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Mitchell: ‘New Jim Crow’ incarcerations raise uncomfortable questions

Michelle Alexander speaking UniLeague Club. Friday May 3 2013 | Brian Jacks~Sun-Times

Michelle Alexander speaking at the Union League Club. Friday, May 3, 2013 | Brian Jackson ~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 8, 2013 6:35AM



Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer, and author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” is raising uncomfortable questions.

Although many of us might believe the criminal justice system has its flaws, the notion that the system is intentionally biased against black and poor people is too sinister to contemplate.

But that’s exactly what Alexander is suggesting.

In a speech at the Union League Club of Chicago last Friday, Alexander pointed out that even though the nation elected its first black president, a couple of blocks from the White House are neighborhoods in which three out of four young black men have already spent time behind bars.

Because of mass incarceration “a vast new racial undercast now exists in America,” Alexander said.

“The members of the undercast are now largely invisible to those of us who have good jobs, live in good neighborhoods and zoom around on freeways past the virtual and literal prisons in which they live,” she said.

Alexander has gained national recognition for her scholarly work of the criminal justice system. It’s what happens to felons after they serve their time and return to their communities that re-create a Jim Crow system.

These young people come home “saddled” with criminal records that follow them for the rest of their lives and “authorize legal discrimination” against them, Alexander points out.

In her book, Alexander describes a system that so closely resembles the conditions blacks faced during Jim Crow, it’s hard to ignore the similarities.

For instance, when someone serves his or her time but cannot find gainful employment or, in some cases, even housing, what are they supposed to do? They can’t get in a time machine and make different choices. These young people become second-class citizens for much of their lives.

“The systematic mass incarceration of poor people of color in the United States has emerged as the new caste-like system,” Alexander told a room filled with lawyers, prosecutors, public defenders and politicians.

“One that shuttles young people from segregated neighborhoods, decrepit under-funded and failing schools to brand new high-tech, thriving prisons.”

That certainly seems to be the case in the Chicago area.

In a commentary published in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2012, John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, pointed out that the Illinois prison system has “exploded.”

Despite a budget dripping in red ink, Illinois led the country in increasing its prison population, adding almost 4,000 inmates, Maki noted.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is looking to substantially reduce the prison population in Cook County Jail, praised Alexander’s work during her introduction of the law professor.

“Michelle Alexander points out that a high percentage of folks who are incarcerated in prison need not be, and this holds true for our jails as well,” Preckwinkle said.

“Roughly 90 percent of the people in our Cook County Jail are there because they are awaiting trial, usually because they can’t pay their bond. In many respects, the jail is a poor house. What I usually say is that jail is at the intersection of racism and poverty in our country,” she added.

Alexander knows that her claims that the United States has created a system of racial and social control will be tough for some to accept, and admits she, too, was once a doubter.

“There was a time I rejected this kind of talk out of hand. There was a time when I rejected comparisons between mass incarceration and slavery and mass incarceration and Jim Crow. I believed that those kinds of comparisons were exaggerations, distortions, even hyperbole,” she said.

But after spending years representing victims of “racial profiling” and “police brutality” and trying to help people who had been released from prison overcome legal barriers, Alexander said she had an “awakening.”

“I began to awaken to the reality that our criminal justice system now functions much more like a system of racial and social control than a system of crime prevention and control,” she said.

“We need a shift in public consciousness around all those who are trapped in jobless, segregated ghettos cycling in and out of our prisons and jails.”



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