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Guest professor, author of new book visits UF Law to discuss mass incarceration

Glasser BBQ

By Alyssa Cameron
Law Student Writer/3L

"We have not ended the racial caste system in America, we have merely redesigned it," said Ohio State University Moritz College of Law Professor Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," at her discussion Sept. 22.

Students, faculty and community members gathered to hear the lecture and ask the first-time author questions. Alexander intended her book to be "a wake-up call."

"It was my greatest hope in writing The New Jim Crow that it would help to stimulate public dialogue and debate about a phenomenon that has been ignored for far too long in this country - the mass incarceration of poor people of color," Alexander said. "I'm thrilled that I've been invited to share my work and research, and that the university community is eager to have a serious conversation about our nation's undercaste."

She recognized that the idea may seem absurd, even admitting that 10 years ago, she thought a bright orange sign in Oakland, Calif., that said "the drug war is the new Jim Crow" was ridiculous. However, after spending 10 years working on issues of racial profiling, drug law enforcement, police brutality and attempting to assist individuals "attempting to 're-enter' a society that never seemed to have much use for them in the first place", she finds the claim irrefutable.

"With the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, people of all colors are more reluctant than ever to acknowledge that an enormous percentage of the African American community remains locked in a permanent, second-class status. Our nation's prison population has quintupled for reasons rooted more in politics than crime, and the racial dimension of this tragedy is undeniable. In major American cities today, the majority of young African American men are behind bars or branded felons for life. And once branded a felon, you're trapped. You're ushered into a parallel social universe in which you can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits. So many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind, are suddenly legal again once you've been labeled a felon."

When asked the best way to take a stand on the issue, Alexander responded that it is "not easy." Quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., she continued, "You have to be willing to stand alone if you are going to stand for justice. This is as true today, as it was back then."

She said the most important thing anyone can do is to raise awareness and break the silence about how mass incarceration works and how it has devastated communities. She hopes The New Jim Crow will provide the information people need to start discussing "the devastating impact of the War on Drugs and the 'get tough' movement on poor communities of color in the U.S."

"Nothing short of a major social movement has any hope of ending the mass incarceration in the U.S.," she concluded.

The Center on Children and Families and the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations sponsored Alexander's lecture.