Alexander urges action against mass incarceration of blacks

Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander

Law professor Michelle Alexander urged a packed ballroom of listeners to awaken to the reality that the mass incarceration of African Americans that has followed the “War on Drugs” has created a new caste system in the United States. The system is so pervasive it has created a new era of the Jim Crow laws that hobbled African Americans in the post-Civil War era.

The audience responded to her rousing lecture Wednesday, June 21, with a standing ovation, and stood in a long line to buy copies of her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, after the talk.

Alexander, associate professor of law at Ohio State University and former director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California, said that what has changed since the collapse of the Jim Crow laws has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. “We use our criminal justice system to label people of color criminals,” she said. “Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.”

Once convicted of a felony, a person is often unable to qualify for public housing, jury service, the right to vote, or even food stamps. “As a criminal you have less rights and less respect than a black man living in Alabama during Jim Crow,” she said.

She flagged some alarming statistics:

  • There are more African American adults under correction control today than were enslaved in 1850.
  • The nation’s prison population has quintupled over the past 30 years to more than 2 million.
  • There are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980.

“Most Americans violate drug laws in their lifetime,” Alexander said. “But the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color.”

People of faith can take action, Alexander said. First, she said, people have to be willing to be educated and face the truth. “We have to be willing to say out loud that we as a nation have rebirthed a caste-like system in American.”

Second, she said people need to build an “underground railroad” for people released from prison and for people who are undocumented to help them find work and get access to food, shelter, and education.

And third, she said, people have to be willing to work for the abolition of the system of mass incarceration and to end the drug war once and for all.

“The system of racial and social control and this entire system of mass incarceration rests on one core belief: that some of us are not worthy of genuine care, compassion, and concern,” Alexander said.


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