Awesome Woman Alert: Michelle Alexander

I’m super excited to post my first topical blog for the Women’s Center!

I was having a tough time figuring out what this blog would be about specifically, but luckily, somewhere in the clouds, someone smiled on me and found a way for me to attend an AH-MAZING event on September 27th.

Hamline University hosts an Annual Commitment to Community Keynote Address. This year was their sixteenth year holding this event. Every year they invite a keynote speaker to campus to express their commitment to community service and action, and this year, they invited the radiating Professor Michelle Alexander! Professor Alexander is most widely known as the author of the New York Times bestseller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University and holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Her past ventures include being the former director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California and serving as a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

On this particular Thursday evening, Professor Alexander was asked to present her thesis to her book The New Jim Crow. I do not want to spoil it for you because I think everyone should read the book (I am glued to it!). I will, however, present a couple key points that stuck out to me in her address.

“Many of us have slept through a counter-revolution…”

When we take a brief glance back to our history as a country, we seem to focus on our triumphs more than our failures. This most affects us when referencing all of the social movements of the 20th century. Civil rights, feminist, labor–the list goes on and on. Professor Alexander realized through her practice as a civil rights attorney and through her research connected to her book that, however, there has been extensive work done to set back much of the progress made by revered revolutions in America. We are in an era of blindness–colorblindness, genderblindness, etc, and with this blindness brings power from “the folks up top” to find strategic ways to implement legislation and policies to undo all of our hard work as advocates for social justice. In her field, she specifically addresses the caste-system-like practices that have led to mass incarcerations of millions, particularly black and brown folk from lower-income backgrounds. If anyone thought that we are post-racism, post-any kind of “-ism”, we are far from it. There are powers that be that are dedicated to setting us back, and sadly, we have been in a metaphorical coma as all of it has been happening.

Worse off than people in slavery? You be the judge.

Some of the statistics Prof. Alexander presented in her address just placed me in a completely different mental state. She calls her book The New Jim Crow to emphasize that these practices are a way to institute laws and practices that have the same subjugating impact that Jim Crow laws did (“separate but equal” tomfoolery), but I feel like it is deeper than Jim Crow. Check out some of these stats:

  • There are more blacks under correctional control currently (the entire spectrum, including imprisonment and probation) than there were slaves in 1850.
  • A black child born today has less of a chance of being raised by both parents today than during slavery.
  • The United States of America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
  • Felons are often denied the right to vote, housing opportunities, employment opportunities, and access to public benefits (welfare, Medicaid, etc.).

Taking into account these facts, it makes you wonder just how progress our nation has made to fully abolish slavery. When slavery was legal, owners were legally bound to provide their slaves with the basic necessities. We do not see that systematic obligation carried our for most felons and even ex-felons. The label “felon” is a label that is glued to the foreheads of people with the strongest adhesive, and it is excruciatingly difficult for them to remove it, even when the threat to return to criminal behavior is miniscule.

“But what about the Thirteenth Amendment? Isn’t slavery is unconstitutional in our government?” is a common rebuttal to this idea. What I say to that is take a deeper look at the amendment verbatim:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

So has slavery been truly abolished? This clause in the amendment seems to signify otherwise, especially when you look at the rise of mass incarceration in the United States since the mid-1980s. Before the War on Drugs, roughly 300,000-350,000 people were in prison. That number is now around 2 million and counting. A new market for free labor has risen.

How does this translates to women’s inequity?

One of the biggest mistakes we make as spectators of any kind of movement is believe that each movement has its separate missions and visions, that there is not a possibility for different underrepresented and underprivileged groups to support each other for whatever reason. Looking back at our history, the Civil Rights Movement did not just include ethnic equality; the Chicano movement, American Indian movement, LGBT rights and gay liberation, and feminist movement were also tied into the revolution. It’s about human rights, and how these rights are stripped from folks who do not fit into the dominant hegemonic phenotype (cue Caucasian, straight, “hardworking”, Christian man). The name of the game out here is divide and conquer. Strength comes in the collective, united on common ground, working for the betterment of us all.

When I first encountered Michelle Alexander, I could not ignore the fact that she is a woman fighting tirelessly to increase the quality of life for millions of folks in the mass incarceration system, the gender being overwhelmingly male. She is one of countless lawyers who confront this criminal justice system head-on. Yet, while so many succumb to the crippling practices of the system, she stood strong. She recognized her own shortcomings in her past and decided that she was not satisfied with playing by its rules. This fearlessness has resulted in our society critically challenging the world as we know it. We are starting to wake up to notice the counter-revolution, not just in race relations, but in other key struggles affecting our country (the glass ceiling is still not fully broken!) Had Michelle decided to “stay within the box”, who knows when we would wake up.

So make sure your alarms are set to a time we can all be in tune, because “the revolution will not be televised” as Gil Scott-Heron foreshadowed, and you do not want to sleep through it.

A group of students from various campuses with Michelle Alexander at Hamline University. I am on the right end! 🙂

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