Special to South Florida Times

Ohio State University Professor Michelle Alexander came to South Florida to discuss her groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, but in her talk to a standing-room-only audience at Books & Books in Coral Gables, she touched on the recent shooting death of Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin.

Trayvon, 17, was killed Feb. 26 as he walked through the gated community in Sanford, where he was visiting his father.  Neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, was patrolling the community when he spotted Trayvon. Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon, claiming self-defense, in circumstances that are still unclear. 

“That case is such a powerful illustration of blacks being conflated,” Alexander said, explaining how the American mindset equates being a criminal with being black.  “Can you imagine a black guy taking the law into his own hands, and he shoots a white kid in his own neighborhood?” 

Trayvon’s killing, she said, was a prime example of a thesis in her book: “One black man after another being stopped for no apparent reason other than that they are black.”

Miami Herald columnist and author Leonard Pitts Jr. invited Alexander to the Miami area to engage the community in a discussion of Alexander’s findings. During the March 15 presentation, he read several passages from her book, then gave the author an opportunity to talk more about her discoveries. 

In her book, Alexander argues that the national focus on keeping drugs off the street has turned into more of an effort to control the black community by keeping black men in jail.

African-American youth are being stopped and frisked and incarcerated in unprecedented numbers, leading to an inability of black men and their community to advance in society, Alexander said.

“The prison population has quadrupled since the 1980s, even though the crime rate has gone down,” she said. And the inmates overwhelmingly are black.

Touray Holland, 32, on vacation from New York where he lives in Harlem and is a web designer in the Bergen County Department of Health Services in New Jersey, turned out for the presentation and waited in line to thank Alexander for writing the book.

“What she is saying is happening every day,” said Holland, who said he was stopped and frisked — “stereotyped” — 10 years ago in New York.  He said two undercover policemen wrongfully suspected him and his friends of having drugs in their possession. 

“It was kind of a dangerous situation when I think back on it,” Holland said. “We could have reached in our pocket and got hurt.”

 “A lot of people I know are getting pulled over,” Holland continued. “Any black man who has reached the age of 21 knows this fear is real.  Just the appearance of a cop car in your rear view mirrors; it’s a visceral reaction, a fear-based reaction. You’re going through your mind:  I’ve got to make sure I don’t act wrong.”

Alexander calls today’s massive incarceration of blacks a throwback to the Jim Crow era, when states reacted to the end of slavery by enacting laws that prevented blacks from having equal access to education, employment and public facilities.  New Jim Crow policies are being enforced through the so-called War on Drugs — or the racially coded “get tough” movement, she said.

“It was a message for the whites who were poor and working class and fearful of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. That movement helped lift blacks out of poverty by opening previously closed doors to education and employment.  But, Alexander said, “It was a social demotion for whites and this state of fear created political opportunity.”

The war on drugs began during the Nixon administration and has continued to escalate under both Republican and Democratic administrations, she noted.

“This isn’t just about poor policy choices,” Alexander said. “It’s much deeper; it’s rooted in our racial division and anxiety. We haven‘t dealt with our racist fears and anxieties.”

She also chided African Americans who have bought into the fear stereotype. “We have to acknowledge our own complicity, our silence, by imagining that those kids really are no good,” she said.

Photo: Michelle Alexander