The days of Jim Crow may be over, but Michelle Alexander — professor, civil rights lawyer and New York Times’ best-selling author — still sees a caste system operating in the U.S.
“Even in an age of ‘colorblindness’ we’ve managed to recreate a caste-like system … defined by race and class,” Alexander told an audience Feb. 12 during an open discussion in Kennedy Union. “It’s easy to become seduced by images of spectacular success: Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell. I’m attempting to help others have the same kind of awakening I’ve had.”
Alexander sees this modern-day caste system manifest itself in mass incarceration – predominantly of black males. The barriers people face once out of prison are posed as legal forms of discrimination; some states revoke the right to vote, some render former criminals ineligible to serve jury duty, finding a job becomes especially hard.
The concept of a criminal as a black male has been perpetuated by media and society. “Fears and stereotypes help to rationalize what are ultimately very discriminatory policies, practices and private thoughts,” said Alexander. The prison pipeline reinforces these notions because it seems to provide reasoning for discrimination in other areas, such as health care and education.
When asked by an audience member how to help, Alexander pointed out one major problem is that there is no national organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration. “We need a movement that’s from the bottom up, for local communities to take responsibility. We can’t wait for a King or a Malcolm.”
Another audience member pointed out a disconnect between people’s views in various areas of his life; he can’t speak about the issue the same way at work as he can at church or at school. Alexander’s advice: “Even though you’ll face resistance and someone will roll their eyes, speak the same truth wherever you go. … Stay true to yourself.”