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Ten Years After “The New Jim Crow”

Sometimes a book comes along and, after it is absorbed into the culture, we cannot see ourselves again in quite the same way. Ten years ago, Michelle Alexander, a lawyer and civil-rights advocate, published “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” This was less than two years into Barack Obama’s first term as President, a moment when you heard a lot of euphoric talk about post-racialism and “how far we’ve come.” “The New Jim Crow” was hardly an immediate best-seller, but after a couple of years it took off and seemed to be at the center of discussion about criminal-justice reform and racism in America. The book considers not only the enormity and cruelty of the American prison system but also, as Alexander writes, the way the war on drugs and the justice system have been used as a “system of control” that shatters the lives of millions of Americans—particularly young black and Hispanic men.

As part of an hour-long examination of mass incarceration for The New Yorker Radio Hour, co-hosted this week by Kai Wright, of WNYC, I caught up with Michelle Alexander, who is now teaching at Union Theological Seminary, in New York.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When “The New Jim Crow” came out, a decade ago, you said that you wrote it for “the person I was ten years ago.” Take me back to those times and to the work you were doing for the A.C.L.U. What were you finding out?

That would have been twenty years ago from today. It was just as I was beginning my work with the A.C.L.U. I was well aware that there was bias in our criminal-justice system, and that bias pervaded all of our political, social, and economic systems. That’s why I was a civil-rights lawyer: I was hoping to finish the work that had been begun by civil-rights leaders who came before me. I had a very romantic idea of what civil-rights lawyers had done and could do to address the challenges that we face.

My impression back then was that our criminal-justice system was infected with racial bias, much in the same way that all institutions in our society are infected to some degree or another with racial and gender bias. But what I didn’t understand at that time was that a new system of racial and social control had been born again in America, a system eerily reminiscent to those that we had left behind.

In fact, I was heading to work my first day at the A.C.L.U. directing the Racial Justice Project when I happened to notice a sign posted to a telephone pole that said, in bold print, “The Drug War Is the New Jim Crow.” I remember pausing for a moment and scanning the text of the flyer and seeing that a small, apparently radical group was holding a meeting at a church several blocks away. They were organizing to protest racial profiling, the drug war, the three-strikes laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and police brutality. The list went on and on. I remember thinking to myself, Yeah, the criminal-justice system is racist in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t help to make comparisons to Jim Crow. People will just think you’re crazy. And then I hopped on the bus.

So it was really as a result of myself representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, and investigating patterns of drug-law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to assist people who had been released from prison as they faced one closed door and one barrier after another to mere survival after being released from prison that I had a series of experiences that began what I have come to call my awakening.

What was that awakening like? What were you seeing in your work so that the scales were falling from your eyes?

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