Civil rights lawyer explains the New Jim Crow

At a Monday talk, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander condemned mass incarceration of African-Americans as a form of legalized discrimination.
At a Monday talk, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander condemned mass incarceration of African-Americans as a form of legalized discrimination. Photo by Maria Zepeda.

Students and faculty filled Marquand Chapel at the Divinity School Monday afternoon to listen to one of today’s most influential legal rights advocates discuss the issue of mass incarceration in the United States.

Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer who gained national renown after publishing the book “The New Jim Crow,” spoke to the audience about the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States, which she described as a legalized form of racial discrimination. Because African-Americans make up a large percentage of America’s prison population, Alexander said millions of African-Americans nationwide are deprived of basic human rights to housing and employment, adding that the prisoners have fallen victim to the kind of racial discrimination that existed at the time of Jim Crow.

“We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it,” she said. “This is a system that has literally turned back the clock on racial progress in the U.S.”

Alexander said a series of American government campaigns to curb the illegal drug trade, commonly referred to as the war on drugs, is causing an unprecedented number of incarcerations, especially of people of color. More than 45 million people have been “swept into the system” for drug offenses, Alexander said, adding that the number of people currently incarcerated for drug offenses surpasses the number of people incarcerated for any one reason in 1980.

She said the government’s approach to helping American black communities, which often face economic challenges, has involved targeting the African-American population with “police and prisons” rather than implementing economic stimulus systems, creating bailout programs, or investing in schools and job training.

“Children are now shuttled from low-funded schools to very high-funded, high-tech prisons,” Alexander said.

She also said that the phenomenon of mass incarceration will be difficult to change because it is deeply embedded into the social and economic fabric of America. Many states feel that their economies depend on prisons, and that closing down prisons would have dramatically negative economic effects, Alexander said. She added that four of five prisoners would have to be released in order for the rate of incarceration to return to its level in the 1970s.

Alexander said addressing the issue of mass incarceration will require a change from a civil rights movement to a human rights movement. The fight against mass incarceration needs to be “multiracial and multiethnic,” Alexander said, and it requires a “great awakening.” She argued that the issue of mass incarceration can only be truly addressed by opening Americans’ communities — their homes, schools, churches and workplaces — to those whose lives have been altered by mass incarceration.

Audience members interviewed said they were impressed by Alexander’s persuasiveness and the strength with which she conveyed her message.

Kayla Parker DIV ’15 said Alexander’s talk made the issue of racial discrimination in America seem less impossible to change.

“I appreciated the idea of movement-building,” she said. “It was helpful and inspiring.”

Alexander is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University.

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