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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. You know, that is the engine of mass incarceration, is the stream of people who are fed into the system through these kinds of aggressive policing tactics like stop-and-frisk. And, you know, think about that. You know, in one year alone, 2010, more than 600,000 people were stopped and frisked in the city of New York. And in less than 15 percent of those cases was there any kind of suspect description involved. The overwhelming majority of those stops and frisks were police stopping, frisking people on their way to school, on their way to work, on their way to church. And inevitably, people are fed into the criminal justice system in that fashion and labeled criminals or felons for engaging in extremely minor, nonviolent offenses. Drug use and sales is about as common in middle-class white communities and college campuses as it is in the hood, but it’s poor folks of color who are doing time for these kinds of offenses.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Alexander, you’ve talked about the war on drugs as a counterrevolution against the civil rights movement.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, absolutely. You know, numerous historians and political scientists have documented now that the war on drugs was part of a grand Republican Party strategy, known as the Southern Strategy, of using racially coded, "get tough" political appeals on issues of crime and welfare in order to appeal to poor and working-class white voters who were resentful of, anxious about, fearful of many of the gains of African Americans in the civil rights movement.

And, you know, to be fair, I think we have to acknowledge that poor and working-class whites really had their world rocked by the civil rights movement. You know, wealthy whites could continue to give their kids all of the advantages that wealth has to offer, but it was poor and working-class whites who were faced with the social demotion and whose kids might be bused across town to go to schools inferior. And affirmative action programs created this sense that, you know, black folks were now leapfrogging over them on their way to Harvard or Yale or fancy jobs in corporate America. And this state of affairs created enormous amount of anxiety, fear and resentment. But it also created an enormous political opportunity.

Pollsters and political strategists found that these thinly veiled promises to get tough on a group of people, not so subtly defined by race, could be enormously successful in persuading poor and working-class whites to defect from the Democratic New Deal coalition and join the Republican Party in droves. So the war on drugs was really an effort by the Reagan administration to make good on campaign promises to get tough on a group of people defined largely by race.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you and then Randall Robinson about solutions, informed by your research and your life, movements. We see the Occupy movement today and how it has shaken this country. Now, even the Republicans are going at each other for the kind of capitalism that they practice, the Republican presidential hopefuls, Rick Perry calling Romney a vulture capitalist. What movement do you think needs to take place now?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, there absolutely has to be a movement. Nothing less than a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in America or inspiring a recommitment to King’s dream. You know, if we were to return to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, before the war on drugs and the "get tough" movement kicked off, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today. You know, a million people employed by the criminal justice system would lose their jobs. So this system isn’t going to just fade away without a major social upheaval, a fairly radical shift in our public consciousness.

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