Best-Selling Author Michelle Alexander: Mass Incarceration and The New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander.  Photo courtesy of Marist College.

Michelle Alexander. Photo courtesy of Marist College.

Michelle Alexander - civil rights lawyer, advocate and legal scholar - visited Marist College on March 1st to discuss the current climate of civil rights in the United States.

Alexander is well-known for her New York Times bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

The New Jim Crow accounts “the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement.”

“What this book is intended to do - the only thing that it is intended to do - is to stimulate a much needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States,” Alexander said.

The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration. According to The Sentencing Project, there are over two million people in the nation’s prisons and jails - a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years.

“It’s remarkable how quickly as a nation we have adjusted to being the leading incarcerator in the world...thanks to the war on drugs and the Get Tough movement,” Alexander said. “It’s unlike anything this world has ever seen. And yet, it has quickly become normalized in part because of this narrative about black criminality and being prone to violence.”

“That fundamental contradiction between the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the birth of slavery in this country...has made it necessary for stories to be told that rationalizes the glaring inequality,” Alexander added. “The story of black inferiority in particular...that was used to rationalize slavery, it was tried out again to rationalize Jim Crow.”

“It’s those very same stereotypes...that are used to rationalize and normalize the system of mass incarceration in the United States.”

Mass incarceration has disproportionately affected black communities. According to The Sentencing Project, people of color make up 37 percent of the U.S. population, but 67 percent of the prison population.

African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men.

Photo Courtesy of  Marist College.

Photo Courtesy of Marist College.

Alexander was inspired to write The New Jim Crow based on her experiences working as a civil rights lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in California.

“I had a series of experiences that began what I now call my awakening,” Alexander said. “I awakened to the reality that our criminal justice system now functions much more like a system of racial and social control than a system of crime prevention and control.”

The ACLU launched the Driving While Black or Brown Campaign (DWB) in the late 1990s, focusing on racial profiling by police. The ACLU won a lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol for their racial profiling and drug interdiction practices, but was looking to continue lawsuits against other departments.

One day, a young man entered Alexander’s office holding a thick stack of papers. He had recorded detailed notes of encounters with the Oakland Police Department over about a nine month period.

He was Alexander’s dream plaintiff, until she discovered his felony record. She turned him away.

“We couldn’t possibly represent someone as a main plaintiff that had a felony record because we knew that law enforcement and the media would be all over them saying, ‘of course the police are keeping their eye on him...he’s a felon. This isn’t about race, it’s about police going after the criminal,’” Alexander said.

The man defended his innocence, claiming the police framed him. He felt forced to plead guilty, settling for felony probation instead of facing threats of up to 15 years in prison.

“What’s to become of me,” he said. “I can’t get a job anywhere because of my felony record... I can’t even get access to public housing with my felony record...I can’t even get food stamps. Good luck finding one young black man in my neighborhood they haven’t gotten to yet. They’ve gotten to us all already.”

He grabbed his notes and ripped them to pieces.

The Oakland Riders Police scandal broke several months after that. According to The Washington Post, “the so-called ‘Riders’ were considered the best and the brightest, veterans whom rookie police officers tried to emulate. Their specialty: bringing in reputed drug dealers in record numbers from the crime-plagued streets of West Oakland.”

Officers went on trial for using dishonest and sometimes brutal tactics in making those arrests. One of the lead officers identified and charged was an officer identified to Alexander by the man.

“The minute he told me he was a felon I just stopped listening - I couldn’t even hear what he had to say,” Alexander said. “We hadn’t been able to find one young black man in this neighborhood that they hadn’t gotten to yet.”

Photo Courtesy of  Marist College.

Photo Courtesy of Marist College.

Michael Love, Marist alumnus and director of community liaisons for the Hudson Valley Community Center, inquired about the lessons Alexander has learned since publishing The New Jim Crow, as well as how racism has changed since the book’s publication.

“When I first published the book, I had a very hard time getting anyone to listen,” Alexander said. “It is very encouraging that many more people are willing to have this conversation, and I credit many young activists who took to the streets in Ferguson and beyond.”

“I was just in Charlottesville a couple of days ago where you had Nazis and white supremacists marching onto UVA’s campus...We’re at a point where so much of the racial bigotry that was under the surface has been forced into daylight,” Alexander added. “It gives us an opportunity to face the fact that we have been in denial for a very long time...we’re seeing forms of racial bias that many of us were unwilling to face.”

Alexander believes American politics and economics has contributed to decades of injustice toward poor people and people of color.

“We have an economy and a political system which predictably creates disposable populations,” Alexander said. “Mass incarceration has been our answer to both economic and political crisis that we have been unwilling to face for a long time.”

Alexander disputed the rhetoric by President Trump that immigrants - especially undocumented immigrants - are a threat to American safety. According to The New York Times, “several studies, over many years, have concluded that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.”

The same narrative occurred during the war on drugs. “Whites and blacks use drugs at almost exactly the same rates,” according to the ACLU. “Nevertheless, African-Americans are admitted to state prisons at a rate that is 13.4 times greater than whites.”

(From left to right) Assistant Professor of Psychology Jocelyn R. Smith Lee, Assistant Professor of Public Administration Tia Sherèe Gaynor, guest speaker Michelle Alexander, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Addrain Conyers, and Bryanna Adams '17.  Photo Courtesy of  Marist College .

(From left to right) Assistant Professor of Psychology Jocelyn R. Smith Lee, Assistant Professor of Public Administration Tia Sherèe Gaynor, guest speaker Michelle Alexander, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Addrain Conyers, and Bryanna Adams '17. Photo Courtesy of Marist College.

Mark Palmer, a sophomore political science major at Marist, addressed the current opioid crisis, questioning societal response compared to the war on drugs - specifically, if the opioid crisis should be treated through public health or criminal justice.

“Putting Donald Trump aside, for the most part, legislatures and law enforcement have treated the opioid crisis with much more care and compassion and concern than was ever afforded to folks who were struggling with crack addiction,” Alexander said.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 64,000 overdose deaths occurred in 2016, including 20,000 overdose deaths from synthetic opioids.

Alexander argues that the United States should decriminalize all drugs from personal use. Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001, launching a major public health campaign to fight addiction. In 15 years, only about 25,000 Portuguese use heroin, down from 100,000 when the policy began.

“The stigma associated with criminalizing drugs makes it very difficult for people to get help when they need it,” Alexander said. “The very last thing you need when you’re struggling to overcome a drug problem is a felony record.”

Overall, Alexander is hopeful for the future of civil rights in the United States, but there is much more work to be done.

“If we understand ourselves to be part of an ongoing revolutionary movement in this country, then it’s Trump that’s the resistance,” Alexander said. “Those who want to take us back to another time, supposedly ‘Make America Great Again’ - that’s resisting this onward movement that I hope we will prove is unstoppable in this country.”

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