“More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” Michelle Alexander told a standing room only house at the Pasadena Main Library this past Wednesday, the first of many jarring points she made in a riveting presentation.
Alexander, currently a law professor at Ohio State, had been brought in to discuss her year-old bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Interest ran so high beforehand that the organizers had to move the event to a location that could accommodate the eager attendees. That evening, more than 200 people braved the pouring rain and inevitable traffic jams to crowd into the library’s main room, with dozens more shuffled into an overflow room, and even more latecomers turned away altogether. Alexander and her topic had struck a nerve.
Growing crime rates over the past 30 years don’t explain the skyrocketing numbers of black — and increasingly brown — men caught in America’s prison system, according to Alexander, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun after attending Stanford Law. “In fact, crime rates have fluctuated over the years and are now at historical lows.”
“Most of that increase is due to the War on Drugs, a war waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color,” she said, even though studies have shown that whites use and sell illegal drugs at rates equal to or above blacks. In some black inner-city communities, four of five black youth can expect to be caught up in the criminal justice system during their lifetimes.
As a consequence, a great many black men are disenfranchised, said Alexander — prevented because of their felony convictions from voting and from living in public housing, discriminated in hiring, excluded from juries, and denied educational opportunities.
“What do we expect them to do?” she asked, who researched her ground-breaking book while serving as Director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California. “Well, seventy percent return to prison within two years, that’s what they do.”