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On MLK Day: How a Racist Criminal Justice System Rolled Back the Gains of the Civil Rights Era

For Martin Luther King, Jr. day, Democracy Now! hosts a discussion of mass incarceration among African-Americans and how it has created a new Jim Crow era.

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Welcome to  Democracy Now!, Michelle Alexander.


AMY GOODMAN: As you join with Randall Robinson in this discussion, it’s also the hundredth anniversary of the ANC in South Africa. And you have talked about how there are more African Americans percentage-wise imprisoned in the United States, more black people, than were at the height of apartheid South Africa.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, yes. You know, I think we’ve become blind in this country to the ways in which we’ve managed to reinvent a caste-like system here in the United States, one that functions in a manner that is as oppressive, in many respects, as the one that existed in South Africa under apartheid and that existed under Jim Crow here in the United States. Although our rules and laws are now officially colorblind, they operate to discriminate in a grossly disproportionate fashion. Through the war on drugs and the "get tough" movement, millions of poor people, overwhelmingly poor people of color, have been swept into our nation’s prisons and jails, branded criminals and felons, primarily for nonviolent and drug-related crimes—the very sorts of crimes that occur with roughly equal frequency in middle-class white neighborhoods and on college campuses but go largely ignored—branded criminals and felons, and then are ushered into a permanent second-class status, where they’re stripped of the many rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement, like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, one of the fascinating things in the book, which has now been reissued in paperback, is you talk about your own sort of journey of realizing this, that even as an activist, a civil rights legal activist, that you were not clearly aware of the depth and the extensiveness of this mass incarceration.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yeah, I admit in the introduction to the book that I was blind for a long time. Even as a civil rights lawyer, someone who cared deeply about racial justice and who thought I knew, as a lawyer, how the criminal justice system functioned, I was blind. It was really only after years of representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color and attempting to assist people re-enter into a society that had never shown much use for them in the first place, that I had a series of experiences that really began my own awakening.

I began to see that our criminal justice system does in fact more—operate more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control and that so many of the myths that we are fed about why our prison system, you know, has exploded in the past 30 years, why we now have the largest—the highest rate of incarceration in the world, you know, just don’t even pass the laugh test once you take a close look at them. It is not the case that our prison population has exploded due to a surge in crime or crime rates. It is not true that people of color are more likely to commit drug-related crimes than whites. So many of the excuses that have been offered actually just aren’t true, once you dig a little deeper. And my book is an effort to do just that.

AMY GOODMAN: And let’s talk about what happens when you have a person going to prison, how that affects the rest of their life. First of all, just the astounding figures. It’s something like half the young black men in this country have been incarcerated or on parole, probation. Half?

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