Best-Selling Author Michelle Alexander Discusses Mass Incarceration

Michelle Alexander

March 6, 2018 -- On March 1, Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer, legal scholar, and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, spoke to an overflow crowd of faculty, staff, students, and community members in Marist’s Nelly Goletti Theatre. The talk was moderated by Assistant Professor of Public Administration Tia Sherèe Gaynor and Assistant Professor of Psychology Jocelyn R. Smith Lee, who sat onstage with Ms. Alexander, flanked on both sides by Marist students. Recent alumna Bryanna Adams ’17 introduced the acclaimed guest speaker. Professors Gaynor and Smith Lee were particularly well suited to lead the discussion, given their research interests. Professor Gaynor’s research explores state sanctioned oppression as it relates to marginalized social groups, while Professor Smith Lee’s research focuses on trauma, violence, loss, and healing among black men and boys.  

The conversation with Ms. Alexander explored the myths surrounding the American criminal justice system from a racial and ethical standpoint, offering potential solutions for combating the epidemic of mass incarceration and the decades-long growth of the “prison-industrial complex.” In The New Jim Crow, which has become extremely influential since its publication in 2010, Ms. Alexander examines systemic racism in the American prison system and argues that mass incarceration has come to replace segregation as a means of racial and social control.  

Ms. Alexander was inspired to write The New Jim Crow by her work representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality as a civil rights lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The people she met and the stories she heard left an indelible imprint on her, and she was struck by how the voices of those caught in the criminal justice system were marginalized and ignored. Said Ms. Alexander, “I wanted to foster a conversation on the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating a racial hierarchy in the United States.” 

Michelle Alexander on stage

At the time she was practicing civil rights law, in the late 1980s and 1990s, many considered racial profiling “a figment of black people’s imagination.” There was no research being done on the subject and no data to review. To begin collecting information on traffic stops of people of color, the ACLU set up a hotline, and on its first night, it received thousands of calls from people who had experienced police harassment and discrimination. Ms. Alexander recalled meeting with a man who had made meticulous notes of his interactions with law enforcement over a nine-month period during which he had been stopped and frisked numerous times; he included locations, dates, times, and witnesses. He claimed to have been framed by a corrupt policeman who had planted drugs on him, only agreeing to a felony plea to avoid decades in jail.   

What happened next led to Ms. Alexander’s awakening. As compelling as the man’s story was, she knew she couldn’t use him as a lead plaintiff because he was a felon and would thus lack credibility. Upon hearing this news, the man became angered and explained what his life was like: “I can’t get a job, and I’m barred from living in public housing and receiving food stamps. How am I supposed to make a life? I was framed, but you’re no better than the police because you don’t listen to me, either.” He then proceeded to rip his detailed notes into tiny pieces. Months later, when a scandal about corrupt Oakland cops planting evidence and using excessive force became public, the policeman whom the man had identified was prominently featured. He had been telling the truth, but no one had listened. 

Ms. Alexander set about doing her research, leading to a second career as a legal scholar and contributing to a better understanding of the consequences of the “get tough on crime” approach. The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world, despite crime rates being at historic lows. Due to the War on Drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing, the prison population has quintupled over the past several decades, even as crime rates have plummeted. African American men are hit particularly hard by these trends, with the majority of black men in major urban areas either under correctional control or hobbled by criminal records, resulting in employment and housing discrimination and denial of other civil rights. 

When Ms. Alexander first published The New Jim Crow, America had just elected its first black president and there was talk of a new “post-racial” era. “People told me I was crazy, and I couldn’t get anyone to listen,” she said. Slowly but steadily, that changed. She doesn’t believe that racial bias has necessarily increased in the interim, but “we are no longer in denial about it.” She added, “Today, racial bigotry is no longer underground, and people are yearning to connect to a real movement for racial justice.” She noted that historically, narratives were created to normalize slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration of black people, e.g., they are lazy, prone to violence, etc.  In recent years, harmful narratives have emerged related to immigrants, particularly Mexicans, to justify mass deportation. 

Michelle Alexander audience

So what remedies does Ms. Alexander suggest? Reforms to the criminal justice system are crucial, as are changes to the political system to make it less beholden to special interests. She also noted that our economic system plays a role in perpetuating injustice when it leaves behind “disposable populations.” She added, “We must reimagine our democracy so that the least advantaged have a voice.” Among her other recommended solutions were an end to the War on Drugs, quality education, universal health care, and better treatment of addiction, all of which could help prevent “the crises that we currently solve through mass incarceration.” 

Asked to provide some takeaways for the audience, Ms. Alexander quoted Cornel West, who spoke at Marist in 2015: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” She also encouraged the audience to keep up the conversation on who is worthy and deserving of civil rights in our society. She is encouraged by the fact that this group has steadily expanded, from women to people of color to the LGBTQ population. She ended the lecture by noting that her work is motivated by a deep conviction: “Each of us has value and dignity and is deserving of basic human rights. I hope we become a nation that shows more care and concern for one another.” 

Michelle Alexander with Marist faculty

Assistant Professor of Psychology Jocelyn R. Smith Lee, Assistant Professor of Public Administration Tia Sherèe Gaynor, guest speaker Michelle Alexander, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Addrain Conyers, and Bryanna Adams '17

About Michelle Alexander

Ms. Alexander has taught at a number of universities, including Stanford Law School, where she was an associate professor of law and directed the Civil Rights Clinics. She has also held a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, and is currently a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of Stanford Law School and Vanderbilt University. Following law school, she clerked for Justice Harry A. Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court and for Chief Judge Abner Mikva on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

About Marist

Located on the banks of the historic Hudson River and at its Florence, Italy branch campus, Marist College is a comprehensive, independent institution grounded in the liberal arts. Its mission is to “help students develop the intellect, character, and skills required for enlightened, ethical, and productive lives in the global community of the 21st century.” Marist is consistently recognized for excellence by The Princeton Review (Colleges That Create Futures and The Best 381 Colleges), U.S. News & World Report (9th Best Regional University/North), Kiplinger’s Personal Finance (“Best College Values”), and others. Though now independent, Marist remains committed to the ideals handed down from its founders, the Marist Brothers: excellence in education, a sense of community, and a commitment to service. Marist educates approximately 5,000 traditional-age undergraduate students and 1,400 adult and graduate students in 47 undergraduate majors and 14 graduate programs, including fully online MBA, MPA, MS, and MA degrees. www.marist.edu

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