It may be helpful, in attempting to understand the basic nature of the new caste system, to think of the criminal justice system—the entire collection of institutions and practices that comprise it—not as an independent system but rather as a gateway into a much larger system of racial stigmatization and permanent marginalization. This larger system, referred to here as mass incarceration, is a system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls—walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws once did at locking people of color into a permanent second-class citizenship. The term mass incarceration refers not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison. Once released, former prisoners enter a hidden underworld of legalized discrimination and permanent social exclusion. They are members of America’s new undercaste.Continue reading “Mass Incarceration: The New Caste System”
From Michelle Alexander, on a panel with Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor and Naomi Klein in May 2017.
I have been having some trouble with the frame of “resistance” for some time. I understand completely why the term, the phrase, the rallying cry emerged following Trump’s election — it makes complete sense to me. But I think we’ve got to think beyond resistance. Resistance is inherently defensive. Continue reading “To Rebirth This Country”
From Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010):
The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.
From an Onbeing interview with Michelle Alexander (April 21, 2016):
I was raised to believe that there had been extraordinary racial injustice in our history, but that we are on the right path. And we may have a long way to go, but we are on the right path, headed, albeit too slowly, towards that promised land that Dr. King spoke of so eloquently. And in many ways, I think my own parents, being interracially married, felt they had to believe in that, they had to believe that by bringing mixed race children into this world they were bringing them into a world where there was hope for their future.
And so I was really raised on that narrative that we were overcoming. And when I became a civil rights lawyer and was a baby civil rights lawyer, just starting out, and I saw that sign stapled to a telephone pole saying, “The drug war is the new Jim Crow,” yeah, I thought that was hyperbole. I shook my head and said, “Yeah, the criminal justice system is racist in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t help to make such absurd comparisons to Jim Crow. People will just think you’re crazy.”
And then I hopped on the bus and headed to my new job as director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU in California. And it was really only through those 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 as they faced just one unimaginable barrier after another — not just to their so-called “re-entry,” but to their basic survival after being released from prison — that I had my series of experiences that led to my own awakening that we hadn’t ended racial caste in America. We had just redesigned it.
Day 44 of our Lenten Journey beyond “Beyond Vietnam” continues. An excerpt from Michelle Alexander’s recent comments on Mark Lewis Taylor’s re-release of The Executed God (2001), part of a longer back-and-forth dialogue that is well worth reading.
The truth is that I am still struggling to figure out what I believe about the nature of God and what it means to say that anyone has a “personal relationship” with God. I am just beginning my journey with theology, and therefore I have mostly questions — not answers or critiques.
What I do know is that I can no longer proceed as though mass incarceration is a purely political or legal problem that can be solved through forms of organizing, advocacy, movement-building and protest that lack a strong moral and spiritual foundation. The fact that Taylor offers a rigorous argument for spiritually-grounded actions that will force a national reckoning with our criminal injustice system is a cause for celebration. I wholeheartedly agree with him that political organizing and movement-building among faith communities is essential, and I also agree that political insurrection can be healing and transformative for those who have been traumatized, abused, and violated. Continue reading “Here’s the Rub”
Day 2 of our Lenten Journey with Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our inner being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?” they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live. In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate—leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.
From Michelle Alexander (photo above), the author of The New Jim Crow and professor at Union Theological Seminary, posted a week after the 2016 election:
Like millions of people, I am still struggling to wrap my mind around what the election means for our collective future. I won’t try to sort it out here, in a Facebook post.
What I will say is that what happened can’t be explained simply as a failure of the political establishment — though it has failed spectacularly. Nor is it simply a problem of racism or sexism — though both are alive and well and flourishing in this moment. Nor is this election simply a matter of economics, though global capitalism and neoliberalism have created a world in which people of all colors are suffering greatly as factories close, work disappears, wages stagnate, and human beings are treated as disposable — like plastic bottles tossed in a landfill — as political and media elites (not just Trump) spew propaganda that encourages us to view “the others” as the enemy. Continue reading “Beyond the Prophesying of Smooth Patriotism”
An announcement from Michelle Alexander on social media (September 16, 2016):
I am taking a long break from social media, but tonight I want to thank the Heinz Foundation which offered me today a large monetary award (along with several amazing individuals). See https://medium.com/…/announcing-the-21st-heinz-awards-honor….
A Facebook post (July 9) from Michelle Alexander, the author of the ground-breaking The New Jim Crow:
I have struggled to find words to express what I thought and felt as I watched the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being killed by the police. Last night, I wanted to say something that hasn’t been said a hundred times before. It finally dawned on me that there is nothing to say that hasn’t been said before. As I was preparing to write about the oldness of all of this, and share some wisdom passed down from struggles of earlier eras, I heard on the news that 11 officers had been shot in Dallas, several killed from sniper fire. My fingers froze on the keys. I could not bring myself to recycle old truths. Something more is required. But what? Continue reading “Something More of Us is Required”
“The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.”—Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010)