Michelle Alexander seeks to recruit American Baptists for a new abolitionist movement.
Michelle Alexander seeks to recruit American Baptists for a new abolitionist movement.

‘New Jim Crow’ turns back civil rights

An author and lawyer says racial inequality in America’s justice system would “have Dr. King turning in his grave.”

By Bob Allen

Four decades of America’s “war on drugs” has brought on a “New Jim Crow,” creating “a growing under-caste” primarily of people of color, and turned back many of the hard-won advances of the Civil Rights Movement, an acclaimed civil-rights lawyer and legal scholar told American Baptists gathered for their biennial national meeting June 21-23 in Overland Park, Kan.

roy medley press confRoy Medley, general secretary of the 5,200-church American Baptist Churches USA, said planners invited Michelle Alexander, former law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, to the group’s first-ever Mission Summit in tribute to the denomination’s historic concern for both personal faith and social justice that prompted Northern Baptists to support the abolitionist movement prior to the Civil War.

“We’ve invited Dr. Michelle Alexander, because of that rich tradition that we have of concern for justice, to speak to us about an emerging issue in our country, a new social challenge that is also related to race and to poverty, as we consider the issues around mass incarceration, those who are coming out of prison and how many of them lose their rights as citizens as they come out,” Medley said. “How do we deal with that New Jim Crow aspect of our social life in this country?”

Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, said today’s prison system, instead of reducing crime, functions as “a system of racial and social control.” She called for a “new abolition movement” that shifts from punishment to a restorative and rehabilitative approach to non-violent crime.

“Rather than having ended the racial class system, we have simply revised it by targeting black men through the war on drugs and decimated communities of color in the United States,” Alexander said.

Alexander said statistics show that drug use is no higher for black and brown minorities than for whites in suburbs and on college campuses, but “the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in communities of color.” Rather than focusing on kingpin drug dealers, she said, police are rewarded for going after “low-hanging fruit” by pulling over and shaking down people on the streets in poor communities.

In most states a convicted felon loses the right to vote, technically extended to African-Americans by passage of the 14th Amendment and enforced by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Checking “yes” to a box on a job application asking if you have ever been convicted of a felony automatically disqualifies job seekers, particularly if they are African-American.

Jobless men trapped in segregated communities in some places cannot get food stamps, Alexander said, adding up to a system that seems geared toward sending released convicts back to prison.

She termed it “a new system of racial and social control that would certainly have Dr. King turning in his grave.”

Alexander said when she first started working on her book, mentors and colleagues tried to discourage her, saying it would harm her career. Recently, however, she said she detects a budding movement to end mass incarceration.

“I believe a movement will emerge in the United States, and the question is will people of faith be leaders or will they be on the sidelines waiting for others,” she said.