University’s Psychology and the Other Institute welcomes Michelle Alexander to Brattle Campus.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
The figures are even bleaker for African Americans, who comprise nearly half of the nation’s jail and prison population of 2.3 million, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And this occurs within a supposed “colorblind” society, said author Michelle Alexander, who spoke to more than 500 people Friday night in Washburn Hall on Lesley’s Brattle Campus.
“We’ve got to awaken from this colorblind slumber,” said Alexander, whose New York Times best-selling book
“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” questions whether our nation has truly “triumphed over race” with the election and re-election of President Barack Obama. She decried the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African-American men, primarily through the “war on drugs,” which, though declared by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, “when drug crime was actually on the decline,” has been prosecuted by presidents of both parties since that time, with efforts targeting the inner cities and especially people of color.
Starting in the Reagan era, and coinciding with the emergence of crack cocaine, White House staff began a propaganda campaign built around images of “crack babies” and inner-city adults in the thrall of the drug.
“As our conception of drug use became darker and darker, blacker and blacker,” Alexander said, the nation became more punitive and undertook the sort of law enforcement activities, like “stop-and-frisk,” aimed almost exclusively at citizens of color. The majority of Americans violate drug laws at some point in their life — whether it’s experimenting with marijuana, cocaine or “club drugs,” or getting behind the wheel after having had too much to drink — but the battleground for the war on drugs is poor, minority residential areas, she indicated.
“These kind of tactics are restricted to the ’hood,” she said, even though drugs themselves move freely through all societal and financial strata.
The result, she added, is a system of “mass incarceration that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could never have dreamed of, and would never have wanted to dream of.”
Perpetuating the situation is the “direct monetary interest … in the longevity of this ‘war,’” Alexander added. She pointed to the siting of prisons in poor, rural areas and advertising them as jobs programs, and the increased privatization of the corrections system, with some prison industries being publicly traded on Wall Street.
And the money keeps flowing once someone is released from prison (though 75 percent of convicts land back in prison within three years of their release). More and more, convicts are being charged for costs related to their incarceration, and people on probation typically are on the hook for monthly “monitoring fees,” even though finding work after jail is a Herculean labor.
But economics are only part of the equation. Alexander said our own attitudes toward people who have been locked up — even for nonviolent offenses — “would need a social upheaval to reverse” the relegation of those who are, or have been, in jail to what she terms a racial under-caste.
“The ‘Whites Only’ signs are gone,” she said, but they’ve been replaced by a correctional industrial complex, and recent laws legally disenfranchising black and brown citizens from the vote, that “are doing what Jim Crow laws never could.”
What’s needed, she said, is a practice of “viewing criminals no longer as one of ‘them,’ one of ‘the others,’ but as one of ‘us.’”
“All of us are criminals in one (fashion) or another,” she said, adding that, at a minimum, society needs an “Underground Railroad” for those who get out of prison, helping them obtain employment, education, housing and, if necessary, government assistance.
“We’ve got to be willing to work for abolition of this system of mass incarceration.”
In his introduction, Lesley University Provost Selase Williams called Alexander an “inspiration to many of us (who read) her books,” and applauded her for “challenging the conventional wisdom” on race and the prison system.
Dr. David Goodman, director of the Psychology and the Other Institute, which presented the lecture, added that Alexander “reminds us of the complex ways that we are implicated in the suffering of others, and she illustrates this through haunting statistics, narratives and social realities of which many of us are unaware.”“Lesley University was honored to host this luminary and prophetic voice,” Goodman said.
Michelle Alexander previously worked as a civil rights lawyer and advocate in both the private and non-profit sector. For several years, she served as the Director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California, where she helped to lead a national campaign against racial profiling by law enforcement. While an associate at Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller, she specialized in plaintiff-side class action lawsuits alleging race and gender discrimination. Alexander is a civil rights lawyer, advocate, and professor at Ohio State University. She was previously an associate professor of law at Stanford Law School, where she directed the Civil Rights Clinics.
Lesley’s Psychology and the Other Institute, which facilitates interdisciplinary conversation between psychology, theology/religious studies and philosophy, presented the lecture along with the Lesley University Office of the Provost, Lesley’s Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Lesley Diversity Council. The Emmanuel Levinas Lecture Series takes place two to three times per year and features a scholar/activist who represents a pressing need in the world and speaks to an issue of significant ethical importance. Levinas was a Lithuanian philosopher who was concerned about the failing moral systems in Western society. This lecture series is intended to highlight important contemporary issues that pertain to human responsibility and ethics.
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