Our Time Press

Michelle Alexander Speaks at Riverside Church

Only a movement built on love can end mass incarceration

Today, even in the so-called age of color blindness, and yes, even in the age of Obama, something much like a caste system is alive and well in America. The mass incarceration of poor people of color in America today is tantamount to a new caste system, one specifically designed to address the social, political and economic challenges of our time. It is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow.

Today, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in almost all the ways it was once legal to discriminate against African-Americans. Once you are labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination, employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, exclusion from jury service—suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it.

Today, a black child born in America has less of a chance of being raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. And this is due in large part to the mass incarceration of black men . . . By branding them criminals and felons, they are rendered permanently unemployable by the legal job market for the most part, virtually guaranteeing that most of them will cycle in and out of prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives. In this way, mass incarceration has decimated the black family to a degree comparable to slavery . . . More than half of working age black men in some urban areas have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These men are part of a growing undercaste—not class—caste: a group of people, defined largely by race, who are relegated to a permanent second class status by law.

I believe our criminal justice system has been used once again to effectively re-create caste in America. Now I’m sure there is at least one person, probably more, in this room who is thinking, “What is she talking about?” Our criminal justice system isn’t a caste system; it’s a system of crime control. If black folks would just quit committing so many crimes they wouldn’t have to worry about being rounded up,locked up and stripped of their basic civil and human rights. And therein lies the biggest myth about mass incarceration; namely, that it’s been driven by crime and crime rates. It’s not true; it’s absolutely not true.

Our prison system quintupled in about thirty years. It went from about 350,000 to well over 2 million, for reasons that have stunningly little to do with crimes and crime rates. Over the past 30 years, crime rates have fluctuated—they’ve gone up, they’ve gone down—today, as bad as they are, crime rates in many parts of the country are at historical lows. But incarceration rates have consistently soared, especially black incarceration rates. Most sociologists and criminologists in America today will acknowledge that crime rates and incarceration rates have moved independently of one another.

Drug convictions alone accounted for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal system and more than half of the increase in the state system between 1985 and 2000, the period of the drug war’s greatest escalation . . . There are more people in jail and prison today, just for drug offenses, than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980. Drug convictions have increased by more than 1,000% since the drug war began.

The enemy in this war has been racially defined. The drug war, not by accident, has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, despite the fact that studies have shown for years that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites.
This (drug arrest) didn’t happen to Barack Obama when he used marijuana and cocaine. No, because he did so at predominantly white universities where these stop-and-frisk tactics don’t ever occur. But if you’re not living in a middle class white neighborhood, if you’re not on a college campus, insulated from the tactics of this war. If you’re living in the hood, your odds of going to jail are sky-high for engaging in exactly the same kind of behavior that goes ignored on the other side of town.

From the outset, the drug war had very little to do with actual concern about drug abuse or drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics.
Poor and working class whites really had their world rocked by the civil rights movement. Wealthy whites could send their kids to private schools, could give their kids all the advantages that wealth has to offer; but poor and working class whites were faced with a social demotion. It was their kids who might be bused across town to a school they believed might be inferior. It was their kids who were suddenly going to be forced to compete on equal terms for scarce jobs with a whole group of people they have been taught their whole lives were inferior to them. This fear, resentment, anxiety created enormous politicalopportunity.

To a large extent, it was the Clinton Administration that championed the very laws that constitute the very architecture of this new caste system, all in an effort to win back those so-called white swing voters, the Reagan Democrats, the folks who had defected from the Democratic Party in the wake of the civil rights movement.
So now here we are, decades later, and millions of people of color are cycling in and out of our criminal justice system, permanently locked up and locked out.
By waging this drug war almost exclusively in the hood, we’ve managed to rebirth a caste-like system in America.
That shame and stigma has kept the communities hardest hit by mass incarceration ashamed, silent and divided. And this shame and blame makes collective political action next to impossible.

I believe that one day historians will look back on the era of mass incarceration and say, it was there, right there at the prison gates, that we abandoned Dr. King’s dream and veered off the trail he had blazed. We took a detour, a tragic U-turn that would result in millions of African-Americans permanently locked up and locked out.

A trillion dollars could have been used to promote our collective well-being; instead, those dollars paved the way for the destruction of countless lives, families and dreams.
Nothing short of a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in America (applause).

There are those who say there is no hope of ending mass incarceration in America. Just as many were resigned to Jim Crow. Now I know that Dr. King and Ella Baker and Sojourner Truth and the many other freedom fighters who came before us would not have been so easily deterred. And it’s time for us to pick up the baton. We must be willing to continue the work. (Applause) We must be willing to go back and pick up where they left off and continue the hard work of movement building on behalf of poor people of all colors.

In 1968, Dr. King told advocates that the time had come to transition from a civil rights movement to a human rights movement. Meaningful equality, he said, could not be achieved through civil rights alone; basic human rights must be honored: the right to work, the right to housing, the right to quality education for all. Without basic human rights, civil rights are an empty promise. So in honor of Dr. King, Ella Baker and all those who labored to bring an end to the old Jim Crow and the old caste system, I hope we will commit ourselves to building this movement to end mass incarceration: a human rights movement, a movement for education not incarceration, for jobs, not jails, a movement to end discrimination against those released from prison, discrimination that denies them their basic human right to work, to housing, to food.

First, we’ve got to start telling the truth, the whole truth. It’s an unpopular truth. It’s America’s most inconvenient truth, but it’s the truth nonetheless . . . We’ve got to start admitting our own criminality out loud so that those returning from prison will not be so stigmatized. The truth is, we’re all criminals, all of us. If you’re an adult, you’ve broken the law at some point in your life: you drank underage, you may have experimented with drugs, or maybe the worst thing you’ve ever done in your unadventurous life is to speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway.  You’ve put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of their living room. (Applause) But there are people in the United States doing life sentences for first-time drug offenses.

All of us are sinners, all of us have made mistakes [camera zeros in, first on the United Church of Christ symbol, then on the American Baptist Churches USA symbol], all of us are criminals, and the question is, are we willing to still love one another despite our failings and our mistakes. Now I want to be clear that when I’m talking about love, I’m not just talking about love for people who have committed crimes like we may have committed, crimes that we think are not so bad; I’m talking about the kind of care and love that keeps on loving no matter who you are or what you have done. It’s that kind of love that is needed to build this movement. Because we’ve got to build an underground railroad for people returning home from prison, helping to save people one-by-one, helping them to find food and shelter and work. But just as in the days of slavery it wasn’t enough to build an underground railroad, you had to work for abolition, today it’s not enough to help folks one-by-one, we’ve got to work to end this system of mass incarceration.

This punitive impulse that swept the nation had its roots in racial anxiety, fear and resentment: it was born with black folks in mind, but people of all colors are suffering and have been harmed by this war. So if we’re going to succeed in bringing this system to an end we’ve got to map the linkages between the suffering of African-Americans in the drug war to the experiences of immigrants who are now being housed in cages, we’ve got to connect the dots between all the forms of discrimination and suffering in response to the indifference we have to the others in this nation.

But before this movement can get underway, a great awakening is required. We’ve got to awaken from our color blind slumber to the realities of race in America. And we’ve got to embrace those labeled criminals, not necessarily all their behavior, but them, their humanness; for it has been the refusal and failure to recognize the basic dignity and humanity of all people that has formed the sturdy foundation for every caste system that has ever existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world. Our task, I firmly believe, it to end not just mass incarceration, but to end this history and cycle of caste in America.

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