February 22, 2013

Alexander on The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness

Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, law professor at Ohio State University, and author of the New York Times best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness, spoke about the mass incarceration of black males and how she believes that policies like the War on Drugs have facilitated this phenomenon at the George E. Kent Lecture Thursday in Mandel Hall.

Alexander explained that as a result of an economic shift toward de-industrialization in the 1950s, many blue-collar industrial jobs were lost, and this resulted in a surplus of jobless black males.

“We could have responded to this collapse with compassion, care, job training, and economic stimulus,” she said. “We chose a different road—of division, punitiveness, and despair. We ended the War on Poverty, and declared the War on Drugs.”

That new policy approach, according to Alexander, systemically targets black males for incarceration.

She said she first discovered the nature of the system while working at the ACLU in North Carolina. She met a man who told Alexander that the police had planted drugs on him. Unable to defend the man because he had a felony record, Alexander said, “It was then that the light bulb went off,” and Alexander came to the conclusion that black males face higher rates of higher incarceration as a result of what she sees as deep-rooted racist practices.

Alexander localized the  issues that she presented in her talk, noting, “If you count prisoners as people, in the Chicago area, nearly 80 percent of African American men have criminal records.”

She cited that incarceration rates have quintupled in the last 30 years, while crime rates have decreased. She claimed that this is due to the War on Drugs, which “has been waged exclusively in communities of color.”

“It is a system that locks poor people into a permanent second class. This new system is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow,” she said.

The Organization for Black Students (OBS) and the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) co-hosted this event, which was in part funded by the Campus Dialogue Fund.