Challenging a new Jim Crow

May 25, 2011

NEW YORK--More than 800 people turned out to a May 21 event at the historic Riverside Church titled "Campaign to End the New Jim Crow."

The event was motivated by the inspiring book by author Michelle Alexander, who was the keynote speaker. The book makes the argument that mass incarceration. particularly of African Amercians, is a new form of the old problem of Jim Crow in this country--the racist, social control of an entire ethic group. As Alexander put it "Jim Crow has not ended; it has merely been redesigned."

Alexander's overriding theme was stated up-front in her speech: "What we need is not a civil rights movement but a human rights movement. Civil rights are nothing without also having the right to a job, the right to education, the right to health care and the right to adequate housing."

Indeed, Alexander's book is intended not only to provoke thought and discussion, but also to perhaps provide the spark for the formation of a desperately needed new social justice movement.

Alexander went on to draw distinct historical parallels, noting that "this is a movement born when the first slave ran for freedom." Moreover, she noted, "a Black man today has arguably less respect than one who lived under Jim Crow."

Alexander's book, as well as her speech, makes a poignant case for why Blacks are in the condition they are overwhelmingly in. She said "mass incarceration has decimated Black families as much as slavery did." Also cited were statistics which are shocking to many: One, more Black men are denied the right to vote today than were denied the right to vote at the time the 15th Amendment was passed; two, more Black men are in prison or jail today than were enslaved in 1850; and three, 90 percent of the adult prison population and 95 percent of juvenile detention population in New York City is Black or Latino.

Alexander refreshingly pulls no punches against the Democrats, of whom she was sharply critical of in both her book and her speech.

She stated, "It was the Clinton administration which drastically escalated the drug war--even passing a law denying food stamps to drug felons for the rest of their lives--all in an effort to win back the Reagan Democrats."

She drew direct connections between the money spent on the criminal injustice system and the lack of money spent on social services, stating, "Over $1 trillion has been spent on the drug war since its beginning, money that could've been spent on jobs, schools, hospitals and other social programs but was instead spent on destroying the Black family."

This had but one result--a "system designed to send people right back to prison, and overwhelmingly, that's just what happens."

The book makes a jarring argument about the priorities of the system and how the "drug war" actually started at a time when drugs were not a big problem and less than 2 percent of Americans thought it was a top priority. Indeed, she makes the argument that far more people died as a result of alcohol-related deaths (including drunk driving) in the 1980's than died from all drug-related deaths.

Yet a person convicted of possessing a small amount of crack served a five-year minimum sentence, while a person caught drunk driving often received probation and was referred to treatment.

As Alexander put it, "If the worst thing you've done in your life is driving 10 miles an hour over the speed limit, you've put more people at greater risk than a person smoking pot in his living room."

Alexander's speech concluded with a stirring appeal for the formation of a new social justice movement. Her book also concludes not only with calls to end mass incarceration of Blacks and Latinos, but also for the linking of the movement to other social justice goals, such as money for job training, treatment and schools. We sorely need such a movement.

Alexander seems to be explicitly rejecting the single-issue oriented movements of the past and endorsing a broader, social-justice orientation. Criminal justice activists should not think of themselves as disconnected from the anti-budget cuts protests, antiwar movement, LGBT rights movement or immigrant rights movement, but instead should see their inter-connectedness in a way that will strengthen all movements.

"An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" must be the mantra for this new movement--and Alexander's powerful book gives activists one more tool with which wage the fight ahead.

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