Michelle Alexander: 'The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness'

Civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander
Civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander.
Photo courtesy The Ohio State University

Angela Conley of Minneapolis is the first African-American elected to the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners. When she was sworn into office this week, she took the oath — not with her hand on a religious text — but on a book written by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander titled, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." Michelle Alexander spoke at the University of St. Thomas when the book first came out in 2013.

"Today, in the so-called era of colorblindness, and even in the age of Obama, something akin to a caste system is alive and well in America. The mass incarceration of poor people of color is tantamount to a new caste system, one specifically designed to address the social and political and economic challenges of our time. It is, in my view, the moral equivalent of Jim Crow," Alexander said.

"I have begun to awaken to racial reality. What stuns me is that I had been blind to it for so long."

She read from the introduction in her book:

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"What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow, has less to do with the basic structure of our society, than the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt. So we don't."

"Rather than rely on race," she added, "we use our criminal justice system to label people of color criminals, and then engage in all the practices that we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African-Americans."

"Once you're labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably, less respect, than a Black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America. We have merely redesigned it."

Michelle Alexander was director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of northern California, and she's been a law professor at Stanford and Ohio State. Now she's a visiting professor of social justice at Union Theological Seminary and is an opinion columnist for the New York Times.