Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, visits CMU

Attendees packed the McConomy Auditorium last Thursday as Michelle Alexander, author of the bestseller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, led a discussion about mass incarceration and racial justice. Also on the panel were Heinz College professor Alfred Blumstein and Department of History postdoctoral fellow Anthony Pratcher.

Blumstein started: “The U.S. used to have an incarceration rate of about a hundred for a hundred thousand... we are now about five times that level.” He discussed the findings in his field of criminology showing that 30 percent of the prison population’s disparity between white people and people of color could be demonstratively explained by bias against people of color rather than by people of color committing more crimes.

Alexander acknowledged the staggering amount of people in jails and prisons as a serious problem but discussed how she and other activists refer to mass incarceration as “a much larger caste-like system” that includes people on parole and formerly incarcerated people who effectively live as second-class citizens. She also noted that while she fights to eliminate racial inequality in the system, she is “interested not in eliminating the disparities but eliminating the system itself.”

Alexander was less personally interested in the statistics around bias in the justice system and more concerned with what she calls a racist political dynamic in our country.

She said, “the rate of violent crime that we see in impoverished, segregated, jobless, ghettoized communities is a function of the fact that we as a nation have chosen to disinvest in those communities.”

Alexander was heartened to see so many people turn out to her talk, and said that old-fashioned protest can create new political realities that are starkly different from the current ones. She cited the impact the Movement for Black Lives and the Ferguson protests have made. She pointed out that the issue of mass incarceration has become bipartisan to a degree. For example, she noted, The First Step Act, a criminal justice reform law, passed with bipartisan support this April.

Pratcher brought up the topic of prison abolition as an alternative to prison reform. Alexander was quick to point out that prison abolitionism is not just about closing prisons, but about creating a democracy where prisons and jails “are not required, where we have developed alternative forms of justice...where we respond with care, compassion, and concern rather than punitive approaches.”

She discussed how the current system fails survivors of violent crime, who often don’t get closure from seeing their assailant sent off to prison, and fails to redeem the imprisoned people, who spend time in a traumatizing environment that doesn’t improve them.

Alexander proclaimed the unfairness in that white business owners are making a profit selling marijuana in states where it’s legalized while black people were torn from their homes for doing the same thing. She argued that reparations should be paid not just for slavery but for the impact of the drug war on communities of color.

She also noted that the same infrastructure is used to lock up black people and undocumented immigrants and that both of their mistreatments are justified by similar political rhetoric that scapegoats members of both groups as dangerous.

Alexander recounted what inspired her to write The New Jim Crow. Growing up, she noticed her white classmates in high school and college weren’t arrested for doing hard drugs and later went on to grad school and lucrative careers, while young people of color caught smoking marijuana were penalized and told they would never amount to anything.

Alexander ended by discussing the broader political implications of the drug war and racism. “The drug war was declared with black folks in mind, but it’s a war that’s harmed people in communities of all colors. Today in our politics, I think we can see all kinds of examples of the way that white folks hurt themselves by their own racism.” She believes that America doesn’t have many welfare policies like universal healthcare because “things like welfare and federal support for education, for healthcare, for housing and the rest got tainted through the racial politics of the Southern Strategy.” To some degree, she argues, white Americans don’t support policies that would benefit them because they would also benefit people of color.

When it comes to enacting change against the injustices she describes, Alexander said, “It’s going to take activism and it’s going to take protest...In whatever walk of life one is in there is a role that one can play in contributing to this movement.”