Michelle Alexander, a well-known civil rights advocate and associate professor of law at Ohio State University, delivered the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy’s inaugural Gerald Gill Keynote Lecture in Cohen Auditorium last night.
Alexander began her lecture by denouncing America’s modern-day incarceration system, a topic which she discusses in her bestselling book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
“I know a lot of people want to say that there is nothing as horrible as slavery or Jim Crow that exists today,” she said. “What I firmly believe is that today – hundreds of years later in this modern, supposedly advanced world – there are people struggling in our midst, lynched by a system that’s profoundly unjust and laced with racism, greed, power and control.”
Alexander described her experiences working with individuals whose lives had been permanently derailed – sometimes justly – due to their status as felons. Mass incarceration can also have widespread consequences for other generations as well, she said.
“Felon disenfranchisement laws accomplish what poll taxes and literacy tests ultimately could not,” she said. “A black child born today has less of a chance to be raised by two parents than during the age of the slave trade due to the mass incarceration system.”
According to Alexander, American citizens and lawmakers alike continue to disregard the severity of these issues, as well as possible means of resolving them.
“We know that people released from prison are subject to a lifetime of discrimination and exclusion, but we claim not to know that an underpass exists,” she said. “We know and we don’t know at the same time.”
Furthermore, she explained, the fortification of America’s prison system has come at the expense of developing other institutions which would be of far greater value to society.
“Rather than good schools, we have built high-tech prisons,” she said. “Rather than create jobs, we have put up a mass incarceration system”
This phenomenon of investing in the wrong programs has been prevalent in America since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, at which point Americans abandoned the political ideals of a just society, according to Alexander.
“We could have invested in jobs and training so that people … could make the transition [from] the industrial economy to a service-based economy,” she said. “Instead, we chose the path of punitiveness and discrimination. As a nation, we ended the War on Poverty and began the War on Drugs.”
The consequences of this decision have endured into the present day.
“When black people ask for jobs and schools, they typically don’t get them,” she said. “The one thing black people can ask for and get are prisons. And we have gotten way, way more than we bargained for.”
Alexander noted that many of her listeners have been shocked by the connections she has made between the mass incarceration system and institutional racism. She rejected counter-claims that the dramatic surge in America’s prison population merely indicates a rise in nationwide crime rates, rather than racial impulses.
“We have the highest rates of incarceration in the world,” she said. “But while rates of incarceration grow, crime rates have fluctuated. Sometimes they have gone up, sometimes they have gone down. Crime rates are now historically low, but incarceration rates, especially black incarceration rates, have soared.”
Furthermore, it is impossible to deny that black communities are disproportionately hampered by the modern-day legal system and combat against drugs, according to Alexander.
“Contrary to popular belief, people of color are no more likely to use or sell drugs than white people,” she said. “But that’s not what you’d think from looking into our prisons, which are overflowing with black drug offenders.”
Alexander said that the Supreme Court and law enforcement institutions have not acted to reverse these trends and have oftentimes made the situation even worse for black Americans. She declared that a modern-day version of the Civil Rights Movement would be the only way to curtail the negative impact of the mass incarceration system and the War on Drugs.
One of the first key steps in such a movement would be for society to change its attitude toward ex-felons, who are permanently disadvantaged.
“Talking and telling the truth has never been enough,” she said. “We have to be willing to build an underground railroad for people released from prison.”
The movement has already begun, Alexander noted. She applauded the efforts of states, like Massachusetts, which have legalized or decriminalized marijuana. Still, there is much work to be done, especially in removing overly harsh sentences for possessing and consuming illegal drugs.
“A person in possession of crack should not have to go to prison and be impeded for life when someone who has the status of an alcoholic gets treatment,” she said.
Professor of History Peniel Joseph, who is the founding director of the CSRD, expressed his enthusiasm for Alexander’s appearance.
“Michelle Alexander’s book has really transformed the way we are having a national discussion on race and mass incarceration,” he said. “To bring her to campus is really [effective in] expanding that dialogue.”