Forty years ago today, the United States government declared its legendary “War on Drugs,” and our nation has not been the same since—especially if you happen to be an urban male with dark skin.
The Jim Crow laws may have been officially struck down years ago, but author and scholar Michelle Alexander argues that a new racial caste system has grown in its place: the mass incarceration of minorities, particularly African American men.
It’s not a conclusion she reached lightly. As Alexander discusses in her critically acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, it took years as a racial justice project director for the ACLU for Alexander to see the eerie similarities between the present U.S. criminal justice system and Jim Crow.
Namely, having a criminal or felony record means you face legal discrimination for the rest of your life. Depending on the type of crime, you can lose some of your rights—including the right to vote—and can be barred from housing, employment, financial aid and public benefits (see this report for details). These consequences have come down the hardest on low-income minority communities. As Alexander points out, law enforcement has unfairly targeted those neighborhoods for drug arrests, despite the fact that minorities do not use or sell drugs more than whites.
As a result, more African American men are in prisons, in jails, on probation or on parole today than were enslaved in 1850, 10 years before the Civil War. And an African-American child has less of a chance of being raised by both parents today than in the age of slavery, both according to Alexander’s book.
In an exclusive interview with UrbanFaith, Alexander called for people to create a major social movement against the new Jim Crow spurred by love for the imprisoned. She drew on Martin Luther King Jr.’s book Strength to Love to discuss the kind of love needed for this movement: a love that is, as King wrote, “not to be confused with sentimental outpouring” or “emotional bosh,” but rather a force that loves in spite of flaws or wrongdoings.
As a person of faith, Alexander said she believes every person is a “precious child of God, deserving of our care, compassion and concern, and to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s term, unsentimental love.” Part of our conversation with her is below.
URBAN FAITH: You say in your book that so few people realize that mass incarceration is a racial caste system. Why do you think that is?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: The system of mass incarceration and how it operates much like racial caste system has lived invisibly in our society in large part because prisons themselves are out of sight, out of mind. In the days when there were whites-only signs, people of all races could not help but notice that a caste system was alive and well. Today, people who are sent to prison are shipped off and no longer a part of our consciousness, unless of course they’re a family member or a friend, someone we know well. The communities which are hardest hit are themselves segregated from mainstream society.
If you’re not directly touched by this system of control, it’s very easy to be seduced by the myths we are fed in mainstream media, propagated by shows like “Law and Order” and CNN and MSNBC shows that focus on the most heinous crimes. These media images and narratives reinforce the idea that most people doing time in prison are heinous people who we should be fearful of and have no care, compassion or concern for.
The colorblind rhetoric that has enveloped this system seems quite rational on the surface. The system is officially colorblind and we have been told by politicians, media pundits, even by some scholars, that the reason so many poor folks of color are cycling in and out of the criminal justice system is their own fault, due to their culture and their poor choices. And because it’s due to their individual choices, we need not care about the suffering that they may be experiencing.
Why do you think people should care?
I think the fundamental question posed by this system of mass incarceration is whether we as a nation are willing to see every human being as worthy of our collective care, compassion, and concern. And I believe the fate of poor people of color in this country depends on our willingness to answer that question, ‘Yes.’
Even if their behavior we find objectionable or reprehensible, we will not stop caring. We are capable of the kind of love—what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as unsentimental love—reflected in our policies, practices, our rules of law, our ways of being, structures and institutions. Unsentimental love that keeps on loving, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.
If we continue to look the other way and believe that some people are not worthy of our moral concern, caste-like systems will be a permanent feature of American life. It’s always possible to demonize or criminalize people along racial or ethnic lines to make certain groups of people be viewed in the public eye as bad and wrong. If we allow those kinds of tactics to cut us off from our own capacity for compassion, then we are conceding to a system that is dehumanizing millions.
And we have got to rethink our drug laws, which criminalize and stigmatize people who may well be suffering from drug abuse or addiction. We put them in a cage, brand them as criminals and felons and then subject them to a lifetime of discrimination, scorn and social exclusion. Is that how we would want someone we cared about to be treated? I think the answer is no. It is possible for us to do things differently. In fact, we haven’t always incarcerated such an astonishing percentage of our people.
You say in your book that we need a major social movement in order to truly transform the criminal justice system. From what you’ve seen since you’ve written this book, do you have hope such a movement will start?
I do. I believe that a major movement is possible to end mass incarceration. There are many people who think otherwise. In fact, there were many people who believed in the mid-1950s that Jim Crow segregation in the South would never die, and that civil rights advocates committed to end the Jim Crow system were foolish.
One of the reasons I believe it will take nothing less than a large social movement to end mass incarceration is because, if we were to return to the rates of mass incarceration we had in the 1970s—before the War on Drugs and the ‘get tough’ movement kicked off—we’d have to release 4 out of 5 people in prison today. More than a million people employed by the criminal justice system could lose their jobs. Private prison companies would be forced to watch their profits vanish. This system is now so deeply rooted in our political, social and economic structure that it’s not going to just fade away without a major shift in public consciousness.
But I believe it’s possible. Just as racial justice advocates were able to bring Jim Crow to its knees in a relatively short period of time, it is possible to bring this system to an end as well. Once genuine care and concern are awakened for a population that has been so demonized and stigmatized for so long, the injustice of the legal system that has operated to keep them in their place will become readily apparent to all.
Do you see people having that personal awakening?
Yes, I do. In fact, there are a growing number of African-American churches that are answering the call to engage in movement building work to end mass incarceration. I’m working right now with the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, which is a network of progressive black churches across the country that has committed themselves to making ending mass incarceration a number one priority.
My own view is that the faith community has got to play a lead role in this movement, because what it’s going to take to end this system is a real awakening to care, compassion and concern for all of us, opportunities for redemption and pathways home. And people of faith have got to find their voices in this movement. I’m just delighted to see a growing number of people of faith and faith leaders answering the call and the challenge that this moment in history presents.