Author Michelle Alexander on ‘The New Jim Crow’

Ms. Alexander spoke on the link between racial politics, drug policy and mass incarceration.

September 25, 2013

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Author Michelle Alexander is the former director of the Project for Racial Justice for the ACLU of Northern California and a civil rights advocate.

By Brittney Dunkins

New York Times bestselling author Michelle Alexander discussed her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” at an event in the George Washington University’s Marvin Center on Tuesday.

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Africana Studies Program hosted the final event in the university’s Pro[Claiming] Freedom series in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

“What could Dr. King’s dream possibly mean for the 65 million people in this country who have been branded criminals or felons and have been stripped of the human rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement?” Ms. Alexander said.

“What does Dr. King’s dream mean for the millions that have been stripped of the right to vote and are now relegated to a permanent under-caste status? What does Dr. King’s dream mean in the era of mass incarceration?” she said.

The event kicked off with a panel discussion on “Race and Rights in the 21st Century” with Bruce Spiva, an attorney and former chair of the board of the directors of DC Vote; Eddie Hailes Jr., general counsel and managing director of the Advancement Project; Natalie Hopkinson, author of “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of Chocolate City”; and Daniel E. Martinez, assistant professor of sociology at GW.

Following the panel, Ms. Alexander began a presentation on the key parts of her book, which outlines the system of mass incarceration that has created a permanent under-caste of African American men without access to basic rights due to felony convictions. She also discussed her personal narrative in coming to terms with the racial discrimination she encountered that fueled her path to advocacy.

She noted her work on the “Driving While Black or Brown” campaign launched during her time as the director of the Project for Racial Justice for the ACLU of Northern California to combat racial profiling.

Ms. Alexander spoke about an experience with a young black man who approached her with detailed notes of his encounters with the police, spotlighting the brutality and racially motivated actions taken to arrest men in his largely African American neighborhood of Oakland, Calif.

As she listened to the young man, Ms. Alexander was excited to find that he fit the bill for the “dream plaintiff” the ACLU had been looking for to represent in court, that was until he said it—he was a felon.

Despite his assurance that he was innocent, Ms. Alexander stopped the discussion knowing that a felon would never gain the respect or sympathy from a jury in court or from the public.

It wasn’t until the “Oakland Riders” police scandal broke in 2000, outing the misconduct of four police officers that Ms. Alexander realized, the officers charged with framing residents for drug possession were the same officers the young man pointed out in his notes.

“I thought about how I just stopped listening to him when he said he was a felon, and I asked myself, how am I replicating the very form of discrimination that I am supposed to be fighting against?” Ms. Alexander said.

In the last 30 years the prison population quintupled, from 300,000 to more than 2 million people, despite the fact that crime rates across the United States are at a historic low.

After years of research, Ms. Alexander found that this mass incarceration is largely linked to the “war on drugs,” specifically the criminalization of drug possession.

“As a nation we ended the war on poverty and declared the war on drugs,” she said.

Ms. Alexander said the rise of global industrialization and technological advancement was behind the decimation of blue-collar jobs in the U.S., which were largely held by African Americans in the 1970s and 1980s.

As working class neighborhoods turned into ghettos, the conditions ripened for violence and substance abuse and the government reacted with “get tough” rhetoric instead of support programs, according to Ms. Alexander.

“When these people asked for better schools they rarely got them, when they asked for more jobs they rarely got those either, but what they did get from the government was more prisons and police officers,” she said.

This period of time effectively turned the corner for a move toward the mass incarceration of minorities in America.

“What makes a neighborhood safe is good jobs, good schools and access to opportunity,” she said. “Felony incarceration accomplishes what poll taxes and literacy tests could not.”

She stressed the U.S. practice of stripping those with felony charges of basic human rights, such as access to jobs, food stamps, public housing and the right to vote.

Since the majority of men in prison are African American, there is a disproportionate number of minority men who can no longer take care of their families or have their voices heard in the creation of government policies, she said.

This creates a permanent under-caste of minority men with rights similar to those experienced by their fathers and grandfathers under Jim Crow law.

To combat this, Ms. Alexander suggested removing the stigma surrounding felons and offering support to those transitioning into society.

“Nothing short of a major social movement, a human rights movement, has any hope of ending mass incarceration,” Ms. Alexander said.

“We need to create an underground railroad for people released from prison and lead them back to good jobs, good homes and a better life, but we have to be willing to work for the abolition of this system of mass incarceration in America,” she said. 

Additional support for the event was provided by the University Writing Program, the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Sociology, the Law School and the D.C. Archives.