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The New Jim Crow packs Dillard

3rd December 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Zoe Sullivan
Contributing Writer

“A vast new racial under-caste is now present in America.” Michelle Alexander began her lecture at Dillard University on November 28 with a powerful message aimed at prompting action. “Millions of people have been rounded up and stripped of the rights won in the civil rights era,” she explained, sharing the message conveyed in her book: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Era of Colorblindness. Alexander’s talk offered a thoughtful and unvarnished analysis of an issue with serious social, political and economic repercussions. As she pointed out, the mass incarceration system and the legalized discrimination and social exclusion that accompany felony convictions represent “a vast new system of social control.” This system, she reminded the audience at the close of her talk, “rest[s] upon one core belief, the same core belief that sustained Jim Crow…Some of us are not worthy of care and compassion.” This same outlook, she sustained, stands behind the current criminalization and incarceration of immigrants and is reason for groups to recognize their common struggle.

Michelle Alexander (Photo by Kim Walker LaGrue)

People of all ages, races and backgrounds packed the auditorium to hear the celebrated advocate. Applause and occasional comments from the crowd peppered her speech, reinforcing the points being made and acknowledging that New Orleans and Louisiana feel the issues of incarceration and Black male criminalization particularly close to the heart. According to the Louisiana Department of Corrections, roughly 70 percent of the prison population is African-American yet Blacks account for only 30 percent of the state’s population, census bureau numbers indicate.

Alexander explained that the War on Drugs, launched by Ronald Reagan in 1982 actually pre-dated the nation’s crack epidemic, and she described how White House staff actually promoted media reports on crack that depicted African-American “crack whores” and “crack babies,” contributing to a conflation of drug use and Blacks in the public’s mind.

Alexander traced the nation’s fascination with “get-tough” policies with this war, and pointed out that “the enemy in this war has been racially defined.” This strategy that as a result, drug convictions increased by over 1,000 percent and led to situations in which some non-violent, first offenders have been sentenced to life imprisonment.

This was no accident, she assured the audience, describing the “Southern Strategy” aimed at flipping the traditionally Democratic party-voting South to a region that would vote solidly Republican. The “get-tough” rhetoric, Alexander said, was a coded way to focus on African Americans in law enforcement policy.

But Alexander didn’t spare the Democrats from their responsibility in the current situation. Bill Clinton, she told the room, “banned drug offenders from receiving federal financial aid for school.” Drug offenders are also ineligible for public housing or food stamps, putting them in a position to have few – if any – options to take care of themselves, Alexander went on, connecting this to staggering rates of re-incarceration.

During the lecture, Leroy Browder sat in one of the front rows. Browder served 18 years in prison and inside, he told The Louisiana Weekly, he helped other inmates as a “jail house lawyer.” Browder also had criticism for former President Clinton, citing restrictions on inmate communications with the court that were imposed under the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, limitations Browder says make it more difficult for an inmate to petition for appeal.

In the foyer of the building, a line stretched around the corner waiting for Alexander to sign copies of her book. Dwayne Jacobs was one of the people in line, standing with his laptop under one arm and the book in the other. Jacobs said he’d read the book prior to the lecture. “She wanted the book to be thought-provoking and maybe get a movement started, and I think it does that,” he told The Louisiana Weekly, asking: “what is my part going to be?”

One member of the law community seated in the audience, Sheriff Marlin Gusman told The Louisiana Weekly that he’d found the lecture “very interesting” and “stimulating.” Gusman described some of his efforts to reduce the struggles facing those released from secure facilities and said that he would “absolutely” support the campaign to “ban the box.” This campaign aims to abolish the box on employment applications indicating that one has been convicted of a felony.

“Michelle Alexander’s book is a really effective teaching tool, and she’s a wonderful speaker,” Rosana Cruz, Associate Director of Voice of The Ex-Offender (VOTE), told The Louisiana Weekly. VOTE’s web site describes it as an organization “dedicated to ending the disenfranchisement and discrimination against of [formerly incarcerated persons].” Cruz emphasized the importance of Alexander’s point regarding the stigma and invisible barriers that permanently relegate formerly incarcerated people to second-class status. “We felt really proud listening to the things that she talked about ‘cause the stigma piece is really important, and what we do is build the leadership of formerly incarcerated people…and put them in a place where they can transform the criminal justice system.”

This article originally published in the December 3, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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