Michelle Alexander: Embracing humanity to bring down The New Jim Crow

Note: A month ago, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, spoke at the University of Pennsylvania Humanities Forum, as the first lecturer in a series addressing violence. I had heard her before, but this time her message seemed even sharper and more urgent. 

Michelle Alexander pointed out that mass incarceration and the war on drugs is built on the foundation of demonizing people of color, particularly brown and black men and boys. A very strong thread in her message was that in order to end the system of mass incarceration in a way that keeps it from being reconstructed, all of us must be able “to see and value the humanity in one another.” Ending racism is essential to ending systems that are built out of it.

Below is a paraphrase, my interpretation, of her talk, so it's important not to attribute these exact words, except those in double quotation marks, to her. The ideas are hers, but the exact wording is not. Michelle Alexander is aware of this blog post and has signed off on this approach. I'm hopeful that she will publish the full talk soon, so that many more can have access to the depth and power of her words.- Lucy

Replacing the war on poverty with the war on drugs

We may hear of the mass killings, when the unexpected people are shot. But when people who are normally killed are killed, no one notices, it’s just another black man gunned down in the street. Some communities are now war zones and others are not. The reason that some communities feel and look like war zones and those that don’t isn’t about the number of guns. "What makes a neighborhood safe is the number of jobs, good schools; good opportunities for one’s life."

Jessup Correctional CenterIn Obama’s hometown, Chicago, a choice has been made, a choice that’s been made over and over again. We’ve embarked on an unprecedented race to incarcerate. Work has disappeared.  In the space of just a couple of decades, work vanished from urban centers, industrial centers that were near to black communities. Those jobs moved oversees due to globalization, technologicalization.

70% of all African Americans had blue collar jobs, then those jobs vanished. Hundreds of thousands of black men found themselves jobless. We could have responded to this crisis with a wave of care, compassion and concern. Bail out packages could have been sent through Congress. These communities that were experiencing a depression could bounce back. Young people living in these communities might make a transition to the new economy, where a college degree may be necessary. "We chose the path of division, of punitiveness. We ended the war on poverty and declared the war on drugs."

An act of violence in response to a public health problem

Millions of people have been arrested since the drug war began. Drug crimes alone have contributed the most. Drug convictions have increased more than 1000% since the war on drugs. Most Americans break the drug laws in their lifetime, but this drug war is waged almost exclusively in communities of color. Drug dealing happens everywhere else as well. But those who do time for drug crime are overwhelmingly brown or black.

This process of defining who the enemy is a central aspect of the war on drugs. It has been key to the use of violence: "we declared a war, a literal war, an act of violence, in response to a public health problem." By defining it carried out by a group of people defined by race and class, it’s hard to imagine that it is about us, not them. It becomes easier to use violence, to use force, it becomes easier to believe we are in some way licensed to act outside of what otherwise would be legal, socialized norms.

We shrug our shoulders when we see black men in hand cuffs and at the glamorization of drug dealing in the media. Much as the minstrel shows in the Jim Crow era sensationalized the subjugation of black folk in that era, gangsta culture legitimizes racial social control enforced by violence.

In communities where a literal war has been waged, we ask, 'Why the violence, why can’t these people get themselves together? What’s wrong with them?'

The real question is, 'What is wrong with us? Why have so many of us been so silent for so long? "Why have we failed to define mass incarceration itself and the drug war as violence?"

On George Zimmerman and “stop and frisk”

I was thinking of who is viewed as a threat after the George Zimmerman verdict. Trayvon Martin’s death was one of those rare situations, when we are seduced by racial progress, with a sprinkling of black people in institutions. 

All of the usual rationalizations for treating black men were stripped away--all you have is a teenager holding Skittles and iced tea. It is this problem of being perceived as a problem, of someone threatening, that is the problem.

There is a difference between being a problem and having a problem. African American life is viewed as a problem, a problem to be solved.  Now in 2013 the question that W.E.B. Du Bois framed seems just as relevant, 'How does it feel to be viewed as a problem?' It was easy to see Trayvon Martin personally as the problem. Our justice system has been infected with this mindset for decades; black men and boys are viewed as a problem to be dealt with harshly. It is an unprecedented system created from the subconscious stereotypes that we all carry within us. 

Zimmerman’s mindset is not aberrant, but quite normal. We have given law enforcement a license to act on this mindset. The police can act on this mindset, but not flaunt it. "The uncomfortable reality is that if Zimmerman was a police officer, we wouldn’t know Trayvon Martin’s name."

When a private person assaults someone, that’s aggravated violence. If it’s a police officer, it’s called stop and frisk. We expect black folk to endure this treatment for the safety of others. I think it’s fair to wonder what would the New York City violent crime rate be if those people being stopped and frisked were counted as aggravated assaults? Who is safe from what?

Stop and frisk sends a message to kids at a young age that no matter who you are, whatever you do, one way or another you are going to jail. Many kids are used to this. Several kids were interviewed who were stopped several times. A kid, 15, was stopped 4-5 times. The first several times, he said, were scary, but now it is normal. 

My father who is from Mississippi had to pack a lot of food when he was traveling because they couldn’t use restaurants or restrooms.  When he told that story, I said, 'My God, that must have been awful to endure such blatant discrimination.' He said, 'Yes, sometimes terrifying, it was awful, but that was how it was. But you don’t fret over the rules of the game, you just play the hand you’re dealt.' By demonizing Zimmerman we miss an opportunity, we miss an opportunity to talk about what’s normal, normal for millions of men who go to prison for who you are, not what you are doing. It’s normal to have to justify your very existence. It’s bad, we’re told, but that’s just the way it is.

By treating George Zimmerman as an outrageous incident, it is the Zimmerman mindset that is guilty, that we have normalized. What we as a nation have done AGAIN.  Less than 20 years after Civil Rights Act was passed, our country was busy constructing a new system of social and racial control.  We established a system of people being locked up and locked out.  We facilitated a new system of control.

Lifting back the curtain to build a movement

Lani Guinier says that African Americans are like a miner’s canary, they are the first to smell the fumes, to die in the mine, but we are all threatened by the forms of injustice practiced on the weakest and most vulnerable. I speak out on the constant surveillance in the war on drugs, but the NSA is spying on us all. If we are to build a movement for mass incarceration, we also have to speak up for those locked in cages because they are undocumented immigrants, for those placed in solitary confinement. "All forms of racism and social control are rooted in our unwillingness to see and value the humanity in one another."

We need to value one another, see one another as we are and still care for one another. If we are to build this movement, we will need to tell some inconvenient and uncomfortable truths. We have done it again, we have rebirthed a caste-like system in America. We need to tell these stories in our schools, in our prisons, so that a great awakening can begin. There are no signs alerting us to this new caste system. If you are not touched by this system, it’s easy to go your whole life with no idea.

It’s up to us to lift back the curtain, to speak unpopular and inconvenient truths, even when, especially when, we are surrounded by those who don’t agree. We have to get to work to end the system of mass incarceration. We need to build an underground railroad for those released from prison. We’ve got to be willing to open our homes, our places of work, we’ve got to be willing to open our hearts at this time if we are going to do the work. It’s not enough to help people who are returning one by one, we must end the war on drugs once and for all. We have spent a trillion dollars since it began, that could have been used for education, instead destruction of communities.

We have a lot of work to do. Keep in mind that all the rules, laws that comprise this system rest on a core belief – that some of us are not worthy of genuine compassion and concern. When we challenge that core belief, the whole system comes toppling down. It has to be a multi-racial, multi-ethnic movement. The same 'get tough' policies that led to the 'get tough' movement aimed at urban black kids led to 'illegal' immigrants. We need a human rights movement on behalf of everyone. We have to awaken from the color blind slumber that we have been in to the reality of race in our country. Failure to recognize the dignity and humanity of all people has been the sturdy foundation of all caste systems.