Civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander opened her convocation speech Feb. 10 by sharing her mixed feelings about Black History Month.
“Every time February rolls around,” she said, “there are sound bytes of Martin Luther King everywhere, presenting watered-down versions of social justice.”
In Dr. King’s honor, she said, “ I would like to do my best to discuss the truth about race” in the United States.
In her presentation titled “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Alexander – a former faculty member of the Stanford University School of Law – emphasized the under-caste society present in contemporary America, where people are of permanent second-class status by law. The ugly truth of “the Other America,” Alexander said, is that the overwhelming majority of under-caste are men of color and in particular African Americans.
As a country, she lamented, “we have taken the wrong route,” and “we have betrayed Dr. King’s dream,” noting that many today simply do not know that some of the issues that perturbed Dr. King in the 60s, such as the unemployment rates of blacks, have been severely worsening.
“For the past 30 years,” Alexander said, “a vast new system of racial discrimination has been established: systematic black incarceration.”
In drawing a parallel to the remnants of slavery, Alexander admitted that once she herself thought such links were utter exaggerations, but after years of serving as a civil rights lawyer and seeing rampant injustices such as racial profiling, she finally believes the “ugly truth.”
Alexander detailed one particularly memorable case for her – a 19-year-old black man who had extensive evidence and documentation of white police officers practicing racial discrimination and planting drugs on “suspects” before arresting them.
Remarking how ideal this man was as a plaintiff in the case, Alexander recalled how she took a completely different turn after discovering that he was a convicted drug felon because she could not legitimately represent him in court.
Yet her actions – passively refusing to listen – prompted the black man to accuse her of “being no better than the police.”
For Alexander, this accusation was her “awakening” to the fact that, indeed, she was unknowingly practicing discrimination and not treating his story with respect because he had been labeled as guilty.
According to her, the greatest secret of mass incarceration is that it “is not driven by crime or crime rates.”
Instead, it begins with the war on drugs and the ‘Get Tough’ campaign, which started gaining momentum in the 70s with the Nixon and then Regan administrations.
“Since the war on drugs began,” Alexander said, “drug convictions have increased 1000 percent.”
In addition, the enemy of the war is overwhelmingly race-defined, because “it is only waged in black communities – in ‘the hood.’”
She also highlighted the racial politics behind the campaign: how Reagan appealed to poor, working-class white voters living near black communities, thus “benefiting” from the newly-placed tough measures on crime and drug abuse. Furthermore, the media sensationalized the urgency of the drug war, culminating in the many laws passed during the Clinton administration that banned felons from a lifetime from rights such as financial aid, food stamps, jobs and housing.
Alexander stressed the lack of support and options America offers to felons released from prison.
“For many,” she said, “once you’re released from jail, the struggle really begins for the rest of your life. The system seems designed to send you right back to prison.”
She said Americans must confront the truth that they could have followed two paths after Dr. King’s death: “One of hope, restoration, and forgiveness. Or one of despair and discrimination.”
“And it’s obvious which one we’ve taken,” she said. “At the prison gates we have abandoned Dr. King’s dream.”