On MLK Day: How a Racist Criminal Justice System Rolled Back the Gains of the Civil Rights Era
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MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes.
RANDALL ROBINSON: In the same way that you said. And you have done an extraordinary work.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Thank you.
RANDALL ROBINSON: I mean, I am so impressed by the work that you have done. And it is so needed to get us to understand that it is a harness that we all have to get in and pull in.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion, on this eve of Martin Luther King weekend. We’re speaking with Randall Robinson. His latest book is his second novel. It’s called Makeda. It is set in the dawn of the civil rights era. And we’re joined by Michelle Alexander. Her book has just come out in paperback. It’s called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. When we come back, we’re also going to talk about what it means in this country, mass incarceration, when it comes to voting and determining who are the representatives of the people of this country. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: On this eve of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, a federal holiday—the last two states to acknowledge it were New Hampshire and Arizona—we are having a discussion about the state of Black America. Michelle Alexander has written extensively about the mass incarceration in the age of color blindness, and we want to talk about what that means in terms of voting. People died for the right to vote in the United States. And yet, today, what happens to people who are imprisoned? Just a figure: Human Rights Watch says African-American adults have been arrested at a rate of 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white adults in every year from 1980 to 2007, yet African Americans and whites have similar rates of illicit drug use and dealing. And then how that plays out right to deciding who will vote for these laws?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, absolutely. You know, felon disenfranchisement laws have now accomplished what poll taxes and literacy tests, you know, ultimately could not. People in the United States are stripped of the right to vote in many states if they have a felony conviction, including a minor drug conviction can, you know, wind up labeling you as a felon for life. And when people are released from prison, they can be stripped of the right to vote for a period of years, or in, you know, a few states, for the rest of your life.
And I find that many people kind of shrug their shoulders at that when I, you know, remark on the fact that so many people are denied the right to vote because of criminal convictions. But in other Western democracies, people who are in prison have the right to vote. But here, we deny the right to vote not only if you’re in prison, but once you’re released.
AMY GOODMAN: I think in maybe two states, you’re allowed. One of them is Vermont—
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —where you can vote in prison.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Maine and Vermont, yes, absolutely. But we just don’t seem to take democracy as seriously here in the United States, particularly if you’re poor and of color.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And this whole emphasis in recent years on—by many police departments on quality-of-life arrests and stop-and-frisks. In New York City, for instance, 600,000 people stopped and frisked by police, with 90 percent of them black and Hispanic. And increasingly, the militarization of the schools, arresting students in schools, police departments actually functioning within the schools. The impact on the underside of the building of this Jim Crow system at that level, at the street level and at the school level?