Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Talking About Crime, Thinking About Race

By Michelle Alexander, Associate professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

Lately I’ve been talking to people from a wide variety of backgrounds about how the criminal justice system actually works. I tell them that it is not, in reality, designed to prevent or control crime, but instead operates primarily to create a permanent, second-class for poor people of color. It’s a new Jim Crow. I am often met with a blank stare, particularly if the person I’m speaking to is white or has never been locked up. So I continue. I tell them that, in cities like Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland, more than two-thirds of the young African American men are either under criminal justice control or already labeled criminals. The blank stare remains. I then tell them that, contrary to popular belief, the grim statistics are due to the War on Drugs – not violent crime – and that people of color are no more likely than whites to sell or use illegal drugs. In fact, white youth are more likely to engage in illegal drug activity than black youth. The blank stare then morphs to deep skepticism. I tell them about the many studies that have been done, but often the data is resisted. For many, it’s hard to believe that black people really aren’t more guilty of drug crime than whites. So I move on. I say, to really understand how the criminal justice system works, think about what happens upon release. As people walk out the prison gates, a virtual label is fixed on one’s chest, just above the heart. The label is impossible to remove. A typical label reads: “This is a bad man. You may legally deny him a job, an education, a loan, a place to live, and a welfare check. You may deny him the right to vote. You may even take his children. You may also take his dignity. He is entitled to no respect, no additional chances. He is a pariah, one who may be shunned without consequence. He may be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of his natural life.”

That’s when the light goes on. I’m usually interrupted before I can go any further. There is something about identifying the permanent, shameful, pariah status of criminals that causes a shift. Often people stop me and say, “Okay, I get it, so tell me about the data again.” It seems to me that the racial frame – linking the status of African Americans to prior systems of control – is useful in helping people rethink their prevailing assumptions. But getting to that open place is not easy, and often requires one-on-one dialogue. Like an optical illusion – an image that lurks invisibly until its basic outline is identified – mass incarceration is the invisible caste system of our times.

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