than debate to communicate, students listen attentively and respond civilly. But they are also expected to think critically, make persuasive claims and counterclaims and generate questions supported by evidence. 


Closing Activity

Have students return to the Anticipation Guide. In this guide, they responded to statements (before reading), sharing their gut responses and beliefs. 

Ask students to re-examine the same statements, this time through Alexander’s lens. Challenge students to identify her position on each statement—by writing true/false; agree/disagree in the second column. Ask them to provide textual evidence from “The Color of Justice” in the third column to substantiate their response.

Lastly, have students reflect on how their views may have changed after reading the excerpt and reflecting on Alexander's perspective. (Have them complete the fourth column.) 


Exit Ticket

Have students return to their “I know … , I wonder … , I believe … ” responses from the Warm Up. 

  1. Has anything you thought you knew changed? Explain.
  2. Have any of your beliefs changed? Explain.
  3. Were any of the things you wondered about answered? Explain.
  4. What new questions do you have?


Return to Teaching The New Jim Crow | Proceed to Lesson 8 - Understanding the Prison Label

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