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Whether in prison or in jail, on probation or on parole, more African-Americans are under correctional control today
Michelle Alexander, associate professor of law at The Ohio State University, discusses how, though America is legally against racism, it is still an active part of society, especially when dealing with criminals. Alexander is the author of a new book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."
Photo credit: KAREN REYNOLDS/The Falcon.
According to new book, current system of penal discrimination revives Jim Crow laws
By MARIE KIEKHAEFER, News Writer
than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War, said Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer and associate professor of law at The Ohio State University.
“We have not ended racial caste in America,” she said. “We have merely redesigned it.”
Alexander spoke to students, faculty and staff in Upper Gwinn yesterday on the topic of her new book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” The question and answer session was a follow-up to Alexander’s lecture at Mount Zion Baptist Church on Monday night as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. lecture series.
Though people may wonder how a racial caste system could exist in the United States, Alexander said such systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, she said.
“All of us in this room are criminals,” Alexander said. “This idea that the criminals are over there, and we’re here, has got to end.”
Alexander argued the justice system in the United States is unfair, despite the widely-held belief that the justice system is fair and seeks to protect all citizens.
People in a “colorblind society” do not want to acknowledge the presence of racism, Alexander said.
As of 2004, felon disenfranchisement laws prohibited more African-American men from voting than were prohibited in 1870, the year the 15th Amendment prohibited laws that explicitly deny citizens the right to vote on the basis of race.
“These men are part of a growing ‘under-caste’ … permanently relegated by law to a second-class status,” Alexander said.
After being released from prison, these individuals cannot escape the felon label, she said. They can be denied the right to vote, excluded from jury service and legally discriminated against in employment. Additionally, they can lose eligibility for public housing, federal education scholarships and even food stamps, she said.
The “war on drugs,” which began in the 1980s, opened a way for law enforcement to discriminate against people of color, Alexander said. Such discrimination violates equal rights legislation the same way Jim Crow laws did in the pre-civil rights era.
“The excuse for all this is that it makes sense to concentrate on communities of color,” Alexander said. Yet, she added, “Studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.” Despite this similarity, though, African-Americans make up 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison, she said.
Alexander described the war on drugs as “a backlash against the civil rights movement.” “Proponents of racial hierarchy found they could install a new racial caste system without violating the law of the new limits of acceptable political discourse, by demanding ‘law and order,’ rather than ‘segregation forever,’” she said in her book.
Max Hunter, teaching fellow at the John Perkins Center, reiterated that very few people in the African-American community have not been touched by the drug wars.
While working in the Boston public schools, Hunter recalled, he asked one of his black students how she was doing, and she said her family had to bail her uncle out of jail in the middle of the night.
These situations affect kids, he said.
Hunter said he first heard Alexander when he watched one of her early lectures on YouTube.
“It was raw, but that’s what made it good,” he said.
When Hunter sent the link to Kerry Dearborn, professor of theology, Dearborn said she planned on only watching a few minutes. She went on to watch the entire lecture.
“It’s a deeper, more detrimental reality than I realized,” Dearborn said of labeling mass incarceration the “new way of controlling the black population.”
Hunter and Dearborn encouraged discussion of this topic through a community book club put on by the John Perkins Center and The Bush School this summer, as well as in an SPU faculty book club currently taking place. Dearborn also used Alexander’s book in her Introduction to Reconciliation Studies class this fall.
Sophomore Amanda Reeves said she believes Alexander’s message “demands a response.” Reeves became interested in this subject in her reconciliation studies class. After hearing Alexander speak, Reeves said, “The challenge now is seeing ways to respond.”
Rosa Corarrubias, a senior political science and sociology major, said she enjoyed hearing Alexander share the story behind her book. “Listening to what [Alexander] had to say in person was vital,” she said.
Dearborn agreed; the issue of legal discrimination is extremely important today, she said.
“Today there is an issue we see right before us,” Dearborn said, “And our kids will say, ‘Why didn’t you act?’”