Because of the mass incarceration of African Americans, a Black child born today in America is less likely to live and grow up in a home with two parents than a Black child born during slavery.
And according to civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander, that is the shocking reality that has developed particularly since the so-called “war on drugs” began.
Alexander, who holds joint appointments at the Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, both at Ohio State University, relayed a number of startling facts that she uncovered while researching her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” She spoke Friday before an audience of nearly 400 who turned out at an Urban Issues Breakfast Forum of Greater Los Angeles. The forum meets every month.
Alexander also pointed out that like Jim Crow, mass incarceration and the criminal justice system have become a new racial system of controlling people, particularly African Americans, who are considered a “problem.”
“It’s the moral equivalent of Jim Crow,” Alexander said.
And there is a whole set of rules, policies and practices that come with mass incarceration as social control.
One of those is the mindset exhibited by George Zimmerman, which Alexander said has infected America.
“Zimmerman is not an aberration. His mindset is quite normal in today’s society,” the professor told the audience, after also saying she feared that the demonization of the neighborhood watch captain would miss this point.
Alexander described the mindset as one where it becomes normal for young Black and Brown men to be stopped and frisked 600,000 times in a one-year span (That is the number of times the New York Police Department stopped and searched members of these two groups, according to a recent study).
The mindset is one that is part and parcel of the criminal justice system, but there is just one caveat that must be strictly adhered to–they cannot flaunt it.
It took Alexander more than a decade to figure out the “new Jim Crow.” And the true revelation of just how insidious it is became clear when she worked in Northern California trying to find young Black men who could serve as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that would challenge racial profiling.
“A young African American man, 19 years old, walked into my office with detailed notes of his encounters with the police over a nine-month period . . . it detailed dates, names of officers, in some cases badge numbers and the names of witnesses,” recalled Alexander. “I was thinking this was our dream client. Then he said something that made me pause. ‘Did you say you were a drug felon?’ I asked him.”
Alexander said the interview rapidly went downhill from there. She informed the young man they could not represent him, and despite his protestations that the drugs were planted on him, she continued to say no.
“He became enraged and said, ‘You’re no better than the police. I can’t believe I trusted you . . .’”
Alexander added that a little while later a local news report broke about a task force of Oakland police officers accused of planting drugs on suspects and beating them up. The name of one of those officers was included in the 19-year-old’s detailed notes.
“He was right about me. The minute he told me he was a drug felon, I didn’t hear anything else he had to say,” Alexander said. “The real crime is imagining some path to racial justice without including the voices, stories and experiences of those we consider guilty.”
The path to racial justice must also include looking at the root causes of the mass incarceration, said the civil rights activist–the failure to care about young people in the tough urban areas; the failure to care about those who have been called guilty.
Alexander says the path to racial justice must be a broadbased social movement that shifts the criminal justice system from a punitive approach to one that focuses on real and meaningful rehabilitation and restoration.
California, which leads the nation in incarceration rates, said Alexander, is uniquely poised–with realignment of the state’s prisons system to implement substantive and precedent-setting changes in the way the criminal justices system operates.
But first officials and activists must recognize the flaws and care about their impact on society, particularly poor and communities of color.