The central issue facing civil rights activists today is mass incarceration, said Associate Professor Michelle Alexander of Moritz College of Law, during a speech Tuesday.
“Through the war on drugs, racial incarceration is increasingly problematic,” she said. “And for many, this may sound old-fashioned, but the racial caste system is alive and well in America.”
With more than 75 people in the audience, Alexander spoke at the African American and African Studies Extension Center, located at 905 Mt. Vernon Ave., as part of the lecture series, “Race, Drugs and the New Jim Crow.”
She supports the notion that the criminal justice system has “racialized social control” that is strikingly similar to the Jim Crow laws enacted between the 1870s and 1960s.
She said the comparison is valid because African Americans are treated like second-class citizens, except in a more extreme form of segregation than before, she said.
“When released, they are given the prison label for life,” she said. “They are legally excluded from mainstream society for the rest of their life.”
Alexander also said that ex-convicts suffer from political disenfranchisement because their voting rights are stripped from them. In some states, they must pay fees to reinstate their voting power and cover court costs themselves. This ultimately leads to lower voter turnout because no one would ever do that, she said.
Not only do black men suffer, but also black women. Alexander said that felons are denied welfare benefits, including food stamps, for life. This proves to be troubling for women especially, she said, because many of them have children to look after.
“It is no surprise that these felons return to prison,” she said.
She also compared plantation labor, where slaves received little to no pay, to prison labor, where felons are used for cheap labor.
Alexander said that blacks are always viewed as criminals.
She said that black men have a virtual sign over their heads that says “criminal,” and that no one will hire a convicted felon, even if it is for something as minor as a first time drug offense.
Alexander said it is difficult to find a young, black man that has not had a humiliating experience with the police before. Racial profiling, she said, makes blacks subject to control, even if they haven’t committed any crimes at all.
She said that members of the African American community should implore elected officials to help improve education and develop housing assistance.