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Michelle Alexander: Roots of Today’s Mass Incarceration Crisis Date to Slavery, Jim Crow

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As the Justice Department sheds new light on the racist criminal justice system in Ferguson, legal scholar Michelle Alexander looks at the historical roots of what she describes as “the new Jim Crow.” From mass incarceration to police killings to the drug war, Alexander explores how the crisis is a nationwide issue facing communities of color. “Today we see millions of poor people and folks of color who are trapped, yet again, in a criminal justice system which are treating them like commodities, like people who are easily disposable,” Alexander says. “We are not on the right path. … It’s not about making minor reforms and plodding along in the same direction. No, its about mustering the courage to have a major reassessment of where we are as America, reckon with our racial history as well as our present, and build a broad-based movement rooted in the awareness of the dignity and humanity of us all.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is Michelle Alexander. Her book is called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It actually came out a few years ago, but it has taken this country by storm. San Francisco Chronicle called it “the bible of a social movement”; Cornel West, “an instant classic.” Even Forbes magazine called it “devastating.” And The New York Review of Books said, “Alexander deserves to be compared to Du Bois in her ability to distill and lay out as mighty human drama a complex argument and history.” This is a transformative book. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, part of the Justice Department’s investigation in Ferguson focused on traffic stops and found African Americans, who account for about two-thirds of the city’s population, made up 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of citations, 93 percent of arrests and 88 percent of cases in which police used force. African-American drivers were twice as likely as whites to be searched, but were less likely to be found with drugs or guns than whites. And in all 14 incidents in which a police dog bit the suspect and the person’s race is known, the person bitten was African-American. The findings reinforce details of a class-action lawsuit filed by Ferguson residents, who accuse local officials of creating a “modern debtors’ prison scheme” that targets African Americans with arrest and fines, and then locks them up when they can’t pay. Here on Democracy Now!, we spoke with Herbert Nelson Jr., a plaintiff in the lawsuit, who has been arrested multiple times. He was asked how his experience made him feel about the police.

HERBERT NELSON JR.: That’s a good question, because the last time I was arrested, the officer said I shouldn’t be afraid of officers. But that same officer, he actually—he was like, “Yes!” He was so excited to arrest me. And that alone made me afraid, because a lot of my friends and family won’t even come to see me because I live in Jennings. They’re scared to come into the county of North St. Louis, North County St. Louis, because of the police and how quick they are to arrest you over a minor, minor, minor traffic ticket.

AARON MATÉ: Herbert, when we were there, there was some hope among some residents that we spoke to that things might get better in the aftermath of these protests, of this organizing in Ferguson and the surrounding areas. Has anything improved in the six months since Michael Brown was killed?

HERBERT NELSON JR.: Far as the policing, no, it hasn’t. It hasn’t. And I wouldn’t honestly say it improved. No, actually, it began—it got worse, because it seems like the crime has went up, and the police are really—the jails are just running in an out, like they’re way more packed than they were before Mike Brown was shot. The jails are way more packed. So it hasn’t improved at all.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Herbert Nelson Jr., who is a plaintiff in this lawsuit, who’s been arrested multiple times. He was sitting next to his sister, Allison. One of her arrests—it’s their mother who comes constantly to the jail to give money. One of her arrests was being in the car with a suspended license. The problem was she was in her backyard in a parked car just sitting inside. And for that, she was taken away. So, Michelle Alexander, broaden this story, from arrests to what they’re calling “modern-day debtors’ prisons.”

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, you know, I think this is part of the story that many people are unaware of, the ways in which poor people, particularly poor folks of color, are targeted by our criminal justice system, arrested for extremely minor offenses, the very sorts of crimes that occur with equal frequency in middle-class communities or on college campuses but go largely ignored—targeted, arrested or cited, and then saddled with fines and fees that are nearly impossible for them to pay back. Then warrants are issued for their arrest, for failure to appear in court or to pay back their fees or fines in a timely manner, leading them into a system from which they have little hope of ever truly escaping.

And, you know, we can look back in history and see this is not the first time we’ve done something like this. Slavery by Another Name is an important book that I think all Americans should read, about how, following the end of slavery, a new system of racial and social control was born, known as “convict leasing.” You know, after the end of slavery, African-American men were arrested in mass, and they were arrested for extremely minor crimes like loitering, standing around, vagrancy or the equivalent of jaywalking—arrested and then sent to prison and then leased to plantations. And the idea was they were supposed to earn their freedom, but they could never pay back the plantation owners or the corporations the costs of their clothing and shelter, and so they were effectively re-enslaved, you know, sometimes for the rest of their lives. And today we see millions of poor people and folks of color who are trapped yet again in a criminal justice system, you know, which are treating them like commodities and like people who are easily disposable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the impact of this not only for those who, let’s say, are jailed and then lose their voting rights for a period of time, but even for those who are arrested and then this stays on their record, and then the issue of being able to get a job with your arrest record, available to employers now with databases being able to locate any kind of information—the impact of this on the ability of African Americans and other people of color to be able to have some kind of social mobility and move forward?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: That’s absolutely right. You know, I hear people often say, “Oh, come on, it’s just a misdemeanor. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s not like they have a felony.” Well, today, a misdemeanor can show up on your record, through a few keystrokes on the computer by an employer, and it can be the reason that you’re denied an opportunity to work. It can also be the reason you’re denied access to housing. Public housing officials are free to discriminate against you on the basis of criminal records, including arrest records. And so, you know, what you find is that even for these extremely minor offenses, people find themselves trapped in a permanent second-class status and struggling to survive. So I think it’s critically important that we not dismiss these kinds of charges that are being brought against folks as being minor and shrug them off. No, they can actually alter the course of one’s life.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle, I was wondering if you can read the first paragraph of your book. This is a stunning story that goes back to slavery that I think is so important, that leads us right into this weekend, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, people marching 50 years ago for voting rights, but where we are today, 50 years later.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: “Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, where are we today, 50 years after Selma, not to mention how many years after slavery?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, you know, I think it’s common today for people to say, particularly on Martin Luther King Day, you know, that we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long, long way to go. And, you know, I think the events of recent months, as well as the astonishing rates of incarceration and the existence of this permanent second-class status that entraps millions, shows us that, no, we’re not on the right path. It’s not a matter of having a long, long way to go. We’ve taken a U-turn and are off course entirely. You know, that’s why I say over and over again it’s not about, you know, making minor reforms and plodding along in the same direction. No, it’s about mustering in the courage to have a major reassessment of where we are as America, reckon with our racial history as well as our present, and build a broad-based movement rooted in the awareness of the dignity and humanity of us all, no matter who we are, where we came from or what we may have done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet, we have a Supreme Court that only recently eviscerated the Voting Rights Act in a decision. I’m wondering your reaction when you heard that decision.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I think it’s a reflection of where we are at this particular moment. You know, I believe the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as a very large swath of the American population, really wants to imagine that race and racial inequality is something we don’t have to think about anymore, don’t have to worry about anymore. Colorblindness in the United States today means being blind to racial inequality, does not mean being blind to race itself. And that’s the moment we’re in. And the question is: How do we respond? And so, I am thrilled by the protests that we’ve seen, the creative, courageous, nonviolent protests, but now the question is: How do we transition from protest politics to long-term movement building?

AMY GOODMAN: You know, just recently John Legend and rapper Common won the Oscar for best original song for “Glory,” which was featured in the movie Selma. Legend paid tribute to protesters from the civil rights era to today.

JOHN LEGEND: Nina Simone said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now.


JOHN LEGEND: We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on. God bless you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was John Legend standing next to Common. They both won the Oscar for best song in Selma. Of course, Selma, though it was nominated for best film, it didn’t win. And Ava DuVernay, who was hailed as the director of this film, a young African-American woman, was not nominated for best director. Neither was David Oyelowo for best actor. In fact, there were no black actors or directors who were nominated this year, leading to that hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite. But after John Legend spoke, many commentators said he was actually citing your work, Michelle Alexander. If you can talk about the significance of this? I mean, tens of millions of people saw this. Of course, culture is so important in getting out information.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yeah, I was just so proud of John Legend for using his moment on that stage to speak to the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States and to raise awareness of the toll that it has taken on the African-American community. And I am hopeful that more celebrities and people who have a big microphone will follow his lead and begin speaking up and speaking out, because, you know, we are not going to be able to engage in this movement building if we remain asleep and in denial about its existence, because, you know, unlike the old Jim Crow, there are no signs alerting us to the existence of this new caste system. And if you’re not directly impacted, if you yourself have not been branded a felon or are cycling in and out of prison or forced to check the box on employment applications, if this doesn’t actually affect you directly, you can go your whole life and have no idea what is really going on. And so, if we are going to build this movement, we’re going to have to pull back the curtain, speak courageous truths, like John Legend did, and help to inspire a much broader awakening, so that the work of real movement building can get underway.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about another tragic shooting and the aftermath of that shooting, the Tamir Rice shooting, the 12-year-old boy who was shot by police, holding a toy gun. And the mayor of Cleveland recently apologized because the attorneys for the city of Cleveland argued in a legal brief that Tamir was responsible for his own death.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And just wondering again about the way that the legal system convolutes its own reasoning just to be able to come up with justifications for what happens.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I thought, you know, what transpired there, where, in papers filed in court, they blame that boy for the fact that the police showed up and killed him within two seconds of their arrival, and said it was his fault, that somehow he had brought this police response upon him, in so many ways, that is an illustration of the larger system of mass incarceration, where those who are targeted and who find themselves behind bars are blamed, and said, “Well, it’s your fault. You brought all of this on yourself.” And, in fact, you know, over the last few decades, I think many in the African-American community have been seduced by the argument that, well, this is all our fault. Somehow we’ve brought mass incarceration upon ourselves. If only we would pull up our pants or stay in school or not experiment with drugs, if only somehow we could be perfect and never make a mistake, that none of this would be happening. But, of course, you know, young white kids who make mistakes, commit misdemeanors and jaywalking and smoke weed, they are able to go off to college if they’re middle-class. But if you’re poor or you live in the hood, the kinds of mistakes that people of all colors and classes make actually cost them their lives. And yet, then we turn around and blame them and say, “This is all your fault.”

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: John Legend and Common singing “Glory,” the Oscar-winning song from the film Selma. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We’re with Michelle Alexander, professor of law at Ohio State University in Columbus. She’s a civil rights advocate. She’s author of the best-selling book, [The New] Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle, talk about your own transformation. And then let’s talk about what you feel needs to change mass incarceration in this country. But what happened to you?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Oh, yes, what happened to me? You know, when I began working as a civil rights lawyer and advocate, I understood, I got, that our criminal justice system was biased in many ways, and I assumed that it was biased just like every institution in our society is infected, to some degree or another, with conscious or unconscious bias and stereotyping. And so I thought, well, it’s my job just to join with other advocates and lawyers to root out racial bias whenever, wherever it might rear its ugly head in the criminal justice system. And it really wasn’t, you know, until after years of representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to assist people who had been released from prison, you know, “re-enter,” only to have one closed door in their face after another, that I had a series of experiences that really began my own awakening. And I came to see that our criminal justice system isn’t just another institution in our society infected with racial bias, but, you know, really a different beast entirely.

And, you know, at that time, there were activists who were saying that. You know, at the beginning of the book, I talk about how I saw posted on a telephone pole a sign that said, “the drug war is the new Jim Crow,” and I just dismissed that as nonsense. You know, yeah, our system is biased, but you can’t compare it to Jim Crow or slavery. You know, that’s absurd. But I had a number of experiences that began to open my eyes. And one of them included a young man who came to me with a story of being framed by the police and drugs being planted on him, and I didn’t believe him. And it was only after I came to see that he was telling the truth about vast corruption that was happening in the Oakland Police Department, and that my own biases and stereotypes and my own class privilege had prevented me from hearing him, acknowledging the truth and seeing the reality of what was hidden in plain sight. And that’s really what began my journey of doing an enormous amount of research and trying to listen much more carefully to the stories of those cycling in and out of prison.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re going through, here in New York City right now, this startling number of cases that are now being reviewed, and especially in Brooklyn, that were at the height of the crack epidemic, and scores of people who were sentenced to prison with false testimony, with police coercion witnesses, and now, one after another, people are being released after spending years in prison because it was all false testimony that was put together by police officers against African Americans and Latinos. It’s become a huge scandal. But it’s precisely that the people could not believe that the system was this corrupt—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that it was doing this on a massive scale.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: That’s exactly right. No, who do we believe? Who do we listen to? Who do we hear from? Who do we believe? You know, and over the last few decades, we’ve heard from the police, we’ve heard from politicians, we’ve heard from prosecutors. But very rarely do we hear the stories, you know, in the media, of the people who have been targeted and demonized. And even when we do, how often do we disbelieve them and think, “Oh, it must be exaggeration. It must be over the top”? But what we’ve seen with the Justice Department report, what we see with the overwhelming evidence that I tried to put in my book, is that we need to pay a lot more attention to the stories and the lived experiences of people who have been trapped in the system of mass incarceration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about another aspect of mass incarceration that has obviously been mushrooming in recent years. About 50 percent of all federal prosecutions these days are actually immigration-related prosecutions.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’re having the growth of these private prisons and the mass incarceration of immigrants. Congress, just in attempting to fund Homeland Security, is insisting that everybody who comes in from Central America be jailed while—if they’re caught coming across the border. This whole issue of this expansion of mass incarceration to the immigrant and largely Latino population in the country?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: That’s exactly right. You know, what we see is that this system of mass incarceration, in order to continue to grow, is adapting and is looking for new populations to bring under its control. And particularly the profit motive in the private prison industry is helping to drive much of that impulse. And so, when we talk about ending mass incarceration, we must, in the same breath, talk about ending mass deportation and the criminalization of immigrant communities in the United States today. You know, we see that the same racially divisive politics that gave rise to the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement, those same racially divisive politics are now taking aim at immigrant communities and helping to ensure the continued expansion of the prison-industrial complex, you know, by including immigrants under its control.

AMY GOODMAN: Your book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, came out under President Obama. What is your assessment? Has President Obama, being the first African-American president, made any difference? Has it made things better? When it comes to the whole issue of mass incarceration, have things gotten worse?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: It’s better and worse. It’s better and worse, you know. I mean, there are—I think having an African-American president has been a beautiful, wonderful thing in many ways. I know that I’m grateful that my children know a world where a black man can be president of the United States. It makes a difference to them to know that that’s possible, that such a thing is possible. But I think there’s also been real difficulties as a result of his presidency. One of them is the reluctance, I think, among African Americans to be as courageous in their criticism and their critique of the drug war and mass incarceration and, you know, many of the policies that we see continuing under the Obama administration than they might otherwise be.

You know, the reality is that the rhetoric has changed in the Obama administration, but when you take a look at the policies, they’ve been much, much slower to change. So, you know, under the Obama administration, we’ve heard consecutive drugs czars say that we should no longer be at war with our own people, you know, saying we don’t like the language of the drug war. But then when you look at the drug war budget, basically the same ratio of dollars is invested in enforcement, as opposed to treatment and prevention, as under the Bush administrations and earlier administrations. And so, you know, I think that it’s very tempting to imagine that more progress has been achieved when there is an African American in the White House and a black attorney general saying all the right things, but I think we have to not be so easily seduced by the imagery and insist upon the kind of large-scale policy reform and structural reform and in end to the actual war on drugs, not the language.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in February, FBI Director James Comey called for police nationwide to confront what he said is unconscious racial bias in the wake of a spate of killings of unarmed African Americans. In the speech, Comey said the nation’s endemic racism must be addressed.

JAMES COMEY: Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias. Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. … Police officers on patrol in our nation’s cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of goodwill working in that environment. After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel. A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible, and maybe even rational by some lights. … We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was FBI Director James Comey talking about unconscious bias, not institutionalized use of racial discrimination. But I’m wondering your reaction to his pretty unusual comments for an FBI director.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, you know, I have to applaud him for acknowledging that, you know, there is both conscious and unconscious bias that pervades law enforcement today. You know, he tends to attribute it to police officers being in constant contact with black and brown criminals, and that that jades them. I think that that—you know, that that tells only a very small part of the larger story. The reality is we have been at war with certain communities. Our elected officials declared wars on crime and wars on drugs, which really were not wars on either of those things, but were wars on communities defined by race and class. And that war mentality has infected law enforcement in ways that, you know, seem nearly irreparable. And so, I think it’s important for us to recognize that these biases and stereotypes that exist within law enforcement isn’t simply a product of having to deal with a lot of bad guys on the streets, but it’s the product of a war mentality that has been adopted and institutionalized throughout law enforcement agencies in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: What needs to happen? You talk about a movement that has to happen. But also, as you’ve looked particularly at mass incarceration, what has to change?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I think a number of things have to change. You know, there’s a whole laundry list of reforms that need to be adopted. But I think we really need to come from the perspective not how do we tinker with this thing or tweak it, but what would a truly just system look like? Would we criminalize the simple possession of drugs for personal use? Would we do that? Or would we treat drug use and drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a crime? Would we follow the lead of a country like Portugal, which has decriminalized all drugs across the board and stopped caging people who may be in the need of help, and investing in drug treatment and education and support for the communities from which they come? So, we need to end the war on drugs and the war mentality that we have, which means ending zero-tolerance policies. It means transforming our criminal justice system from one that is purely punitive to one that is based on principles of restorative and transformative justice, you know, systems that take seriously the interests of the victim, the offender and the community as a whole. We need to abolish all of the laws that authorize legal discrimination against people who have criminal records, legal discrimination that denies them basic human rights—to work, to shelter, to education, to food. You know, we have to decriminalize—


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes—immigration. We have to grant the right to vote not just to people upon release from prison. You know, so I have trouble with the framing of this as being a movement to end disenfranchisement laws, and say we should be allowing people in prison to vote, like many other Western democracies do. There are often voting drives within prisons in other Western democracies. And here in the United States, we deny people the right to vote not only when they’re in prison, but often when they’re out, and sometimes for the rest of their lives. So, there is so much work to be done in transitioning from a war mentality to a mentality where we extend care, compassion and concern to poor people and people of color, and not respond with a purely punitive impulse.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michelle Alexander, we thank you so much for being with us. The conversation continues. Her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She is a law professor at Ohio State University in Columbus. She’ll be speaking tonight at Union Theological Seminary, the Judith Moyers lecture, and on Friday night at the Columbia University conference, “Beyond the Bars: Transforming (In)Justice.”

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