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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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MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. Well, you know, in large urban areas, half or more than half of working-age African-American men now have criminal records and are the subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. In some cities like Chicago, it’s been estimated that nearly 80 percent of working-age African-American men have criminal records and are now part of this undercaste, a group of people, defined largely by race, that are relegated to a permanent second-class status by law.

AMY GOODMAN: What it means, for example, for housing?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. Well, you know, I think most people have a general sense that when you’re released from prison, life is hard, but, you know, if you work hard and apply self-discipline and stay out of trouble, you can make it. But that’s true only for a relative few. You know, when people are released from prison and have a criminal record, they are discriminated against for the rest of their life in employment. For the rest of their life, they’ve got to check that box on employment applications, knowing that application is likely going straight to the trash.

AMY GOODMAN: Sometimes not even convicted, you have to say you were arrested.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, absolutely. And in public housing, you can be barred from public housing just based on an arrest. You don’t even have to be convicted. People returning home from prison who want to return to their children or their families, their families risk eviction just by allowing their loved ones to come home to them. Under federal law, you’re deemed ineligible for food stamps for the rest of your life if you’ve been convicted of a drug felony. Now, fortunately, many states have now opted out of the federal ban on food stamps for drug offenders, but it’s still the case that thousands of people can’t even get food, food stamps, because they were once caught with drugs.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to bring Randall Robinson into the conversation. When you were at TransAfrica and you were working in Washington, the climate in Washington in the ’80s and ’90s was just more incarceration, more incarceration. Did any of the political leaders that you dealt with realize the long-term impact of what was happening?

RANDALL ROBINSON: I recall that when we were first being arrested at the embassy and I went to jail that first night, everyone in the lock-up with me was black.

AMY GOODMAN: This was—you were being arrested for protesting apartheid South Africa.

RANDALL ROBINSON: For protesting at the embassy. Everyone was black. And I had some sense of this. I think at the time I was told that one out of every three young black males in the District of Columbia was under one or another arm of the criminal justice system. And what stunned me about it, and what continues to bother me about it, is that when we were struggling during the civil rights movement, some of us were in better positions to benefit from this change that was coming than others were. And so, while we had all been in the same boat during segregation, when change came, we weren’t all in the same boat anymore. Some of us could escape, but others of us were bottom-stuck. And I don’t believe that those of us who escaped worked as hard, as tenaciously, since, to remember those of us who could not.

And the result is that we now see our future as a people in America being warehoused. How can we not be concerned, in some relentless way, about the fate of all of these young black people who are being imprisoned? Because we are indissolubly bound up with them. Their future is our future. Our future is their future. And we have to be mindful of that. But it doesn’t so much penetrate if we don’t have news of it every day. So many people don’t know.

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