Here are some facts from Michelle Alexander’s monumental book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, recently reissued in paperback:
*There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.
*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.
I had the honor of interviewing Michelle Alexander back in April of 2010, after she published her much lauded book, which explores the new caste system created by the War on Drugs and felony disenfranchisement laws in America. She thoroughly and thoughtfully explains the ways in which politicians, funded by corporate lobbyists, have exploited and encouraged fear and backlash amongst low-income white Americans in the face of gains made during the Civil Rights era. She deftly unpacks how a system that arrests, brands as felons, and then ushers young people of color into a parallel social universe operates across America today.
I’d like to take this opportunity, with the re-issuance of her book in paperback, to remind everyone of her final message, one that hearkens back to the work that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing at the end of this life. She calls for an evolution from a Civil Rights Movement to a Human Rights Movement. She calls for a united agenda that has at its heart care, compassion, and concern for all people.
Take a listen to the interview that originally aired on KFPA’s Full Circle in April of 2010, and then go to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of her book. Read up, soak it in, and then start a conversation with your neighbor, your auntie, your coworker, your friend. This book might sadden you, surprise you, or blow the top off of your ideas around the state of race in America – and that’s ok. It’s time to start having those uncomfortable, challenging conversations with ourselves and each other.
If you’d like to learn more about folks working to improve the lives of those affected most directly by the system of mass incarceration, I encourage you to check out the following links:
Books Not Bars organizes the largest network of families of incarcerated youth and champions alternatives to California’s costly youth prison system. According to their website, California’s Division of Juvenile Justice “fails to make our communities safer or to help youth get their lives on track. With an 81 percent recidivism rate and a cost of over $200,000 per ward, per year, DJJ is one of the nation’s most expensive, least effective juvenile justice systems.”
All of Us Or None is a national organizing initiative of prisoners, former prisoners, and felons that combats the many forms of discrimination that they face as the result of felony convictions. They are currently working on a “Ban the Box” initiative that aims to eliminate the question about prior convictions on public employment applications. They are also focusing their efforts on developing and implementing strategies that result in greater participation from prisoners and formerly-incarcerated people in the democratic process. Their “Clean Slate” project provides trainings on the legal remedies available to people with conviction histories and disseminates information on resolution assistance to those who qualify for existing legal remedies. Finally, their yearly “Community Giveback” events deliver bikes, toys and gifts to children of incarcerated parents from formerly incarcerated people.
And if you love taking care of your body, as well as our communities, check out Beeline, an all natural line of raw honey and honey-infused body care products. Not only do they extract their honey from an all natural urban apiary in the heart of the North Lawndale community in Chicago, Beeline also provides important transitional job opportunities for area residents who struggle with barriers to employment, many of whom were formerly incarcerated and are forced to “check the box” that ends up disqualifying them for that crucial post-release employment opportunity.
Finally, check out this dope social enterprise in The South Bronx: Karma Builders. As their website says, “In the state of New York, almost 90% of all parole violators are unemployed at the time of violation. Men and women coming out of prison are extremely challenged entering the job market due to lack of skills, limited work history and employment discrimination. Their resulting unemployment is a crucial risk factor for re-incarceration and this becomes a vicious cycle. This creates tremendous suffering for these individuals, their families and burdens our society with devastating cost: NY State taxpayers spend $38,000 a year for each adult in prison and a total of over $ 2 Billion annually. Karma Builders is a social enterprise designed to break this vicious cycle of unemployment and re-incarceration. We hire, pay and train formerly incarcerated people to provide woodworking and assembly services for local sustainable companies. We have a holistic approach that cultivates a positive long-term shift in mental attitude, building confidence, dignity and the important skill set needed to find and retain gainful employment in today’s green job market.” Seriously, how can you not love that?! Big ups to Karma Builders and their graduates!!
Thanks for reading and listening. This is all about starting conversations, so if you have feedback, speak up!!