Michelle Alexander’s best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, hit store shelves in 2010, offering readers a much-needed discussion around the historical impact of lynchings, debtors prisons and Confederate monuments on the mass incarceration of African-Americans today. But because her novel debuted in the pre-Trayvon Martin, pre-Michael Brown days when the country reveled at the idea of a post-racial society under the leadership of President Barack Obama, the discourse largely fell on deaf ears.
Fast-forward six years and the U.S. is now struggling to keep a lid on boiling racial tensions sparked by string of deadly police shootings of Black men and women. Racial profiling, racist policing and the justice system’s immeasurable record of incarcerating African-Americans are now the hot topics of conversation in America.
Alexander sat down with the Atlantic’s CityLab to discuss viable methods of dismantling the U.S. mass incarceration crisis, but noted that legislative policies aimed at doing so may not be enough to tackle the problem.
“I don’t view mass incarceration as just a problem of politics or policy, I view it as a profound moral and spiritual crisis as well,” the civil rights law scholar told CityLab. “I think that racial justice in this country will remain a distant dream as long as we think that it can be achieved simply through rational policy discussions.”
“If we take a purely technocratic approach to these issues and strip them of their moral and spiritual dimensions, I think we’ll just keep tinkering and tinkering and fail to realize that all of these issues really have more to do with who we are individually and collectively, and what we believe we owe one another, and how we ought to treat one another as human beings,” Alexander continued.
She went on to state that it would be almost impossible to return to the low incarceration rates of the 1970s without a major social and economic disruption. The war on drugs and “tough on crime” laws essentially fueled the mass incarceration of Black bodies; reversing that would ultimately force prisons to close, prison workers to lose their jobs and cash-strapped cities that relied economically on prisons to find other streams of revenue.
“…If we are going to dismantle this mass incarceration apparatus, it’s going to require a real upheaval in our politics and a level of change that I think won’t happen unless a real movement emerges that forces it into being,” Alexander said.
For state and city leaders forced to cut services to their residents due to newly passed federal criminal justice reform policies, the author recommended developing a tax system that doesn’t rely on the exploitation of low-income, Black citizens to provide quality services to area residents. Pricey court fees and traffic citations are the main culprits behind debtors prisons, according to Alexander, where citizens who are unable to pay can be locked up for days at a time.
“I consider myself a prison abolitionist, in the sense that I think we will eventually end the prisons as we know them,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t think we don’t need to remove people from the community who pose a serious threat or who cause serious harm for some period of time. But the question is do we want to create and maintain sites that are designed for the intentional infliction of needless suffering?”
Alexander, who recently received the Heinz Award for her groundbreaking work in highlighting the issue of mass incarceration, also discussed the abolition of police forces and the recent investment of conservative politicians into sentencing and criminal justice reform.
She expressed skepticism at the the idea that right-wing conservatives are really interested in reinvesting the money saved from downsizing prisons back into the community. For them, she said, it’s all about finding the cheapest way to keep people behind bars.
“…Until a moral consensus is built that says that our society should be organized in such a way to ensure that everyone has meaningful work, has quality education, has access to healthcare, especially mental healthcare, and not treated as disposable, we’re going to just keep seeing versions of these systems of racial and social control over and over again,” she said.