Famed author criticizes systematic mass incarceration
Kiera Johnsen | Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Bestselling author Michelle Alexander discussed racial injustice and mass incarceration in the American justice system during a lecture at Saint Mary’s in O’Laughlin Auditorium on Tuesday.
Alexander said the criminal justice system has created a new form of the former Jim Crow laws, exemplified in practices like discrimination against felons.
“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt, so we don’t,” Alexander said. “Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color criminals and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.
“Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways it was once legal to discriminate against African-Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination, employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, exclusion from jury service are suddenly legal.
“As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights and arguably less respect than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended castes in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Alexander said the war on drugs and the get-tough-on-crime movement contributed to the problems of mass incarceration.
“Since the drug war began in the 1980s, more than 40 million people have been arrested, primarily for non-violent drug-related offenses,” Alexander said. “There are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980.
“Most Americans violate drug laws in their lifetime. But this war has been waged exclusively in poor communities of color despite the fact that studies consistently show now that for decades, contrary popular belief, colored people are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites.”
Alexander said blindness inhibits progress against the oppressiveness of mass incarceration.
“If you are not personally affected by this new system, if you yourself have not done time and are labeled a felon and are forced to check off that box on housing applications, employment applications, if you don’t have a brother, sister, nephew, mother, father behind bars, if you yourself have not been made to lie spread eagle on the pavement with a gun at your head, if you yourself have not been touched, it is easy to go around and have no idea what is going on,” Alexander said. “If we are going to build a movement to end this system, we first have to make visible what is in plain sight.”
Alexander said more African-American adults are under correctional control today, in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850.
“What makes neighborhoods safe is not the number of guns but the number of good schools, good jobs, good opportunities for people, opportunities to improve one’s life,” she said. “In so many towns and communities across America, a choice has been made, and it is a deliberate choice, a choice that has been made over and over again.
“Rather than good schools, we have built hi-tech prisons. Rather than create jobs, we have embarked on an unprecedented race to incarcerate that has left millions of Americans permanently locked up and locked out.”
Alexander said images of racial progress create misconceptions on why prisoners cannot improve their own prospects.
“Over the years I’ve given a lot of thought to how we’ve been lulled to sleep, become so indifferent to the suffering and exclusion of those we think of as criminals,” she said. “The reasons are numerous, of course, but among the most important, I think, are the images of great racial progress — images that reinforce that those who are left behind, those who have been stuck at the bottom, those who are cycling in and out of prison find themselves there for reasons that can be barely described as ‘their own fault.’”
Alexander said unintentional biases and stereotypes contribute to the reasons police stop African-Americans more than whites.
“Most police officers, like the rest of us, know better than to state racial biases, but more importantly, so many of the biases that drive law enforcement decision-making operate on an unconscious level that many well-meaning, well-intentioned officers cannot admit to themselves their own biases,” Alexander said. “A police officer driving down the street seeing a group of young black kids walking with their pants sagging a little bit — the officer says, ‘Oh you know what, I’m going to jump out, check them out, frisk them, see if they got anything on them. I’m doing my job, keeping the streets safe.’
“He may not mean those young men any harm. He’s just trying to engage in some good aggressive policing. But that same officer seeing a group of young white kids walking down the street, even with their pants sagging. The officer is not likely to jump out and have them spread eagle on the sidewalk.”
Alexander said despite all the problems, there is hope and good news after the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, in recent months and the decrease in incarceration rates.
“In honor of all those who risked their lives to end earlier forms of racial and social control, I hope we will commit ourselves to building a truly revolutionary human rights movement for justice,” she said. “A movement for education, not incarceration, for jobs, not jails, a movement to end all legal forms of discrimination against people released from prison — discrimination that denies them basic human rights to work, to shelter, to food. … A movement that challenges all of us to respond for greater care and compassion and concern to those we view as the others.”