Michelle Alexander wrote a paradigm-shifting exploration of modern racism, the so-called war on drugs and the prison-industrial complex. You can obtain a copy of this eye-opening paperback, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” directly from Truthout right now by clicking here.
Mark Karlin: Before we get into the details, is it accurate to characterize your thesis, in a colloquial way, by saying that institutionalized racial casting is alive and even ratcheting up in the United states in 2012?
Michelle Alexander: Yes, I do believe that something akin to a racial caste system is alive and well in America. For reasons that have stunningly little to do with crime or crime rates, we, as a nation, have chosen to lock up more than two million people behind bars. Millions more are on probation or parole, or branded felons for life and thus locked into a permanent second-class status. The mass incarceration of poor people of color, particularly black men, has emerged as a new caste system, one specifically designed to address the social, economic, and political challenges of our time. It is, in my view, the moral equivalent of Jim Crow.
MK: You identify the key societal perpetuation of the stigmatization of the black male as the so-called “criminal justice system.” It appears to have become an accepted bureaucratic injustice.
MA: Mass incarceration has become normalized in the United States. Poor folks of color are shuttled from decrepit, underfunded schools to brand new, high tech prisons and then relegated to a permanent undercaste – stigmatized as undeserving of any moral care or concern. Black men in ghetto communities (and many who live in middle class communities) are targeted by the police at early ages, often before they’re old enough to vote. They’re routinely stopped, frisked, and searched without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Eventually they’re arrested, whether they’ve committed any serious crime or not, and branded criminals or felons for life. Upon release, they’re ushered into a parallel social universe in which the civil and human rights supposedly won during the Civil Rights Movement no longer apply to them. For the rest of their lives, 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. So many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon. That’s why I say we haven’t ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. In many large urban areas, the majority of working age African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. It is viewed as “normal” in ghetto communities to go to prison or jail. One study conducted in Washington, D.C. indicated that 3 out of 4 black men, and nearly all those living in the poorest neighborhoods could expect to find themselves behind bars at some point in their life. Nationwide, 1 in 3 black men can expect to serve time behind bars, but the rates are far higher in segregated and impoverished black communities. A massive new penal system has emerged in the past few decades – a penal system unprecedented in world history. It is a system driven almost entirely by race and class.
MK: How fast has our prison incarceration rate grown and to what extent does the growth correlate with the arrest of black males for nonviolent offenses? Doesn’t the US have the largest incarceration rate in the world?
MA: The United States does have the highest rate of incarceration in the world dwarfing the rates of even highly repressive regimes like Russia, China or Iran. This reflects a radical shift in criminal justice policy, a stunning development that virtually no one – not even the best criminologists – predicted forty years ago. Our prison population quintupled in a thirty year period of time. Not doubled or tripled – quintupled. We went from a prison and jail population of about 300,000 to now more than 2 million. Most people seem to assume that this dramatic surge in imprisonment was due to a corresponding surge in crime, particularly violent crime. But that simply isn’t true. During the same period of time that incarceration rates skyrocketed, crime rates fluctuated. Crime rates went up, then went down, then went up, then went down again. Today, crime rates are at historical lows. But incarceration rates – throughout all of these fluctuations – have consistently soared. Most criminologists today will acknowledge that crime rates and incarceration rates in the United States have had relatively little to do with each other. Incarceration rates – especially black incarceration rates – have soared regardless of whether crime has been going up or down in any given community or the nation as a whole.