michelle_alexander_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

Forty years and a trillion dollars after President Richard Nixon launched a national “war on drugs,” a civil rights lawyer and law professor is counter-attacking with a 290-page salvo called The New Jim Crow.

In 1971, Nixon declared his drug war saying it was a much-needed national response to the rising incidents of drug-related juvenile arrests and street crime. He became the first in a line of presidents to champion far-reaching, get-tough policies aimed at curbing drug abuse which Nixon called “public enemy No. 1.”

But in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New Press: $27.95 hard cover; $19.95 paperback) Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander methodically picks apart the motives, methods and outcomes of these  policies, which, she says, have scarred the black community as much as slavery.

“More African-American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850 before the Civil War began,” Alexander said Monday in a telephone interview.

Minority youth in America’s large cities especially are at acute risk of being incarcerated in unprecedented numbers. New York police, for example, frisked 600,000 people for drugs in 2011; 90 percent were African American or Latino, she said.

“To a very large extent, it has not been a war on drugs — the substance — but a war on people defined by race and class,” said Alexander, a Stanford Law School graduate who previously clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun. “We’re seeing families torn apart by mass incarceration and hopelessness and despair; lives are being destroyed and kids are growing up not knowing their parents.” 

Alexander, whose book is on the New York Times bestseller list, will bring her sobering message to South Florida on Thursday, March 15, at Books & Books, in Coral Gables.

“It will be a conversation between me and her,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Leonard Pitts Jr., who has devoted two of his Miami Herald columns about Alexander’s work. Pitts invited the author to share the stage with him as they discuss some of the themes of the book.

“We have this tendency as African Americans to sort of look at the high incarceration rates as normal,” Pitts said in a telephone interview. “I hope people will see that it is not preordained and not accidental. We need to stand up as American people and say this is not acceptable.”

Beginning in the 1870s, individual states and municipalities enacted “Jim Crow” laws to maintain a legal system of segregation after slavery ended. Schools, public restrooms, restaurants, movie theaters, even water fountains and entrances to public buildings, were designated separately for whites and blacks, often with “Whites Only” and “Colored” signage.

After civil rights laws in the 1960s officially ended such practices, Jim Crow still persisted, Alexander argues. It was simply redesigned. A new system of social control has emerged in which men are rounded up at an early age for drug violations and subjected to imprisonment. They are returned to the community powerless – unemployable and barred from qualifying for affordable housing, voting and government programs that could assist them in obtaining food stamps and education.

The new Jim Crow is not merely a jail sentence, Alexander argues, but a sentence that stigmatizes former  offenders and their communities for life.

Alexander, who is a former director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, emphasizes that her focus on the effects of mass incarceration in the black community is not an attempt to ignore or downplay the impact of crime on its victims.

“There are so many poor folks of color who are struggling with crime and in desperation they believe that the answer is more police and more prisons,” Alexander said. “But they are far more likely to appreciate the answer is not just building more prisons and jails.”

 Mass incarceration, she said, “guarantees that folks will be locked out of the legal job market, the legal economy and society. That’s what makes the community less safe.”

Instead of building more prisons and expanding the prison system infrastructure, schools should be built and job opportunities made available, Alexander said.

 Encouraged by the efforts of the NAACP and church groups to attack the status quo, Alexander is calling for a human-rights intervention to stop the mass arrests in poor communities.

Civil rights groups were instrumental in organizing against the old Jim Crow, Alexander said. “Now they must muster their courage to speak up and out about the incarceration of masses of black and brown people,” she says.

“There is a growing number of faith communities that also are taking up the cause of this book,” Alexander said. “They’re gradually shifting from prison ministries where they go out to save individual souls to recognizing that there is a need to save the soul of the community.”

WHAT: “Michelle Alexander in Conversation with Leonard Pitts Jr.” on her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 15

WHERE: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables 

MORE INFORMATION: Following the discussion and a Q&A with the audience, Alexander will be available to autograph copies of her book, which may be purchased at the store.

CONTACT: For more information about the presentation, call Books & Books at 305-442-4408. For more information about the author, the book and the human-rights movement she is advocating, visit newjimcrow.com

Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Alexander

Crusading Author:  Michelle Alexander