Tonight I was able to attend Michelle Alexander’s lecture at the University of St. Thomas.  In her talk as well as in her book, Ms. Alexander laid out a very well researched and argued thesis that mass incarceration in the United States has led to a nearly permanent under-class of men excluded from mainstream society.

 

Michelle Alexander Instagram
Ms. Alexander at UST

 

She explains in the introduction to her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:

 

What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of
our society than the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer
socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion,
and social contempt. So, we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice
system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we
supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly
all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re
labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination- employment discrimination, housing
discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of the educational opportunity, denial of
food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service- are suddenly legal.

 

Here are my take-aways from the evening – first the facts:

 

  • White and African Americans are equally likely to sell and use drugs.  Yet the war on drugs has disproportionately sent black men to prison.
  • Our prison population is so big that dismantling the system of mass incarceration would have a very disruptive affect in the lives of many.  Even returning to 1980s level prison populations would mean a release of 80% of the prisoners; one million people would lose their jobs in the prison industry and hundreds of small communities for whom prisons are the largest employers would see enormous economic decline.

 

And my actions:

 

  • Believing that kids can be change agents, I think that it is important that we teach them about consent and their rights with the police, especially in Middle and High School.
  • Michelle Alexander and other leaders in this movement need our prayers.  This is a fight that will make many people angry.
  • This story is one that must be shared again and again, we need to let people know the severity of the New Jim Crow.
  • Change will come from the government and political leaders when there is a movement of the people that calls for a change.  This must be a movement of the people and the leaders will follow.
  • This movement must be multi-cultural, multi-racial and cross economic boundaries.

 

Theresa and Tony Michelle Alexander
I am grateful for Theresa and Tony’s company tonight.

 

The questions I am carrying with me:

 

  • How does mass incarceration interact with education?
  • How do we tell the story in a way that people will hear it?
  • Is there a layer deeper than mass incarceration that we need to address?

    Cover of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarcer...
    Cover via Amazon