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The New Jim Crow author addresses GVSU audience

January 19, 2012

This morning, author Michelle Alexander gave her second talk in two days at GVSU. The topic of her lecture was the subject of her powerful book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness.

Alexander addressed a capacity crowd in the Cook-DeWitt auditorium in Allendale. She began by saying that she was tempted to speak about all the accomplishments of Dr. King, but said that she believed that King would rather have us focus on how we have failed to accomplish the goals of the freedom struggle. In addition, she said we must fulfill King’s call to move from Civil Rights work to Human Rights work.

Alexander said that one way in which we have collectively failed is our focus on court battles to protect affirmative action and other so-called gains made during the 60s and 70s. In the meantime, a very sophisticated effort was solidified to criminalize and demonize African Americans through the War on Drugs.

The speaker says that all of this is even happening under the Presidency of Barack Obama. We see a Black man and a Black woman in the highest status in this country, but we don’t see the images of African Americans who are just blocks away from the White House, where the Black community has become second class citizens.

Alexander admitted to the audience that there was a time when she shied away from making comparisons to the current Prison Industrial Complex and chattel slavery. However, after years of research and numerous personal experiences she could no longer not see the link, which eventually led to her writing The New Jim Crow.

The author spoke about how it is impossible and unethical to not look at our criminal justice system through a racialized lens. Alexander then dived into the thesis of her book, which is to say that there are more African Americans in the criminal justice system than there were slaves during the peak of chattel slavery in the US.

Alexander said that an increasing amount of Black men have been charged with felons, which results in most states of their collective loss of voting rights. She went on to then say that this intense criminalization of African Americans and other communities of color has made the US a country with the largest prison population in the world. She also emphasized that this has happened at a time when crime statistics do not show any significant increase in crime being committed.

What Alexander said is the main cause of the mass incarceration is the so-called War on Drugs. In fact, she said that there are more people in the criminal justice system for drug offenses than any other category of crime. Thus, Alexander says that this policy is a way of criminalizing communities of color, despite the fact that more White people use drugs than all other communities combined.

Alexander says that people still believe that there is a tendency to want to have heavy police presence in urban poor communities of color where drug trafficking was prevalent. However, Alexander points of that this is a myth and that the real reason for the heavy focus of law enforcement in communities of color is politically motivated to support the institutionalize economic policies of law enforcement agencies across the country.

The author notes that a policy of Stop and Frisk has led to massive incarceration rates. Alexander notes that this only happens in neighborhoods of poor urban communities of color and almost never in White, upscale neighbors. Even though we know that White people and White youth are more likely to have illegal drugs on their person or in their vehicles, which Alexander says is another indication of the racialized element of the War on Drugs.

The result of getting charged with possession of drugs in a Stop and Frisk action means that you will be labeled a felon. This is a label you will carry all your life and will mean that you will have a difficult time finding work, housing and in most states you will denied social services such as food stamps.

What are folks supposed to do? It seems like the system is designed to send folks back to prison, which is exactly what it does. Alexander says that bout 70% of those in the criminal justice system will go back to prison after they get out. This reality also has the effect of collective shaming of people of color.

So where do we go from here? Alexander says that those of us in the civil rights community have to come to terms with the fact that this massive human rights abuse that has taken place in recent decades has happened on our watch. Alexander says that nothing short of a major massive social movement is necessary for there to be any fundamental change.

The work of this movement will not be easy because it would mean the closure of prisons in poor rural White communities who are now dependent on prisons for economic stability. It would mean that people who have invested and own stock in the private prison system, which is an extremely profitable business.

Alexander said we need to radically alter the focus of the war on drugs to prevention and treatment instead of punitive incarceration. She also said that we need a massive shift of funding from the criminal justice system to public education, housing and community development.

The author then said that this work seems rather daunting, but it is no different than the efforts to abolish slavery or the dismantling of the old Jim Crow system. In order to do this work we need a renewal in the belief that movements for social change can be born again.

It is our task to end not just mass incarceration, but any form of a cast system in which we are faced. Alexander stated we need to create a modern Underground Railroad movement, particularly for those getting out of prison where people can be welcomed, nurtured and supported. The author mentioned a Take Action link on her website that offers to resources and ideas for local community organizing around this issue and that there are no groups on some campuses in the US called Students Against Mass Incarceration.

Other resources we would encourage people to investigate is the movement to abolish prisons and all the great zines on prisons and police at the online zine library.

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