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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration and Institutional Racism

Watch an interview with Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, litigator, scholar and author ofThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness exposes today’s racial caste system and how to resist it.

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General Assembly 2012 Event 213

Program Description

Racial profiling, criminalization, and mass incarceration of African-Americans constitute today’s legal system for institutionalized racism, discrimination, and exclusion. Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, litigator, scholar and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness exposes today’s racial caste system and how to resist it.

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TAQUIENA BOSTON: In the introduction to the new Jim Crow, Cornel West wrote, "Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow is the secular bible for a new social movement in early 21st century America."

At this Justice General Assembly, Unitarian Universalists have been called to shine the light on human rights abuses and injustice. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander shines the light on a criminal injustice system that is locking poor and vulnerable people in a 21st century version of a race class caste system that victimizes families and whole communities.

She calls us to be in solidarity with those our society dehumanizes as beyond our compassion, justice, and human dignity because of the label 'criminal.'

Please join me in welcoming Professor Michelle Alexander.


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Thank you. Thank you so much for a kind introduction, and for inviting me here today. I was just thrilled to be invited, and I'm happy to be here joined together with people of faith and conscience. Committed to meaningful service and social injustice advocacy. Committed to shaking the foundations of systems of inequality, systems of division, systems that cause unnecessary suffering and despair.

I feel there is an awakening beginning in communities all across the country today. So many of us, even of those of us who claim to care, and who have been committed for a long, long time to social justice have, in my view, been sleep walking for the last couple of decades.

In my state, in Ohio, you can't even get a license to be a barber if you've been convicted of a felony. Just today, the New York Times reported that more than half of the African Americans in New York City are jobless. More than half. Nowhere in the article did it discuss the role of the criminal justice system, and branding people and locking them out of legal employment for the rest of their lives.

For the rest of their lives, once branded, you may find it difficult, or even impossible to get housing, or even to get food. What are folks expected to do? You're released from prison, can't get a job, barred even from public housing, may not qualify for food stamps in some states. What are you expected to do?

Well, apparently you're expected to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs, accumulated back child support. In a growing number of states, you're actually expected to pay back the cost of your imprisonment. And all of this could be a condition of your probation or parole.

And then, get this. If you're one of the lucky few who actually manages to get a job upon release from prison, up to 100% of your wages could be garnished. Up to 100% to pay back all those fees, fines, court costs, accumulated back child support. What are folks supposed to do? What is this system seen designed to do? Seems designed, in my view, to send folks right back to prison, which is what, in fact, happens the vast majority of times. About 70% of people released from prison return within three years, and the majority of those who return in some states do so in a matter of months because the challenges associated with mere survival are so immense.

So what do we do? What do we do as people of faith, people of conscience in response to the emergence again, of this vast new system of racial and social control? A penal system unprecedented in world history?

Well, in my view, nothing short of a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in America. And if you doubt that's the case, if you think something less, than do consider this. If we were to return to the rates of incarceration that we had in the 1970s, before the war on drugs and the get-tough movement kicked off, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today. Four out of five. More than a million people employed by the criminal justice system would lose their jobs.

Private prison companies listed on the York Stock Exchange could be forced to go belly up, watch their profits vanish. This system is now so deeply rooted in social, political, and economic structure that it is not going to just fade away. It is not going to downsize out of sight without a major upheaval, a fairly radical shift in our public consciousness.


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And I know there are some people who say there's no hope for ending mass incarceration in America. Just as many were resigned to Jim Crow in the south, and shave their head and say, yeah, it's a shame. But that's just the way that it is. I find that today, many people are resigned to millions cycling in and out of our system, viewing it as an unfortunate, but basically inalterable fact of American life.

But I know that Dr. King, and Ella Baker, and Sojourner Truth, and so many other freedom fighters, who risked their lives to end the old caste systems, would not be so easily deterred. So I believe we have got to be willing to pick up where they left off, and do the hard work of movement building on behalf of poor people of all colors. In 1968--


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Dr. King told [INAUDIBLE] that the time had come to shift from a civil rights movement to a human rights movement. Meaningful equality could not be achieved through civil rights, alone, he said. Basic human rights must be honored. The right to work, the right to housing, the right to quality education, the right to food. Without basic human rights, he says, civil rights are just an empty promise.

So in honor of Dr. King, and all those who labored to bring and end to the old Jim Crow, I hope we will build together a human rights movement to end mass incarceration. A movement for education, not incarceration. A movement for jobs, not jails. A movement to end all forms of discrimination against people released from prison. Discrimination that denies them basic human rights to work, to shelter, and to food.

This movement must bring immigrants, who are viewed as criminals, together with those who have been labelled criminals due to poverty and drug offenses, and all the rest, together in a common movement for basic human rights, basic human dignity. No matter who you are, where you came from, or what you have done, each and everything one of us are entitled to basic human rights, dignity, and justice for all. The House —


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: How do we build upon the work that we have already done? How do we turn piecemeal policy reform work into a genuine movement for racial and social justice in America?

Well, first, I think, we've got to be willing to tell the truth. The whole truth. We have got to be willing to say out loud that we, as a nation, have managed to rebirth a caste-like system in America. And we've got to be willing to tell that truth in our churches, in our community centers, in our schools, in prisons, in re-entry centers. We have got to be able to tell this truth, rather than dressing it up, massaging it, trying to make it appear that it's something other than it is. Until we state who we are, and what we have done, we will never break this cycle of creating caste-like systems in America.

And that means forming study groups, consciousness-raising sessions. It means organizing forums, and it means building bridges between those who are working around immigrant rights, and those who are working for criminal justice reform, those who are working to reform our educational system, and those who are working for job creation and economic development in the foreign communities. We have got to see this as a common movement, one movement. Not simply separate campaigns and policy agendas. And it's only by education, and consciousness raising, and dialogue between and among people of conscience and advocates who are passionate about these different issues. But they share a common commitment to movement building for racial and social justice that we can move beyond piecemeal policy reform to something that will genuinely shape the foundation of systems of racial and social inequality.

But we've also got to do more than just talk. We've also got to be able to build an underground railroad for people released from prison. We've got to build and underground railroad for people who are undocumented in this country, and find it difficult to find work and shelter, and to provide.


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: We've got to build an underground railroad for people who are making a genuine break for true freedom, by helping them to find work, and shelter, and food, to get out of this education. Not just opening our institutions, but opening our hearts, and opening our mind. But, of course, even that is not enough because just as in the days of slavery, it wasn't enough to simply help a few, one by one, as they make their break for freedom. You had to be willing to work for abolition. Well today, it's not enough for us to help a few, one by one. We have got to be willing to work for the abolition of this system of mass incarceration [INAUDIBLE].


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: [INAUDIBLE] once and for all. We spent a trillion dollars waging this drug war. We're constantly being told there's not enough funds to pay good teachers, there's not enough funds for this, there's not enough funds for that. We had a trillion dollars to spend, and we spent it locking people in little cages, and locking them out.

We've yet to end the drug war, end all these forms of discrimination against people, whether they are immigrants, or whether they have been branded criminals because of some mistakes they have made in their past. And all these forms of discrimination can shift from a purely punitive approach to dealing with violence, and violent crimes, to a more rehabilitative and restorative approach to justice in our community.


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: So we have got a lot of work to do. And if you think it sounds like too much, keep this in mind. All of this, all of these systems of racial and social control, and this entire system of mass incarceration all rest on one core belief. And it is the same belief that's the same Jim Crow. It's the belief that some of us, some of us, are not worthy of genuine care, compassion, and concern. And when we effectively challenged that core belief, this whole system begins to fall right down the hill. A multi-racial, multi-ethnic human rights movement must be [? born, ?] one that takes seriously the dignity and humanity of all people.

But before this movement can truly get underway, a great awakening is required. We've got to awaken from this colorblind slumber we've been in to the realities of race in America.

And we've got to be willing to embrace those labeled criminals. Whether they're labeled 'criminals' because they came into the country without the proper documentation, or whether they were labeled criminals because they were caught with something in their pocket. We have got to be willing to embrace those labeled 'criminal.' Not necessarily their behavior, but them, their humanness. For it has been the refusal and failure to recognize the dignity and humanity of all people that has been the sturdy foundation of every caste system that has ever existed in the United States, or anywhere else in the world.


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: It is our task, I firmly believe, not just to end mass incarceration, not just to end the crackdown on immigrants, but to end this history and cycle of division and caste-like systems in America. Thank you so much for having me.


SPEAKER 1: Ms. Alexander, listening to you, my heart broke. When you were doing your research, did your heart break? It's, god, so awful.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, yes. Many times.

SPEAKER 2:Well how did you overcome it? You keep going.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Honestly, I think, there were many times in the course of writing this book that I wanted to give up. Stop doing it. There are many times when it felt too hard. It was overwhelming. I had little kids. I was giving birth to babies while writing this book. I felt like, I don't have to do this. And every time I would feel like I wanted to give up, and get really serious, and I'd tell my husband, you know, I'm not doing this. You know, I'm too tired, I have too much going on, I'm not doing this.

I would get a letter in the mail from a prisoner. I had been doing some interviews in the media about my work, and book, and [INAUDIBLE]. I'd start getting letters in the mail from prisoners. And it was almost like clockwork. The minute I was really sure I was giving up, a letter would come. And it would be from a prisoner who said, I read an article you wrote, or I saw you on TV, and I'm just asking you, please write that book. We need for the truth to be told. And do it for those of who have no voice. And it was like my conscience. Like I couldn't let it go.

And so I think that happens for all of us, when we know there's something we ought to be doing that feels hard, and yet fear whispers to us, to the voices of others, and forces us to do the work that is there for us to do.


SPEAKER 3: We're building a multiracial coalition in the town that I live. A bunch of us clergy have read your book, and organizing, and we're getting that energy, and we're ready to start putting pressure on public leaders. Most probably the county level prosecutor is our first target. So what would you tell us that we should demand that he do to further this agenda along, and get us a win in the right direction?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: You're making demands of the county prosecutor?

SPEAKER 3: Yeah.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Oh, well the easiest thing is to say, stop bringing these low level minor drug cases. Just stop charging any possession of any kind of drug as a felony. Just end it. End it.


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: [INAUDIBLE] it's within the discretion of prosecutor. They don't require to even changing the law. There's no requiring legalizing drugs, or even decriminalize drugs. It just means charging simple drug possession as a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. And that saves someone a felony record that will follow for the rest of their lives.

Now, misdemeanor records will follow you, too, and cause you some problems. But not in the same way that a felony record will. So that's one example, and I'm happy to provide others to you.

SPEAKER 3: That'd be a good one to start.


TAQUIENA BOSTON: Unfortunately, we have to stop hearing questions. But lets thank Professor Alexander.