‘New Jim Crow’ author to speak at IU Northwest, with streaming to other campuses

Few recent books have had an impact like “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Michelle Alexander’s 2010 account of how imprisonment has replaced slavery and segregation as a system to control and marginalize people of color in the United States.

Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander (photo by Zocolo Public Square)

Next Tuesday, audiences at eight Indiana University campuses will have a chance to hear Alexander talk about her work. The civil rights lawyer and legal scholar will present a lecture and answer questions at IU Northwest, and her talk will be streamed live to other IU locations.

Alexander makes a powerful case that the nation’s criminal laws and procedures – especially the “war on drugs” – have unfairly targeted racial minorities and deprived millions of people of their rights.

In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind … As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

Alexander charts the political and legal developments that created the situation. Politicians from both major parties found getting tough on crime to be a good formula for winning elections. Mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws and other tools for locking offenders away became pervasive.

Horror stories about an urban plague of crack cocaine fueled the war on drugs. African-Americans, while no more likely to use or sell drugs than white Americans, have been disproportionately searched, arrested and jailed. Supreme Court decisions have given police great latitude and have made it almost impossible to challenge arrests and convictions on racial grounds.

“In less than 30 years,” Alexander writes, “the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase.” The result is that the U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate, higher than in Russia, China and Iran, she says.

IU Northwest chose “The New Jim Crow” for its third annual One Book … One Campus … One Community initiative, which calls on students, faculty, staff and community members to read an important book and examine the issues that it raises. Events, discussions and classroom activities are organized around the theme.

Alexander, a former ACLU attorney and now a faculty member at Ohio State University, will speak Tuesday afternoon in the IU Northwest Savannah Center gymnasium. The lecture starts at 2:30 p.m. Central Standard Time (3:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time).

With support from the IU Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs, the session will be live-streamed to other IU locations. Viewing sites include: IU Bloomington, Fine Arts Auditorium; IUPUI, Campus Center room CE 309; IUPUC, LC 1400; IU East, HY 101; IU Southeast, UC 121; IU Kokomo, SM 116, Hunt Hall; and IU South Bend, Administration Building, the Grill.


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