Scholar: Jim Crow Is Far From Dead

Jim Crow is the system of laws and customs that kept African-Americans separate and unequal from whites for decades. Now one legal scholar argues that Jim Crow hasn't gone away and that the same segregationist goals are being pursued through the criminal justice system. Host Michel Martin speaks with Michelle Alexander, the author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now to another conversation about our criminal justice system. Let's start with the term Jim Crow. Now, most people think of it as something antique, something for the history books. The term, of course, refers to a system of legally enforced racial hierarchy that advantaged whites over blacks in just about every area of life. Now, of course, most people assume that that system of hierarchy is long over and done with.

Not so fast says legal scholar and attorney Michelle Alexander. She's a former Supreme Court clerk. She argues that Jim Crow is alive and well in our criminal justice system. That's the premise of her provocative new book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." Now, I spoke with Ms. Alexander before yesterday's court ruling on Miranda and I started by asking her to read a few lines from the book's preface.

Ms. MICHELLE ALEXANDER (Legal Scholar and Attorney; Author, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness"): (Reading) This book is not for everyone. I have a specific audience in mind: people who cared deeply about racial justice, but who for any number of reasons do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration. In other words, I'm writing this book for people like me, the person I was 10 years ago.

MARTIN: So, who were you 10 years ago? What did you think?

Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, a little more than 10 years ago I was passionately committed to racial justice and working as a civil rights lawyer and advocate primarily doing employment discrimination work. And I was hired by the ACLU to direct the racial justice project. And I was about to shift my focus from employment discrimination to criminal justice reform. And I assumed that our criminal justice system was much like all institutions in our society that are infected, to some degree or another, with conscious and unconscious bias. So I thought to myself, I'm going to dedicate myself to working with others to root out racial bias wherever and wherever it might appear in our criminal justice system.

But by the time I left the ACLU, I had come to realize that I had been wrong about our criminal justice system. It's not just another institution in our society infected by racial bias, but a different beast entirely. It functions today as a caste system. It functions to lock poor people of color in a permanent second class status for life, much like Jim Crow once did.

MARTIN: Well, obviously people are going to want to hear your evidence for that, because there are many people who would say, first of all, the people who are most victimized by crime are the people who look most like the people doing the crime, so that's thing one.

And the second thing I think people would say is, there's no law in the United States that says this penalty for white people, this penalty for black people, unlike Jim Crow laws of the past, where there are explicit differential consequences for different acts based on your race.

So what's your evidence that the incarceration system now or that the law enforcement now acts in that way?

Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, it's true that our criminal justice system on its face, on the surface, appears to be colorblind. And the popular justification for the mass incarceration of people of color is crime rates. But as I show in my book, crime rates do not even begin to explain the sudden and astonishing increase in imprisonment of poor people of color in the United States.

Most criminologists, sociologists, will tell you that incarceration rates in the United States have moved independently of crime rates. Incarceration rates have soared regardless of whether crime rates have gone up or down.

MARTIN: So what's behind that? Particularly given that it has to be said that in many major cities, African-Americans and Latinos are part of a political system making these laws. They are mayors, they are city council members, they are county council members. They are represented at all levels of government. So what is behind this in your view?

Ms. ALEXANDER: The war on drugs. The war on drugs is the primary cause of the prison explosion in the United States. And the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies have shown now for decades that contrary to popular belief, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites.

Now, that defies our basic racial stereotypes about who drug dealers are. When we think about a drug dealer, we think about a black kid standing on a street corner. Well, plenty of drug dealing happens in the ghetto, but it happens everywhere else in America as well. But in some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison have been African-American. And millions of people of color have been branded felons through the drug war.

And once you're branded a felon, you're trapped in a permanent second class status in which you may be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. All the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era - suddenly legal again once you've been branded a felon.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Michelle Alexander. She's the author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

And you cite a case in Hearne, Texas where dozens of African-Americans were rounded up on drug charges on the basis of a single informant, charges that were later dropped for most people. In fact, this case has been widely covered. In fact, NPR's Wade Goodwyn first reported on that story. It was later dramatized in the film "American Violet."

But how common is that? I think a lot of people would say, well, that's a bad guy. There was, there was a bad guy involved. What evidence is it that this is some sort of a mass national conspiracy to keep black and brown people locked up?

Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, it's all too common. You know, the use of snitches has increased exponentially in the war on drugs. You know, the testimony of folks who are attempting to escape harsh mandatory minimum sentences - these forms of testimony are, you know, notoriously unreliable, but they are used routinely in drug cases.

So the fact that, you know, a relatively small number of people have been caught lying in framing others in drug cases either for cash or to escape lengthy sentences themselves, doesn't, I think, reflect the limited nature. Quite the contrary. It's just the tip of the iceberg.

MARTIN: Well, let's look at the outside of this debate for a minute. I mean, you've said in the book that black support of tough-on-crime measures is often overstated for political purposes. But the fact is, crime is a serious problem in a lot of communities. I mean, it just so happens we are speaking in Washington, D.C., where just a couple of weeks ago a number of people -teenagers, kids - just out on the front of their, in their community, were shot in a drive-by shooting for no reason. And there are a lot of people, if you go to that neighborhood right now, they'll say, My kids can't play on the street, I can't walk down the street, and I want something done about this, and I want these people off the street.

Ms. ALEXANDER: Yes.

MARTIN: And what do you say to that?

Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, I say if you care about violent crime in your community, you should absolutely oppose the war on drugs. President Ronald Reagan authorized millions of dollars to be directed to law enforcement agencies that were initially reluctant to wage the drug war. They said to themselves, you know, why should we divert scarce resources away from crimes like murder or rape, robbery, more serious offenses, to low level drug offenses in order to wage this drug war?

But that initial resistance was overcome by the federal grant programs that, you know, give millions of dollars to state and local law enforcement agencies that boost the volume of drug arrests, giving, you know, an incentive to agencies to round up en masse people for extremely minor offenses. For example, in 2005 four out of five drug arrests were for possession. Only one out of five were for sales. Nearly 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and equally as prevalent in middle class white communities and as(ph) college campuses as it is in poor communities of color.

But the drug war has been waged almost exclusively there. So if you care about violent crime and are concerned about violent crime, the first thing you need to do is end the drug war and ask law enforcement agencies to be more responsive to the types of crimes that are causing the most harm to the community.

MARTIN: We started our conversation with your saying, look, I was one of those people who I thought, that's ridiculous - look, I believe in justice and equality and fairness and all those all that good stuff, and I would not have believed this 10 years ago, but now I do. So now that you believe this, what do you do?

Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, I argue in the book that, you know, we need a broad based social movement, one of a size, scope, depth and courage of the movement that was begun in the 1960s and left unfinished. If we were to go back to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today.

More than a million people employed by the criminal justice system would lose their jobs. So if we were to downsize, it would require a major shift in our social, political and economic landscape. So piecemeal policy reform isn't going to get us to where we need to be. So we need to begin a process of consciousness raising and movement building. And this book was an effort to provide all of the evidence that is necessary for that process of awakening to begin.

MARTIN: Michelle Alexander is the author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess," and she joined us here in our Washington D.C. studios. Michelle Alexander, thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me.

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