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Prison Racism and the Myth of a Colorblind Justice System

A conversation with author Michelle Alexander on media manipulations and the mass injustice incarcerated minorities face across the United States.

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A couple of days back, I spoke with her on the myth of colorblindness, on how media images frame public perceptions of prisoners and subsequent punitive policies, what mass incarceration means for ailing communities of color, and the struggle ahead for all sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Thanks for your time, Ms. Alexander. You begin the book with juxtaposed images of a Black man handcuffed and overshadowed by officers in some street gutter, and a Black man overshadowing a past of Jim Crow and segregation to make history happen. In the first, passersby ignore the Black man; in the second, hundreds of thousands are paying solemn attention to his every word. Can you take it from there?

Yes. With the election of Barack Obama, so many people have persuaded themselves that we’ve finally triumphed over Race, that we’ve moved beyond Race. Meanwhile, of course, there are millions of poor people of color who have been branded felons, relegated to a permanent second-class status, legally discriminated against. So, that young Black man kneeling in the gutter, at the same time the world is celebrating the election of Barack Obama, is, I think, a profound illustration of how our attention has been diverted, in recent years, away from those who’ve suffered from the emergence of this caste system, and how we’ve been enchanted by the election of a few African-Americans into positions of power.

You insist that forms of racism don’t die out but adapt to the times—preservation-through-transformation, as you describe. “The rules and reasons the political system employs to enforce status relations of any kind, including racial hierarchy,” you write, “evolve and change as they are challenged.” Why have most civil rights groups failed to see this and take up critical action against it—preferring to lunge from courtroom to courtroom rather than attack the streets, where the real war is taking place? And you have some stern words for these groups—“adapt or die.”

Yes. I wrote this book because I was so deeply alarmed by the relative quiet of the civil rights community and African-American leaders in the face of mass incarceration. And I admit, at the outset, that I, myself, failed to fully grasp the extent of the devastation caused to communities of color as a result of the Drug War. There was a time when I didn’t fully get it.

I had a series of experiences representing victims of racial profiling, police brutality, and people who are struggling to “re-enter” a society—that never much wanted them in the first place—after being branded a felon. I had a series of experiences that affected me in profound ways; and now that I can see, with blinders off, the way it operates, the history, and how it functions to recreate a permanent second-class status for poor people of color (especially Black people in America), it is downright painful to watch so many of our African-American leaders, people who call themselves Progressives, including some in the civil rights community, standing by quietly as this Drug War rages on in our communities and mass incarceration continues at pace.

But my book isn’t just about wagging fingers, because I was complicit in this system for quite a while. It’s really an effort to inspire others, to wake people up.

What was the writing process like? I mean, what were you looking for, what did you find, and what weren’t you prepared for—what blew your head off?

In the course of my research, there were a number of studies that did blow my mind. One is that today there are more African-Americans under correction or control, in prison or in jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850. That’s a decade before the Civil War began. The scale of this system is astonishing! And we’re blind to it in part because prisons are out of sight and out of mind. During the Jim Crow era, there were “White Only” signs everywhere, Black people were supposed to sit on the back of the bus—there was no denying the caste system. But, today, if you’re not in it, it’s easy to deny. Prisons are typically located in White rural communities, far away from highways; and once former prisoners get out, they’re typically dumped back into the same racially segregated communities from which they came.

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