Northwestern University recently concluded a 10-day celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., his enduring legacy, and his contributions to all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity.
The keynote address at this seminal event was given by Michelle Alexander, an acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, legal scholar, and Associate Professor of Law at Ohio State University. Previously, Prof. Alexander was the Director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California.
Prof. Alexander’s extraordinary book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, argues that, by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness. The book was highly acclaimed and became a bestseller.
I had the privilege to be among the packed audience at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall for Prof. Alexander’s address. The audience was literally transported by her impassioned call to embrace with new vigor the struggle for true and equal justice for everyone, regardless of race or color.
Prof. Alexander reminded us that the goal of fairly realizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “Dream” is daunting given our country’s alarming rate of incarceration of racial and ethnic minorities. Between 1980 and 2000, under the guise of the “War on Drugs,” the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans, or one in every 31 adults, were behind bars, on probation, or on parole.
Moreover, an individual’s initial incarceration constitutes just the beginning of a life confined to the margins of society. As Prof. Alexander asserted, a criminal record, whether felony or even misdemeanor, becomes haunting and indelible and adversely affects employment, housing, welfare benefits, and even the right to vote.
Prof. Alexander’s unassailable argument is that the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s have not translated into basic human rights and equal justice.
The fate of millions of people may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to reexamine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society. As clearly demonstrated by the recent and sad events of Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere, we have arrived at a “fork in the road.” Prof. Alexander asserted that “the civil rights victories of the past will be meaningless if all people do not have basic rights to escape from poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice.” It is incumbent upon all of us to better understand the nature of the struggle for equal justice in America and to do all in our power to move toward the establishment of basic human rights for all people.
The standing-room-only crowd at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Auditorium was captivated by Prof. Alexander and was challenged to move more strenuously forward in the pursuit of justice, especially on efforts to end mass incarceration and help individuals avoid the collateral consequences of criminal records.
If you have the opportunity to attend one of Michelle Alexander’s speeches, do so. You will certainly not be disappointed. Indeed, it will be unforgettable. I, along with many others heartily recommend her book to you, The New Jim Crow, published in 2010. While you may find it replete with sadness, you will also find it illuminating. In recent days and months, many have been asking what can I do? One answer is to really educate yourself about the issues and starting or continuing with Alexander’s work is an excellent step.
Thomas C. Kingsley, Esq. (Ret.), is a volunteer attorney at the Shriver Center.