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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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So, my view is that this has got to be a human rights movement. It’s got to be a movement for education, not incarceration; for jobs, not jails; a movement that acknowledges the basic humanity and dignity of all people, no matter who you are or what you have done, so that we don’t view it as normal and natural to strip people of basic civil and human rights following their release from prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Randall Robinson, talking about movements, you spearheaded the anti-apartheid movement in this country, getting arrested numerous times, among other places, in front of the South African embassy. You fasted almost unto the death to stop the—to fight the U.S. government—President Clinton, I think, at the time—to allow Haitians to come into this country at the time of the bloody coup of 1991 to 1994 in Haiti. Talk about the power of movements and what you see, from your perspective now living in St. Kitts, having quit America—the name of one of your books—what you think needs to happen in this country.

RANDALL ROBINSON: Just 12 percent of the people who commit nonviolent drug infractions are black, I think 56 percent of those, nonetheless, who are prosecuted, and something on the order of 75 percent of those who are imprisoned. I mean, we can see the striking unfairness of it. But we have to find a way to get that information to people. Outrage has to be informed by information to go anywhere. South Africa worked because everybody knew about the apartheid system when we went to jail. And so, it was instant. This is a little bit more difficult.

We’re backward in the world in so many ways. We find ourselves in bed with China, Iran and two or three other nations in our embrace of the death penalty, when the rest of the world is moving in the other direction. But 75 percent of those executed are black and Hispanic. And so, the unfairness of it is seen in the statistics of who pays and who doesn’t. We get sentences twice as long for commission of the same crime. It’s just fundamentally unfair.

And the question, Amy, is how we can put this together in a way that is consumable and inspiring to people to let them know that this is not just a black or racial issue, it’s an issue for all Americans who care about democracy and equity and fair play and decency. And that’s what we have to do. We are killing our own country’s future, is what we are doing. And we’re killing genius in jail cells that does not have a chance to blossom and to flower.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you’ve written some amazing books in terms of impacting on social policy—your book on the debt that the Unites States owes to Black America. But now you’ve moved more into fiction. Your sense of the role of fiction and of creative writers in helping to shape the consciousness and understanding of reality by readers?

RANDALL ROBINSON: I read a lot of fiction. I read both fiction and nonfiction. But there are some people who read only fiction. And I think you can write meaningful fiction for people who would be concerned about the kinds of issues that we’re discussing here today. And nonfiction is not as multi-layered as fiction is. Fiction not only conveys information, but it conveys other dimensions of the human personality and the capacity to care and think and to puzzle out problems.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I thank you so much, both, for being with us. Randall Robinson’s latest book is a novel; it’s called  Makeda. The latest book of Michelle Alexander, just out in paperback,  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

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