I just finished Michelle Alexander’s fine, fine book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I missed Alexander when she spoke in Youngstown, but was riveted by her interview with former YSU professor Sherry Linkon. You can find and listen to the interview here.
The title might seem like a movie trailer that gives away too much, but don’t be afraid. Alexander’s book is very readable, and will evoke a tremendous response, no matter who you are. She walks us through a careful study of the social, economic and political forces that have led us to this place, where we are spending $200 billion every year to incarcerate (almost entirely) black and brown men for non-violent offenses.
It won’t be easy getting out of it. Some of the assumptions that underpin the War on Drugs are deep and widely believed, and the erosion of civil rights has been upheld time and again by the Supreme Court. And some of that $200 billion funds a massive army of individuals and communities. But whatever we have to do, we have to do it. Sure, that pile of money is draining resources away from everything that’s important. But more essentially, it’s deeply unfair to continue to oppress one single group of Americans. Unfair? What a mild word. It’s a tragedy, a travesty, a hypocrisy, a horrible way to run a country built on lies. Private prisons just add salt.
Even in a place like Youngstown, Ohio, where so much of our money-making schemes are in the misery industry: fracking, pawn shops, pay-day lending, demolitions, gambling, and, yes, incarceration and post-incarceration; even here, we have to take a stand. Enough. We can’t afford to throw our rhetoric of equality and freedom under the bus any longer. We can’t afford to lose the bright minds of black men who have committed the same non-violent offenses millions of white men and women have committed (without consequence), and we can’t afford to employ people to house them in cages.
Michelle Alexander says we need a stronger America for everyone. She’s a good voice, a true public intellectual, and we will be a better country for what she has to teach us.