This past week has been full of inspiration at Root & Rebound. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, came to San Francisco to speak about her research and describe the movement she imagines for achieving racial justice and ending mass incarceration in America. Her lecture raised money for the California Institute of Integral Studies’ (CIIS) brand new Arc of Justice scholarships, ten scholarships that will be awarded to formerly incarcerated men and women to complete their Bachelor of Arts degrees at CIIS.
As an audience member and staff person at R & R, one of the most poignant pieces to Prof. Alexander’s lecture was how she broke down into layperson’s terms what she calls “legalized discrimination” against people exiting prison & jail and reentering society. What she means is that, while we no longer have laws on the books that are racist on their face, we have a legal system that disproportionately locks up people of color, and laws that, even after people have served time in prison and jail, exclude them from participating in society.
Prof. Alexander pointed to very specific ways in which our society “legally discriminates” against formerly incarcerated people: voting laws that make it impossible to vote if you have a criminal records, employment barriers and occupational license bans against people with criminal records that force them out of the legal job market, the denial of public benefits and food stamps under some federal and state laws, and private and public housing discrimination. Prof. Alexander also described the destructive impact that mass incarceration of African American men has on their families and partners, because families, not just individuals who are formerly incarcerated, feel the stresses of this “legalized discrimination.” In all of these areas—voting, family life, jobs, public benefits, and housing—the law has been built up against people coming out of prison and coming back to the community. In the first video below, Prof. Alexander says:
“Now I find that many people have a general sense of, you know, understanding when someone is released from prison, life is hard. But I find that most people don’t fully appreciate that today, in the era of mass incarceration, once you’ve been branded a criminal or felon, you’re ushered into a parallel social universe in which the basic civil and human rights that apply to others no longer apply to you.”
Prof. Alexander then asks the audience: “What do we expect people released from prison to do? What is the system seem designed to do? Seems designed in my view to send folks right back to prison, which is what in fact happens the vast majority of the time. About 70% of people nationwide that are released from prison return within a few years. And the majority of those who return in some states do so in a matter of months because the challenges associated with mere survival are so immense.”
Watch more by clicking the link below.
In the second video clip, Prof. Alexander returns to big picture concerns—how to build a movement to end our current system of mass incarceration based largely upon race, the reality of prison expansion and its economic impact, and what we must do to change these systems going forward. She also discusses the importance of California’s prison system as a model for the rest of the country.
Prof. Alexander says: “History has shown that what happens in California often sweeps the nation. So what type of reform happens here has implications for the nation as a whole and for the future of race in America.”
She asks the audience: “What attitudes and belief systems must we change—personally, individually—must we change if we are going to respond with more care, compassion, and concern to those who have been locked up and locked out in the era of mass incarceration. It’s easy to point the fingers at politicians, but what about our own attitudes about crime and criminals. Whose stories are we willing to listen to? Whose stories do we believe or disbelieve? Who do we consider the others and who do we embrace as one of us? Who do we really care about? These are the questions we must ask if we are going to get to work building a movement.”
Watch more by clicking the link below.
We hope to be a part of the solution—that our small nonprofit will be part of a larger movement in California and around the country to respond with compassion, care, and empathy to those who have been locked up and locked out of society.
If you want to read more about these issues, we recommend picking up a copy of The New Jim Crow—a must-read for everyone living in the United States or anyone abroad who wants to understand the crisis of prisons, racial segregation, and criminal justice in America.
–The R & R Team
To learn more about Michelle Alexander’s professional background and the funding for her book The New Jim Crow, please visit the California Institute of Integral Studies’ event website by clicking here.