University News

Lecturer criticizes ‘new Jim Crow reality’ of prisons

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Michelle Alexander, associate professor of law at Ohio State University, discussed problems with the nation’s criminal justice system last night in this year’s Debra L. Lee Lecture on Slavery and Justice. Alexander spoke to a packed audience that included President Ruth Simmons and Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts last night. Her talk, entitled “The New Jim Crow,” was based on her 2010 book with the same name that deals with the issue of mass incarceration in the United States.

“We as a nation have taken a wrong turn in our stride towards freedom,” Alexander said in her opening lines. Alexander, who also taught at Stanford Law School and was a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, described her personal “enlightenment” when she discovered the reality of mass incarceration in the nation’s criminal justice system. She said she used to reject comparisons between slavery and the disproportionate imprisonment of blacks before she came across a case of police abuse in Oakland, Calif., while working as a civil rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The systematic mass incarceration of poor people in the United States is tantamount to a new caste system,” Alexander said. She described the eye-opening experience of talking with a man who claimed he had been wrongfully convicted of a drug felony and had subsequently been denied access to housing, food stamps and employment. Though she initially did not believe him, she said she later learned on the news that the Oakland police had in fact wrongfully arrested him.

“The minute he told me he was a felon I’d stopped listening,” Alexander said. “My real crime was in refusing to allow the stories of those we feel as guilty from ever being told.”

The incident changed Alexander’s mindset about the drug war, she said, and forced her to ask herself “hard questions” that led to her decision to write a book. “What I learned in the process truly blew my mind,” she said.

Throughout the lecture, Alexander presented a series of statistics on the impact of the federal war on drugs on blacks, some of which elicited audible shouts of surprise from audience members. Fifty percent of working-age black males have a criminal record and nearly one in seven black men have been temporarily or permanently denied the right to vote, Alexander said.

“We went from a prison population of about 300,000 in the 1970s to upwards of 2.5 million,” Alexander said. “Incarceration rates have soared regardless of whether crime has gone up or down.”

Alexander said the root of her argument is that the drug war’s disproportionate imprisonment of blacks stems from the Reagan administration’s efforts in the 1980s to win political support from low-income whites anxious about civil rights advancements for blacks. The drug war was part of the larger “Southern strategy” to capitalize on whites’ fears for political purposes, she said.

“The drug war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color,” Alexander said. “There are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980.” And four out of five arrests for drug offenses are for simple drug possession, she said.

The ability of a lawsuit to address racial discrimination in the drug war is limited by Supreme Court rulings that consistently reject allegations of bias without cut-and-dry proof that law enforcement officials made a “conscious” decision to discriminate, which can be nearly impossible to attain, Alexander said. “The U.S. Supreme Court has closed the door on cases alleging racial bias,” she said.

In response to questions on how she proposes to reform the criminal justice system, Alexander said she believes efforts to provide felons with greater access to social services are inadequate to eliminate the “new Jim Crow” reality.

“This system … is not going to just fade away without a major upheaval, a fairly radical shift, in our public consciousness,” Alexander said. “We’ve got to be willing to admit out loud that we as a nation have managed to re-birth a caste-based system.”

The soul-searching required to overcome this challenge must be accompanied with compassion for the large number of primarily black felons leaving prisons, Alexander added. She told the audience the nation must do more than listen to “the same sound bites from Martin Luther King, Jr. during Black History Month” to put King’s vision of racial equality into practice. One key step would be removing the “shame and stigma” attached to felons so they can rejoin their families and communities, she said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The annual Lee lecture is sponsored by Debra Lee ’76, the chair and CEO of Black Entertainment Television Networks. The lecture features experts on issues related to the historical legacy of slavery in the U.S. and around the world. In his introduction to Alexander’s talk, Corey Walker, associate professor and chair of the department of Africana studies, called the lecture “a key component of Brown University’s response to the Report of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.”

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