Law professor speaks out on ‘The New Jim Crow’

Law professor Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow," spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of over 200 people at the Women’s Civic Improvement Center in Oak Park on Wednesday. The event was sponsored by a variety of local organizations, including the local chapter of All of Us or None, A Project of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.

The crowd was virtually mesmerized by the fascinating statistics about the devastating effects of the “War on Drugs,” along with the explanations of important details from relevant rulings from U.S. Supreme Court cases that drove home nearly every point made by Alexander’s seemingly encyclopedic recitation from memory.

Although Alexander read brief excerpts from her book, her presentation — which was made mostly without notes and delivered from the heart — mirrored the thesis of her newly published work. Namely, that the nation’s criminal justice system is designed to create a new caste system, akin to former Jim Crow laws, that is on its face colorblind but in reality disproportionately affects poor people and people of color, especially young black males.

Alexander postulates convincingly that felony convictions for relatively minor drug offenses are now used against so-called “ex-offenders” to label them as criminals. That label carries with it the stigma of a lifetime badge of shame and dishonor. The result is that there is now in existence a virtual explosion of the numbers in the burgeoning permanent underclass of mostly men of color who are excluded from most opportunities for education, employment, housing and public assistance that are required to even have a glimmer of hope to escape a revolving-door prison system.

Former Sacramento City Attorney Sam Jackson had the honor of introducing Alexander to the audience. Alexander’s message was met with an enthusiastic response from the crowd, which was sprinkled with grassroots organizers, religious leaders and a variety of well known community activists.

“Michelle Alexander’s book and speech here tonight has clearly and concisely articulated the genesis of the next human rights movement,” said Keith J. Staten, a local criminal defense attorney.

Alexander’s message was far more than what might be expected from an author conducting a typical book-signing tour. She contends that the current crisis in the criminal justice system was not the result of fortuitous events, but it was instead created from a calculated design and perpetuated from the highest levels of policy-making in this country, including both major political parties and the U.S. Supreme Court.

She articulated her reasons for researching and writing the book as the next logical step once she came to realize what was occurring in this county during her years working in the field of civil rights litigation and advocacy.

Alexander indicated that she was especially happy to be back in Northern California during the week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s prison system was unconstitutionally overcrowded and its population must be reduced by some 37,000 prisoners.

She continued that the election of President Barack Obama proves that even if a nice guy is elected to lead the country, no one person can change a system that is fundamentally flawed.

Dr. Vaja Watson, who serves as the director of research and policy for equity for the Cress Center at the UC Davis School of Education couldn’t have agree more.

“It’s been a long time coming,” she said. “Now that we have the facts in front of us, we need to shut the system down. We are living in a new slave state.”

Alexander currently holds a joint professorship at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Alexander earned a law degree from Stanford University and held a prestigious clerkship with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun. Her prior accomplishments include extensive experience in the field of civil rights advocacy and litigation, including a term of service as the director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California.

“(Alexander’s book and tour) is a wake-up call for communities across the county to work to ensure that those coming home from prison will have a reasonable opportunity to heal and become productive members of society, especially in light of the current difficult economic times,” community activist Tim Boyd said.

The evening concluded with a brief but lively question-and-answer session whereby Alexander demonstrated her command of a wide range of subjects, from concerns about zero-tolerance policies practiced at local school districts to articulating how to begin implementing the call to action she communicated to the audience and that is described in detail in the final chapter of her book.

Judging by the number of individuals who lined up to have their newly purchased copy of the book signed, Alexander is much more than a newly minted successful author. She is a force to be reckoned with as legal scholar and an accomplished visionary who is an articulate and powerful voice for change.

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May 27, 2011 | 8:55 AM

A permanent underclass is a failure of society. Would have liked to hear about Alexander’s “call to action.” Will definitely check out her book.

May 27, 2011 | 9:36 AM

If they don’t want to be labeled as criminals, they shouldn’t break the law.

Did someone hold a gun to their head and make them use or sell illegal drugs?

It doesn’t matter what race, age or income level they are, convicted felons are criminals and should be treated as such.

May 28, 2011 | 12:52 AM

A couple of years ago a teenage girl was being beaten in the middle of a busy street by a male youth and several stood around watching. She was picked up and dipped to the ground. A middle aged ex con jumped out of his car and went to the aid of the girl, who he did not know. He was shot in the chest by one of the youth. He waited and waited on an ambulance finally one of the shop owners ran out and drove him to the hospital. The man risked his life to save the life of someone else. Their was no media attention. He is an ex-con and his deed was ignored. Heaven forbid an ex con is shown in a positive light when showing them only in a negative light will give weight to additional laws on sentencing, blocking releases, need for incarceration…. I can give many examples of ex-cons who have changed their life, some ministers now, some business owners, …. But you won’t hear of them either because our media has a way of printing ‘Ex con arrested, Ex con commits offense….” My point is not all convicted felons remain criminals and not all should be treated as such….. Heck, Jesus was in prison. Jesus was a friend to prostitute, the ex con…. Jesus was on a cross next to two thieves and forgave one who would repent.….

May 27, 2011 | 11:38 AM

It is incredibly disrespectful to the millions of innocent American citizens who suffered for nearly a century under Jim Crow to have their plight now compared to that of drug dealers and crackheads.

Anything in the name of marketing a book I guess. There is an easy recipe for success in America, as we see with each wave of poor immigrants who improve their lot by massive leaps within a couple generations. This is even true for recent emigrants from Africa, so clearly skin color alone is not the issue.

If the African-American community wants to continue to embrace a culture that scoffs at the ideas education, hard work, and stable 2 parent families… they will continue to be rewarded with a greater presence in our prisons..

A good start on the path to success is to abondon divisive charlatans like Ms. Alexander who blame the problem on the white man’s conspiracies, and instead support those leaders who will focus on the tried and true recipes for success.

May 28, 2011 | 12:33 AM

Wow. The African American community does not embrace a culture that scoffs at the ideas of education, hard work, and stable 2 parent families. You can not generalize an entire African American community and there are people of all ethnic backgrounds who have members within their community who scoff at the ideas . This is California, the state with more prisons than any other state and there are many contributing factors as to why many African Americans are filling California Prisons….

Rewarded?? with a greater presence in our prisons?? Personally I don’t blame the plight of some of our African Americans prison bound on a “white mans conspiracy” The war on drugs was a war on the poor, Nancy Regans “Just say No campaign” was ineffective and ignorant. Especially when many never Just Said Yes….. And I see we aren’t just saying no on meth, crank.…( a drug choice of many who are not black) all of which our society has decided to reach out with rehab clinics, campaigns, public service announcements…. verses prisons….

May 28, 2011 | 12:33 AM

I blame it on the fact many have become commodities whereas crime pays a whole lot of folks with the exception of those committing the offenses. They become commodities…Yes, I blame it on the actions of those who commit the offense and the inaction of those who could have acted to prevent the offenses and the reaction of many who circle over our dead as vultures trying to profit, enhance departments, build careers…. And I blame many who can’t see the forest through the trees and are so busy looking at race they fail to see it’s not black and white it is green – money is the root of much of this evil. Both the lack of money and the desire to have more money….High tech surveillance companies are creating millionaires who endorse politicians and create alleged anti-crime initiatives which are anti poor initiatives… but the poor communities aren’t seeing money from the revenues but Homeland security and law enforcement departments will….And the poor get poorer and we will build more prisons…. In the words of Haile Selassie, “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph. ”

I don’t want to nor will I indulge in a debate on race. I found your comment both offensive and not true. It’s just not that simple. It’s not that black and white. there are many shades of gray and in fact shades of green. Many folks chose to love money instead of choosing to love people…. If we follow the money verses following the color of ones skin we will see why some of us have become commodities with lazy politicians looking for a quick fix of government grants, attempting to put band-aids on fractures instead of solutions- such as employing the poor

May 28, 2011 | 1:15 AM

I wish I could have attended. I think Law professor Michelle Alexander, not only spoke from the heart, she appears to not be on the outside looking in therefore I fail to see and I’m sure many others fail to see it as well as being “incredibility disrespectful……” In the words of Dr King, “We are all woven from the same garment what affects one of us directly affects all of us indirectly” Kudos Ms Alexander. And, I didn’t read a “white mans conspiracy” in the article above so where the heck is that coming from???

May 28, 2011 | 12:24 PM

Rhonda
Regarding your first post, the data is unquestionably clear that the breakdown in 2 parent families is happening at a much faster rate than American society as a whole. Many have postulated, and I agree, that this is core to many other problems affecting the African-American community. But I am sure we could have a great disscussion whether this is the chicken or the eggs.

Regarding the question in you second post… it is not an intellectual leap to equate ‘created from a calculated design and perpetuated at the highest levels” with just another white conspirancy to hold down the back man. I am eager to hear how you could interpret that sentence otherwise. Sounds like the same old Louis Farrakhan gibberish to me:

May 28, 2011 | 3:33 PM

cogmeyer, the end result of both crack and the prison industry can be compared to slavery — and I am not making it black and white- but since they both have led and lead to separation of family and deep suffering, teens/ youth leaving their homes not to return and families not always able to afford to visit them….

I don’t think it’s a matter of which came first the chicken or the egg. I think it’s a matter of the author was speaking of apples and you’re speaking of oranges. I think you found what you were looking for or perhaps I did. Yes, perhaps we could have a great debate on the subject. But instead I will simply agree to disagree.

In regards to the second part of your post. Again, I think she was talking apples and you’re talking about oranges. Why? would you think “calculated design and perpetuated at the highest levels” would refer to “white America”? Do you see “white America” at the highest levels? Why would you think she, especially with her educational background generalize all of white America?? because you generalized all of Black America? I guess I can say you don’t discriminate since you appear to generalize all of white america also. I know when I go to prisons I see lots of poor, underprivileged folks white, black, latino, asian…. I see low income …. I think you both insulted and underestimated her intelligence. I think “the highest level” could be in reference to those who profit off the prison industry and not so much color. Cogmeyer, sometimes the key to the future is not always the same key to unlocking the past that “just another white conspiracy to hold down the black man” is soooo past tense and often said more by those who are not black. In fact Louis Farrakhan doesn’t blame “the white man” he doesn’t give that misconception that much power, He blames the black man for the condition of the black man. If you knew what his beliefs were you’d know he wouldn’t give that much power to anyone else. Perhaps you found what you were looking for or perhaps I did. We will agree to disagree.

May 27, 2011 | 10:28 PM

In civilized societies (unlike the U.S.) punishments should be related to the severity of the crime. Many felons are first-time offenders or petty criminals who are redeemable. Marijuana can now be dispensed legally, yet there are still prisoners serving life sentences for marijuana possession and sales. Cogmeyer and newguyinsac are both woefully ignorant about the causes of crime and the awful consequences of irrational punishment. What are former inmates to do if all avenues are closed to them? If they are not allowed to hold decent jobs, how are they to make a living.

May 29, 2011 | 1:36 AM

Sorry I missed opportunity to witness the heroism of Ms. Alexander speech.
Knowing Mr Staten from and very personal side of the fense and his ablility to mintor those who are interested in “Righting what’s wrong with our Justice system as well as social mis-behavior in our social “classes” (if you will) there much work to be done .
I not only speak in the colonization of communities, which begins in the Church, but as a Communion of our sociaty as red Blooded Americans.
Reflecting on the 9-11 tragady that should have unified our countryman, but only in the Back of the House” so to speek, Jim Crow is still at the poker table dealing a bad hand to all of us in America.
Read the fine print or the clause of any “At Will Clause” of employment, it clearly states “We can terminate without notice or reason,(if we don’t like the way you look we can let you go without question.
Take you case to the Department of fair Employment and Housing, all you will find is a suit behind a desk collection a check from your tax money to tell you that you don’t have a case and if you don’t have money to afford lawyer, you’re wasting their time and your’s also.
So the system is really for those who can afford to fight for themselves because their is no one out there to assist you and your rights and respect are just dust in the wind.

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