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Confronting Institutional Racism in the US and West Michigan: Michelle Alexander to speak on The New Jim Crow at GVSU

January 12, 2012

Next week Michelle Alexander, author of the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, will be speaking at GVSU.

Alexander, a lawyer, will be giving two talks, both focusing on the thesis of her book. The thesis essentially says that there are more African Americans in the criminal justice system – prison, jail, probation and parole – right now in the US then there were slaves during the peak of chattel slavery.

This sobering reality flies in the face of all the daily punditry about how the US is now in a post-racial era. We here constantly that there is no need for affirmative action, no need for social welfare and certainly no need to even talk about racism in the US, especially since the election of Barack Obama. Alexander’s book not only challenges such claim, it smashed them with hard data and sharp analysis.

In Kent County, the most recent census data shows that African Americans make up only 9.7% of the population. While Blacks make up just under 10 percent of the areas population, they make up over a third of those in who have been arrested, are in jail or are on parole/probation.

In other words, Kent County is a microcosm of this new Jim Crow that Alexander speaks of. Other statistics also bear this out. According to the Kids Count 2011 data, African American children are seven times more likely to spend half or more time in poverty than White children.

The Kids Count data is supported by a 2010 Brookings Institute report from last year, which listed the Grand Rapids metro area as one of the top areas in terms of the growth in percentage of the population now living in poverty.

This kind of poverty has distinctive consequences such as the fact that, “The infant mortality rate among African American infants is almost triple that of white infants, 15.4 per 1,000 live births compared with 5.5 deaths per 1,000 for white babies.”

In addition, the Grand Rapids Public Schools, which serves a predominantly Black student population, has inadequate funds, resulting in disproportionately larger classroom sizes and low testing scores than the surrounding White suburban schools districts.

Poverty rates, the lack of quality education, and an unequal application of drug sentencing laws, means that Blacks are going to be disproportionately caught up in what Angela Davis refers to as the Prison Industrial Complex.

This kind of institutional racism is what plagues racial minorities within the US, but is not a reality that many white people are willing to acknowledge. This is often the case in Grand Rapids where the White community often becomes defensive when claims of institutional racism are raised, so much so that the most visible form of racial justice work is manifested in “Diversity workshops.”

However, diversity training does not alleviate Black poverty, it does not keep Black people out of jail/prison and it does not provide adequate funding for Black children to get a proper education. This is what Michelle Alexander means by mass incarceration in an age of colorblindness. White Americans disproportionately do not want to acknowledge the ways in which institutional racism is manifested in this country.

Michelle Alexander

Wednesday, January 18


Grand River Rm, Kirkhof Center, GVSU Allendale

Thursday, January 19


Cook-DeWitt Center, GVSU Allendale

Both talks are free and open to the public.

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