Author cites need for new social movement to end mass incarceration
The recent series of police killings of unarmed black men mirrors a much larger and deeper problem that echoes similarly horrific acts of discrimination from our nation's past, said author Michelle Alexander to an audience of more than 400 people at the Krasa Student Center on April 22.
"There is really no better moment for us to be having this dialogue than right now," Alexander said. "For the first time in more than 40 years, we are actually having a national conversation about what has gone wrong with the criminal justice system in America and what can be done about it.
"Just as lynchings were not the only thing wrong, but were instead the ugliest, most horrifyingly terrifying reflections of a much larger system of racial control, today these police killings we see are just a reflection of a much larger system of racial and social control."
Alexander touched on her experiences as a civil rights lawyer and the discoveries she made while working on her critically acclaimed book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," which examines the dramatic shift in the incarceration rate of African-Americans and minorities since the beginning of the war on drugs.
She was invited to speak as part of Benedictine's nonpartisan Center for Civic Leadership (CCL) speaker series, which held a community-wide reading group discussion of the book prior to her appearance. Established in 2005 under the direction of former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, a 1969 Benedictine graduate and Distinguished Fellow, the CCL seeks to shape a new generation of public leaders and responsible citizens.
Today, more than half of African-American men living in the nation's large urban areas have criminal records and are subject to "legalized discrimination" in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits for the rest of their lives, according to Alexander.
"These men are part of a growing under caste, a group of people defined largely by race, relegated to a permanent second-class status by law and stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement," Alexander said. "So many of the old forms of discrimination that were supposedly left behind in the Jim Crow era now suddenly become legal again, once you've been branded a felon."
Alexander acknowledged that some people still aren't receptive to all of her theories and findings. Some still contend that the criminal justice system treats all criminals equally regardless of race. That argument, however, doesn't hold up when you compare crime and incarceration rates before the start of the war on drugs with more recent statistics, she said.
"The greatest myth about mass incarceration is that it has been driven by crime and crime rates," Alexander said. "It's just not true. What people don't realize is that this drug war has never been focused primarily on rooting out violent offenders or the drug kingpins. It has been a numbers game. Millions of dollars have flowed to state and local law enforcement agencies which have been willing to boost the sheer number of drug arrests."
According to Alexander, U.S. drug convictions soared by 1,000 percent between 1985 and 2000, accounting for two-thirds of the increase in the federal prison population and more than half of the population in state prisons. Today, with crime rates at historic lows, the United States has more inmates in prisons than any other country, including highly repressive regimes like Russia, China and Iran, she said.
"Given the financial incentives and national consciousness that associates drug use and sales and drug criminals with race, it is not surprising that the overwhelming majority of those who have been swept into our criminal justice system in the drug war have been black or brown and arrested for relatively minor drug offenses," Alexander said.
While working on a national campaign against racial profiling as director of the Racial Justice Project for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, Alexander encountered a 19-year old man who claimed he had been illegally frisked and beaten by an officer in his neighborhood.
When she learned the young man was a convicted felon, she explained to him that the ACLU would not be able to involve him in a lawsuit, fearing his past would be divulged and picked apart during cross-examination.
A couple of months later, a story appeared about the illegal practices of the Oakland Riders police drug taskforce, which allegedly had been planting drugs on suspects and assaulted people in the man's neighborhood.
"And who is identified as one of the main officers charged with planting drugs on suspects?" Alexander said. "The officer this 19-year-old had identified to me. I am embarrassed to say that it was only then that the light bulb started to come on for me."
Alexander said that Supreme Court rulings scaling back Fourth Amendment protections and other laws that make proving racial bias in police arrests more difficult continue to impede efforts to reverse mass incarceration.
"I think the question for us now as we gather here tonight post Ferguson, post a wave of videotaped police killings … as we come together now in this age of mass incarceration … I think the question is, are we willing to face the truth of our times?" Alexander said.
"I know some of us might not be ready to dive into large scale protest -- you might not be ready to dive into the river right now," she added. "That's fine, I played awhile on the river bank, but my question is this, are your toes even touching the water? And if they are, are you willing to take a few more steps in?"