Professor of Law, Writer, Historian, Civil Rights Advocate: b. 1968
Two years after the election of America’s first African American president, Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. While many considered Barack Obama’s election evidence that America has finally moved past race, Alexander wrote that America “need(s) a radical restructuring of our economy and our society in order to ensure that poor people of all colors gain equal access to opportunity, jobs, housing, and healthcare”. During a law career focused on civil rights advocacy and anti-discrimination cases, Alexander came to the conclusion that, as a result of mass incarceration, huge numbers of African American men “are permanently locked into an inferior, second-class status, or caste, by law and custom”.
Alexander graduated from Vanderbilt University and earned a law degree from Stanford in 1992, before beginning her career as civil rights advocate. In 1998, Alexander was hired as the founding director of the northern-California ACLU chapter´s Racial Justice Project. There, she started to see the problems that she would write about in The New Jim Crow. While interviewing potential plaintiffs in a case against the Oakland Police Department, Alexander met a young man who had kept detailed notes about years of police abuse in his neighborhood. She was prepared to use his testimony to move forward with the case until she learned he was a drug felon. Though he insisted he’d been framed by a police officer, Alexander knew the drug conviction could undermine his credibility in court. Angry, the young man told her that she wouldn’t find anyone in his neighborhood who didn’t have a record. He tore up his notes and left the office, yelling, “You're no better than the police. You’re just like them. I can't believe I trusted you.”
Months later Alexander read in the newspaper that the several police officers, including one the young man mentioned, had been arrested for framing and beating up innocent citizens. During a radio interview in 2012, Alexander recalled her feelings in that moment: “…he's right about me. The minute he told me he was a felon, I stopped listening. I couldn't even hear what he had to say. And I realized that my crime wasn't so much that I had refused to represent an innocent man, someone who had been telling me the truth, but that I had been blind to all those who were guilty and that their stories weren't being told”. That realization was the seed of The New Jim Crow.
Alexander calls the devastating impact that the War on Drugs has inflicted on African American families, “the new Jim Crow” because, she believes, its policies target black men and institutionalize discrimination, as was the case during the segregationist Jim Crow laws enacted in the US between 1876 and 1965. The enforcers of the drug laws, she says, claim that it has nothing to do with racism because the mass imprisonments are legal not racial. However, Alexander provides evidence to show that many laws that imprison people of color are not enforced to the same degree in white communities.
In the book, Alexander proposes that these inequities are both established and reinforced by the mass incarceration of young African Americans and the barriers they face reintegrating into civilian society when they are released from prison. Depending on the state in which they reside, non-violent drug felons may lose the right to vote and their eligibility for receive food stamps and public housing. With a felony record, it is difficult to find a job. For those that do, pay can be garnished in order to pay back past court fees and fines.
These obstacles create a system that, according to Alexander, “seems designed to send folks back to prison, which is what, in fact, happens the vast majority of the time.”
Alexander’s audiences are often disheartened or turned off by this message. Some readers believe the punishment fits the crime, while others point out that drug laws apply to all citizens regardless of race. The key facts of Alexander’s argument are that current punishments affect the offender’s life long after the sentence has been served, and that African Americans are targeted for drug offenses and convicted at higher rates than other races, though drug use numbers are consistent across the population.
In 2005, Michelle Alexander moved to Ohio, where she is a law professor at Ohio State University. She lives with her husband and their three children. Since publishing The New Jim Crow, she has traveled the United States, speaking at churches, schools, universities, nonprofits, and professional groups, inspiring citizens to take action against mass incarceration.