On MLK Day: How a Racist Criminal Justice System Rolled Back the Gains of the Civil Rights Era
On this eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, we host a wide-ranging discussion with TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson and author Michelle Alexander about the mass incarceration of African Americans that has rolled back many achievements of the civil rights movement. Today there are more African Americans under correctional control, whether in prison or jail, on probation or on parole, than there were enslaved in 1850. And more African-American men are disenfranchised now because of felon disenfranchisement laws than in 1870. Alexander, whose book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" is newly released in paperback, argues that "[n]othing less than a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in America or inspiring a recommitment to [Martin Luther] King's dream... 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."
AMY GOODMAN: On this eve of Martin Luther King’s birthday, you write about King in the book. You write about how he once shows up in Richmond and the inspiration of Gray when he saw him speak. Did you meet Dr. King?
RANDALL ROBINSON: He came to my high school. And he walked down my aisle. This was just after the beginning of the bus boycott, and he had become a national figure. And my brother Max and I were sitting on the aisle. And my father, who taught history at the school, was back behind us. And he shook our hands, and I looked back at my father. I looked back at my father. It was a special, special and memorable moment. But even Dr. King is said to have said about this lost memory that, to quote him, "The Negro knows nothing of Africa." I think he said that with some pain and some distress.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a clip of Dr. King. This is from the famous address in 1963, August 28th.
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
JUAN GONZALEZ: On this eve of Martin Luther King’s birthday, we want to bring Michelle Alexander into this discussion and talk about Black America. Today there are more African Americans under correctional control, whether in prison or jail, on probation or on parole, than there were enslaved in 1850. And more African-American men are disenfranchised now because of felon disenfranchise laws than in 1870.
AMY GOODMAN: A legal scholar and civil rights advocate, Michelle Alexander has argued in her recent book that although Jim Crow laws have been eliminated, the racial caste system it set up remains intact. It’s simply been redesigned, and now racial control functions through the criminal justice system. Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, former director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, now holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Michelle Alexander.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Thank you.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.