The University welcomed New York Times best-selling author, highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate and legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, as one of the keynote speakers for its annual Rethinking Race: Black, White and Beyond Series.
Her Feb. 7 address centered on the incarceration of African American males and its mass similarity to the unethical treatment Blacks received under Jim Crow laws in the late 1800s. Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the age of Colorblindness,” argues that we have not ended racial caste in America, but have simply redesigned it by targeting Black men and decimating communities of color. She asserted that the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness.
During Alexander’s presentation, she repeatedly made the point that, in America, we are not living the dream that civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died to protect. She noted that during the latter years of his life, King advocated for social justice and the restructuring of poverty, more than he spoke about equal rights. Alexander said that King understood that without human rights, civil rights are unobtainable. She encouraged the audience to honor his legacy by forming a conscious social movement to end mass incarceration.
Alexander also spoke of the liberties lost for those incarcerated. For example, a person convicted of a felony may lose the right to vote, serve as a jury member, get a job, obtain housing and, in some states, the right to receive public assistance. In addition, the convicted felon may have to pay fines related to the crime and any child support owed continues to accumulate during incarceration. These lost liberties are similar, if not worse, then those lost by Black people living under Jim Crow laws.
How did this mass incarceration begin?
Alexander said that with its war on drugs campaign, the U.S. government targeted a certain race of people as the face of the drug-selling industry. She noted that the numbers of people using or selling illegal drugs are not isolated to one race, yet the prison population doesn’t accurately reflect that reality. Sociologists would agree that overall crime rates are steadily decreasing, yet the incarceration rate of Black men has soared, and these two factors are moving independently of each other.
In a year in which our country has reelected its first African American president, Alexander noted that the incarceration rate for Black men has quintupled from 300,000 to more than two million in a few short decades. More Black men are incarcerated today than lived in slavery in the 1850s. Alexander said that as a nation we have allowed a racial nightmare to occur, which acts as the new caste system in our country. After the death of King, our country had a choice to continue on the road of compassion and hope, but instead we chose despair, exclusion and injustice.
So what now? How to overcome the destruction?
Alexander reiterated her appeal to the audience for a new social movement. She asked that we all do our part to honor King’s legacy by moving out of denial and urge this generation to create its own version of an underground railroad to help those who are trying to make a genuine change. We need to build a new system of freedom that employs, educates and welcomes those who are trying to move from a life of crime to a path of hope.
In both her presentation and her book, Alexander challenges the civil rights community, and all of us, to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.