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‘The New Jim Crow’ Author Michelle Alexander on the Crisis Facing Milwaukee’s Black Men

Our criminal justice system isn’t colorblind—or just

Sep. 30, 2014
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Michelle_Alexander
Michelle Alexander
“There is nowhere, nowhere in the entire world where the crisis for black men in the criminal justice system is more acute” than in Milwaukee.

The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander’s statements about black men in Milwaukee may have been shocking. But they were true.

Speaking at MATC on Friday, she explained to the 2,000-member audience how the criminal justice system is designed to create a permanent “undercaste” of black men who are stripped of their basic civil and human rights while they are in prison and after they’ve been released.

That permanent undercaste is most apparent in Wisconsin.

According to data compiled by the UW-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute, half of African American men in Wisconsin in their 30s have been incarcerated in state prisons. Black men comprise just 7% of Wisconsin men in their 20s, but 46% of the men in their 20s who have been in prison.

And, by far, Wisconsin leads the nation in incarceration of black men—as well as the racial gap in education and lack of opportunities for black children.

The American penal system is “unprecedented in world history,” Alexander said, and negates the progress that African Americans have made in the civil rights era.

“More African American adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, the decade before the Civil War,” Alexander said. “As of 2004, more black men were disenfranchised than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that exclusively deny the right to vote on the basis of race.”

 

‘A System of Racial and Social Control’

In her speech and in her acclaimed and thought-provoking book, Alexander, a civil rights lawyer currently teaching at Ohio State University, lays out the case that the mass incarceration of African American men is no accident.

It’s based on negative stereotypes of black men dating back to slavery and the Jim Crow era, but even in our supposedly enlightened and colorblind era, this bias underlies a new system of social control of black men through the criminal justice system. Alexander chalks it up to the backlash against the gains made during the civil rights era as well as the war on drugs, declared by President Nixon in 1971, which militarized the police and ushered in especially harsh policing in black communities and sentencing guidelines in courtrooms. Those with drug convictions have driven up the incarceration rate and comprise between a half and two-thirds of those in state and federal prisons.

Yet, the incarceration rate in general has nothing to do with increased crime rates or racial disparities in drug use or dealing, Alexander argued.

“Drug dealing happens in all communities of all colors but those who do time for drug crime are overwhelmingly black and brown men,” Alexander said.

The legal system provides no relief for these men. U.S. Supreme Court rulings have made it nearly impossible to bring a case of racial discrimination in court.

In general, those with a felony criminal record—especially with a drug conviction—temporarily lose their voting rights, have to disclose their record on employment applications, are barred from public housing, have to pay back child support and are constantly in jeopardy of returning to prison for minor parole violations. 

“Entire communities have been razed, treated as disposable in the past few decades and our so-called criminal justice system has been the bulldozer, crushing homes and scooping up millions of people and they leave behind devastation but no justice,” Alexander said.

As a result, black men, especially in urban areas such as Milwaukee, are too often destined to live lives of second-class citizens who cannot fully participate in society.

“I began to awaken to the reality that our criminal justice system now functions much more like a system of racial and social control than a system of crime prevention,” Alexander said.

Recent high-profile shootings of unarmed black men “by police or self-appointed neighborhood watchmen” in Ferguson, Mo., Milwaukee and elsewhere are spurring others to awaken to that reality, too, she said.

She said the activists protesting the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson should be hailed for exposing the racial disparities in policing and the criminal justice system.

“The only question is, what are we going to do,” Alexander said. “Nothing short of a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in America and helping to ensure that there will be no more dead Michael Browns.”

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