By Daniel Hunter and Dan Buttry
Michelle Alexander tells the story of working as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union on the problem of DWB—“Driving While Black.” She met a young African-American man with extensive documentation of various police stops while he was driving. At first it seemed that he was an excellent test case for her to challenge police racial profiling, but then the man mentioned he had a drug felony on his record. When she said that would be an insurmountable obstacle to put the case to a jury, the man angrily spoke of his innocence and that he had just made a plea bargain. He said, “You’re crazy if you think you’re going to find anyone here to challenge the police who is not already ‘in the system’.” The young man tore up the notes and stormed out. That experience stuck with Alexander eventually led to the research and her ground-breaking book The New Jim Crow.
In an era of thinking our society is colorblind and when politicians must always be “tough on crime,” how does one speak out for people who have been identified as criminals, who have prison records, who have lost many of their rights including rights to vote? Who speaks up for those deemed by the majority to have gotten their just punishments? Who speaks up when the system of mass incarceration has created a huge “caste” of people, mostly black people and other people of color, permanently stigmatized by the criminal justice system? We think we are beyond race and have become colorblind—we’ve even elected a black President. But the staggeringly racialized criminal justice system has developed over the last three decades to create a new segregation system that has huge personal, social, and political impacts. The U.S. imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any country in the world, and the overwhelming percentage of those imprisoned are black.
Michelle Alexander, a teacher at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, as become that visionary. She claims that the old system of racial oppression, Jim Crow in the American South, though overturned by the Civil Rights Movement, has been quietly, persistently, and thoroughly replaced by a “new Jim Crow,” the mass incarceration system.
While the black freedom movement echoed far beyond the boundaries of a single issue, the victories of that movement included granting blacks increased access to voting, public education, housing, and jobs. Yet now, those are the exact things that someone loses by being classified a felon: no access to public housing, no government loans for education, open job discrimination, and often an inability to vote. Over five million people are denied the right to vote because of “felony disfranchisement “– a disproportionate amount of whom are black. Alexander has become the leading voice for undoing this new system of racial discrimination.
Born in 1967, Alexander went to law school and then worked with the American Civil Liberties Union in northern California directing their Racial Justice Program. That project became the leading force in a national project against racial profiling by law enforcement, sometimes called DWB, “driving while black.” Her encounter with the man mentioned above changed her whole approach and drove her into a deeper investigation of what was really happening especially to black men.
Dr. Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness spells out how out of the ashes of the civil rights movement was created a new system of racial casting. President Nixon’s “get-tough” approach followed by the War on Drugs under Reagan issued in a new wave of policing and crackdowns, which primarily targeted black people.
This new system doesn’t carry the same “White Only” signs but shows up in the marked difference in how policing is carried out. All studies confirm that drug use is nearly equivalent among different races (and, if anything, is higher among young white people). Yet Dr. Alexander uses abundant statistics to show what many have already experienced: that blacks make up almost half of those arrested for drug offenses and more than half of those convicted of drug offenses – all without explicit racial prejudice. The results are chilling: black men are imprisoned at six to seven times that of whites, leaving 13% of the country’s black male population unable to vote and other benefits that were won from the civil rights movement.
Through her book and speaking Michelle Alexander has become a new “drum major for justice” to challenge the pervasive and persistent structures of racial injustice today. Dr. Vincent Harding, one of this country’s great thinkers and activists ever since his days in the black-led freedom movement, has urged us to not think too small: “We must struggle in the hard places.” Dr. Alexander embodies that challenge, and she calls us to build a mass movement to halt this problem, which will be explored in part 2 of this series.
Daniel Hunter is a community organizer and trainer for social change. He is the author of Strategy & Soul: A Campainger’s Tale of Fighting Billionaiers, Corrupt Officials, and Philadelphia Casinos. He is working on the movement to end the New Jim Crow. Information can be found at his website: www.danielhunter.org.
For information about things you can do to help end the New Jim Crow: http://www.danielhunter.org/njc/The_New_Jim_Crow_booklet/About.html