Who We Want to Become: Beyond the New Jim Crow
Michelle Alexander is an associate professor of law at the Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, and has served as the director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California. Her book is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
April 21, 2016
MS. KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: The civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander is one of the people who is waking us up to history we don’t remember and structures most of us can’t fathom intending to create. “Mass incarceration” and the “school-to-prison pipeline” — these are shorthand ways of talking about human wreckage decades on from policies that began during the Nixon administration in the wake of civil rights advances, in the name of reestablishing order.
Poor people of color were swept into the criminal justice system as war was waged on drug crimes which were largely ignored when committed by middle- or upper-class whites. Michelle Alexander calls the punitive culture that has emerged the “new Jim Crow.” And she is making this visible in the name of a fierce hope and a conviction that, across the differences in this land, we not only can, but already are rising to the transformation to which it calls.
MS. MICHELLE ALEXANDER: The press of our daily lives can make it difficult to imagine alternatives, and to commit ourselves to even small steps towards building a movement that might have some hope of being truly transformational. But all over the country right now people are actually doing that work. In faith communities, in reentry centers, in schools, on campuses, on street corners and barber shops today, people are asking questions that haven’t been asked in a long time, and saying, we don’t want to live in a prison state. How are we going to go about building a movement that can birth something new?
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: Michelle Alexander is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University. She published The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in 2010, and it’s gradually become a phenomenon, a source of national discussion and reflection.
MS. TIPPETT: I’d love to hear — I don’t see a lot of you talking about your childhood or where you grew up. Where did you grow up?
MS. ALEXANDER: Well, I was born in Chicago, actually. But we moved when I was very young. So, lived out in the cornfields of Illinois when I was a young girl, not far from Kankakee, in a very small community. And then we moved to California and I moved around the Bay Area, went to three different high schools, and eventually graduated from a high school in Oregon, in Ashland, Oregon. So no real hometown.
MS. TIPPETT: And was there a religious or spiritual background to your childhood?
MS. ALEXANDER: Well, my mom’s white, and my dad was black. And when they married, it was still against the law in a number of states.
MS. TIPPETT: Wow.
MS. ALEXANDER: And my mother was actually disowned by her family when she chose to marry my father. And she was excommunicated from her Lutheran church. And so …
MS. TIPPETT: So when was this? What decade are we talking about?
MS. ALEXANDER: So, I guess that — well, it was in the early ‘60s. So I was raised with the understanding that faith and church are not synonymous. And I was raised with a lot of spirituality in our home, but we never joined a church as a family after that. It wasn’t until I was much older, as an adult, that I found a church in Oakland, California that I began to attend regularly.
MS. TIPPETT: And you’ve written about the earliest roots of your consciousness of this language, and the notion of Jim Crow. And you wrote that this was — for you as a kid in school, this was demoralizing, to see pictures of that era and people “who look like me” sitting in the back of the bus. And that makes so much sense, and yet I feel like we don’t hear many people talk about it that way, about internalizing this history as children.
MS. ALEXANDER: I hope that, going forward, we give a lot more thought to how we teach race and racial justice in our schools. Because I notice even with my own kids that it can be traumatizing to be sitting in a classroom and, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, be shown pictures and films depicting black people being demeaned, and the “whites only” signs, and crowds of angry white people screaming and spitting and hurdling objects at them. And at a young age, it can be difficult to process and to understand how we fit into that history. And I think it’s important for people, young people, to be educated about the incredible courage and heroism of ordinary folks, back then and today, as they struggle against injustice.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes. Your book, The New Jim Crow, is just extraordinary, and it’s become a really important text. And it strikes me also in the sweep of your work — you’re talking about telling the whole truth, telling truths we haven’t named. There are shocking, terrible stories in there. And it seems to me that your passion has grown for how this story of the whole truth also is the story of our capacity to change what needs changing. That comes through to me as I see where you’ve been.
MS. ALEXANDER: Well, I’m glad to hear that comes through. I think, in so many ways, the whole process of writing this book, and touring, and speaking to a wide range of people — I’ve spoken in prisons, I’ve spoken in churches, at judicial conferences — interacting with a wide range of people who are all slowly awakening to the reality of what we as a nation have done.
In this so-called “era of color blindness,” we’ve managed to create this vast, new system of racial and social control that has relegated tens of millions of people to a second-class status yet again. We’ve done this thing as a nation. I think, for me, one of the reasons that I have become so passionate about this issue is that I think, in many ways, how you respond to the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States is really a critical test for American democracy. Will this American experiment succeed or fail? Research has shown that the most punitive nations in the world are the most diverse.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, and that is such a fascinating thing that you draw forward. That the most punitive nations are more diverse, and the more — the ones we look at and say, those are more structurally compassionate, are more homogeneous.
MS. ALEXANDER: Exactly. And so there seems to be this aspect of our human nature to be punitive towards the other. And in the United States today we have a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation to overcome, and we’re also a nation filled with people of all different faiths, ethnicities, backgrounds, and I think the question that remains unanswered is are we going to be capable of extending care, compassion, and concern across lines of race, of class, of religion, nationality? Or are we going to respond to those we label “others” with pure punitiveness? And that’s what happened with the birth of mass incarceration.
MS. TIPPETT: And you’ve made the point also, often, that this statement that first entered your imagination not that long ago — I suppose it was maybe ten or 15 or 20 years ago — that the war on drugs turned the clock back on racial progress. That, initially, for you, was hyperbole and something to be dismissed, not really — couldn’t reflect the complexity of reality.
MS. ALEXANDER: Yeah. I was raised to believe that there had been extraordinary racial injustice in our history, but that we are on the right path. And we may have a long way to go, but we are on the right path, headed, albeit too slowly, towards that promised land that Dr. King spoke of so eloquently. And in many ways, I think my own parents, being interracially married, felt they had to believe in that, they had to believe that by bringing mixed race children into this world they were bringing them into a world where there was hope for their future.
And so I was really raised on that narrative that we were overcoming. And when I became a civil rights lawyer and was a baby civil rights lawyer, just starting out, and I saw that sign stapled to a telephone pole saying, “The drug war is the new Jim Crow,” yeah, I thought that was hyperbole. I shook my head and said, “Yeah, criminal justice system is racist in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t help to make such absurd comparisons to Jim Crow. People will just think you’re crazy.”
And then I hopped on the bus and headed to my new job as director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU in California. And it was really only through those years of representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to assist people who had been released from prison as they faced just one unimaginable barrier after another — not just to their so-called “re-entry,” but to their basic survival after being released from prison — that I had my series of experiences that led to my own awakening that we hadn’t ended racial caste in America. We had just redesigned it.
MS. TIPPETT: So here’s some of the ways you talk about it that — for one thing, this fact that the rate of incarceration is not tied to the rate of crime. There’s not a correlation that crime went up, therefore more people are in prison.
MS. ALEXANDER: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: And that poor people of color are swept into the criminal justice system by the millions for drug crimes that go largely ignored when committed by middle- or upper-class whites. And that people then enter this parallel universe in which, as you say, they are stripped of the very rights that were won in the Civil Rights Movement.
MS. ALEXANDER: That’s right. I think most people don’t really appreciate the gravity of being convicted of a crime, particularly if you’re African American. If you’re white and you wind up with a criminal record, very few people look at you and think “criminal.” You may get away with not checking the box on employment applications or housing forms. But particularly for black folks and poor folks of color, once you’re saddled with a criminal record, you are stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement, like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of legal discrimination, employment, housing, access to education — basic public benefits. You really are relegated to a permanent second-class status.
And as I began kind of doing work in poor communities of color that were under siege in the drug war, my mind was blown over and over again by the fact that young kids were being arrested, locked up for the kinds of things that I and my white friends and friends of color had done in our youth and just treated as part of our youthful childhood.
MS. TIPPETT: Rites of passage.
MS. ALEXANDER: We never even imagined that we would be stripped of rights for the rest of our lives if we had been caught with some weed, or been convicted of a crime. And, I went to college at Vanderbilt University. And when I was there in college, you would go to fraternity parties, and there would be cocaine, people would be getting high, wasted, jumping off the roof of buildings. And you’d go into these communities, poor communities of color, and you see, for so much less, young kids having their futures destroyed. And you have to step back and say, what is really going on here? Why are we treating these kids with such little care and concern, treating them as literally disposable?
[music: “White Nights” by Ryan Teague]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today I’m with the civil rights lawyer and New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander.
[music: “White Nights” by Ryan Teague]
MS. TIPPETT: The statistics are — there are so many statistics, but — like that, in some American cities, more than half of working-age African-American men have criminal records, which are going to be with them the rest of their lives. And that one in four women — is this right? One in four American women has someone they love, some family member, in prison.
MS. ALEXANDER: Yes. And one in two black women.
MS. TIPPETT: One in two.
MS. ALEXANDER: Yeah. And, I think — I’m glad you raise that, because in my own work, much of the emphasis has been on the experience of black men in the criminal justice system, in part because when I was working at the ACLU as a civil rights lawyer, and we were waging campaigns against racial profiling and working on police brutality cases, so many of the complaints we received and the cases involved men, black men who had been targeted by the police, stopped, frisked, their car searched, torn apart, or being brutalized by the police. And relatively little attention has been paid to the experience of black women and women in general in the criminal justice system. But also all the millions of women who are effectively doing time on the outside, struggling to survive, as their loved ones cycle in and out of prison.
There’s a wonderful organization called Essie Justice Group, actually, that’s just been founded, that is designed to support women who have loved ones behind bars. And women who are struggling to take care of children, shuttle children back and forth to prison so that they can remain in contact with their parents or siblings behind bars, and women who often have to bear the economic as well as emotional responsibility of dealing with and supporting their loved ones when they return home. And there’s so much trauma and grief that goes unrecognized.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s a film that my producer found, and I think you helped create it or — it’s very short, but it’s women. It’s all kinds of women, all shapes and sizes and colors and ages of women, who have somebody they love, sometimes multiple people they love, and it’s so powerful. It’s only a couple of minutes, but that word “trauma” is a diagnosis, right? We kind of throw it around, but to see these women — these beautiful people, right? The grief, really — it marks them. And also, though, you feel their strength. You feel — you see what they are carrying.
MS. ALEXANDER: Yes. It’s easy to reduce the phenomenon of mass incarceration to numbers. You can crunch the numbers and show the racial disparities and all of that, but what gets lost is that human dimension, the suffering, the child who grows up visiting their father or mother in a prison waiting room. The grief of having to count down the days to your loved one getting home, and then knowing that when they return they’re not really free. That they will most like be unable to find work, that they’ll be barred from public housing, they may be denied even food stamps for food if they’ve been convicted of a drug felony. That because of some mistake you made or your loved one made, that there will be no forgiveness. There will be no opportunity to ever be welcomed back into your community, into society, as an equal member ever again.
And that’s one of the reasons why I am so thrilled and encouraged by the growing movement of formerly incarcerated people. Ten years ago, this movement barely even existed, but today, formerly incarcerated people and their families have been organizing nationwide, inspired largely by an organization called All Of Us Or None. Formerly incarcerated people are organizing for their basic human rights — the right to work, the right to shelter, the right to health care and drug treatment — basic human rights that we should be able to take for granted in a nation as wealthy as ours, and a nation that advertises ourselves to the rest of the world as the land of the free and a place of opportunity, equality, and inclusion.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s very — I’d say there’s real evil in this story of mass incarceration. And yet something in me resists thinking that people were evil. But you have this quote at the very end of The New Jim Crow — you end with James Baldwin, and I think this is it. He says, “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen. It is their innocence which constitutes the crime,” which is a form of culpability.
I wanted to read you something that kept going through my head as I was reading you. And it was a conversation I had with Vincent Harding. Vincent Harding was this great civil rights leader and elder and helped King develop the philosophy of nonviolence. And he said to me — we were talking about democracy, and he said, “For me, the question of democracy also opens up the question of what does it mean to be truly human. Democracy is simply another way of speaking about that question… My own feeling, as I try to share again and again, is that when it comes to creating a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious democratic society, we are still a developing nation. We’ve only been really thinking about this for about half a century,” he said.
MS. ALEXANDER: Vincent Harding was such an important figure in my life. He passed too soon. But I think what’s he pointing at there is kind of what I was trying to get at before, which is that this whole idea of every person mattering, this is a radical, revolutionary project that we’re embarking upon. And it remains to be seen whether we can succeed in actually living up to, I think, what many of us would describe as our deepest aspirations. And I have probably more hope than might be warranted by the objective facts that we will rise to the challenge of building what King called “the beloved community.”
MS. TIPPETT: I wanted to ask you if that language is resonant for you. What does that mean in the 21st century, “the beloved community?” Or do you see that — if I asked you what gives you hope that you see happening, that that’s even reasonable language, where would you point?
MS. ALEXANDER: Well, I would have to point to the extraordinary people that I’ve met over the last few years as I’ve been traveling around the country, people who have overcome the most unimaginable odds, people who were treated as disposable, who are locked up, locked out, left for dead, utterly forgotten, and who not only have managed to make a life for themselves, but have dedicated themselves to ensuring that no one will ever have to go through what they went through. People who are committed to waking each other up, and to turning towards each other with greater love, care, and concern.
As a civil rights lawyer, it’s very common for advocates to get together and start talking about, how do we persuade mainstream, white swing voters to do this or that, or to pass this law or that? And we often treat as progress shifting poll numbers among the middle-of-the-road voters.
But I have come to believe that what counts as progress and the source of my hope is when communities that have been treated as unworthy come to believe in themselves, begin to speak in their own voice, begin to organize and act as though their lives truly matter. And that’s what we’ve seen. Just in the last couple of years, you’ve seen all over this nation young black folks, but young folks of all colors, waking up, standing up, and I really believe that we will look back and see that Ferguson was a turning point at a time when Michael Brown was shot down and the young people of that community stood up, and dared to say black lives matter. Our lives matter. We are not going to cooperate with this level of injustice anymore.
To me, that’s what gives me hope. And I think we have an opportunity here to really see some powerful cultural transformation. And I’m encouraged by the formerly incarcerated people who’ve begun to organize and find their voice, by the young people who are standing up and saying things that may be unpopular, but need to be said, and by people of faith who are beginning to recognize their own culpability in remaining silent as a new system of racial and social control, a purely punitive system, was born on their watch.
[music: “Craco” by Hauschka]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Michelle Alexander through our website, onbeing.org.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Craco” by Hauschka]
On Being is supported in part by Penguin Press, the publishers of Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Krista Tippett’s book offers a grounded and fiercely hopeful vision of humanity for this century — of personal growth, renewed public life, and human spiritual evolution. Available now wherever books are sold.
[music: “Craco” by Hauschka]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today I’m with the civil rights lawyer and New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander. She’s one of the people who is waking us up to history we don’t remember and structures most of us can’t fathom intending to create. And she is doing so with a fierce hope and a belief in our collective capacity to rise to the challenge of the present.
MS. TIPPETT: One way you described — you use this word “punitive” a lot, and I think it’s a word that needs time to sink in, right? For Americans to think of themselves as punitive. But one way you said it in more spiritual language is, “We’ve become a nation of stone-throwers.” As you said before, set up with a system in which forgiveness is not possible, redemption is not possible, there’s no mercy. And one thing you said is it’s — and in moving away from that — it is not enough just to drop your own stone. So how would you start to talk to people who care — black, white, other — about first steps? How to begin?
MS. ALEXANDER: I think the first step is saying I’m willing to be awake, that I’m not going to tell myself the same old stories. I am willing to wake up to our current racial reality, our current political and economic realities. I’m willing to wake up, and I’m also willing to acknowledge my own complicity in the systems. I think there’s varying degrees of culpability and complicity. But we all — all of us, if you’ve been born in the United States, or lived any significant period of time in — I may not have white privilege as an African-American woman, but I certainly have class privilege.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And you tell a story — was it the night of the Obama inauguration when you — ? That glorious night, you walked out …
MS. ALEXANDER: And I saw the young man in the gutter, yes. Obama had just been elected the first time in 2008, and I walked out of the election night party and saw a black man in the gutter with his hands cuffed behind his back, and wondered, what does Obama’s election mean for him? I think it’s easy to become overwhelmed and paralyzed, and I can say, in my own life, one of the practices that I’ve come to embrace is the practice of stillness, and learning to stop participating in the madness. And even the act of slowing down and sitting still in a society and an economy that seems to reward constant movement and activity and communication is a bit of a challenging, radical act. It’s a countercultural behavior.
But I think it’s necessary for us to think about what contribution we want to make to our communities, to our families. And who we want to be and how we want to show up in this moment in time, in this moment in our racial history, our political history, our economic history, our gender history, all of it. And that takes some time and reflection.
MS. TIPPETT: What’s distinctive, I think, about what you just said, also, is it’s stillness as a — not just as a private discipline, but as a public act, as part of your public self.
MS. ALEXANDER: Yeah. I think it creates space where we can begin to imagine alternatives. And I think the media and all of our consumerism and the press of our daily lives can make it difficult to imagine alternatives, and to commit ourselves to even small steps towards building a movement that might have some hope of being truly transformational. But all over the country right now people are actually doing that work. And that’s why I’m encouraged.
In faith communities, in reentry centers, in schools, on campuses, on street corners and barber shops today, people are asking questions that haven’t been asked in a long time, and saying, we don’t want to live in a prison state. We don’t want a political system that is owned by a handful of billionaires. We don’t want to be in a state of constant war in countries thousands of miles away. We would like to create a different reality in our communities, a different kind of political system. How are we going to go about building a movement that can birth something new? These conversations are happening, and I think they have far more potential than any of the polling and constant political madness that’s going on in our primary campaigns today.
MS. TIPPETT: But something that you’ve said that I find very theological is that we have to find ways as we navigate this — as I think you’re saying, as we reckon with it, we really reckon with what is at stake here, the big questions, this language you use, the big questions that we have to “honor the criminality in each one of us.”
MS. ALEXANDER: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Say some more.
MS. ALEXANDER: I really believe that this notion of us-versus-them, drawing lines and labeling one another all turns on this notion that we can define who the bad guys are, and rest assured that they’re not us. I believe if we’re going to achieve the shift in consciousness that is necessary, we are going to have to be able to say, and mean, we’re all criminals. We have to acknowledge that all of us have done wrong in our lives. That criminals are not them, over there. They’re us. They’re all of us. All of us have done wrong.
All of us have broken the law at some point in our lives. I often say, even if you haven’t experimented with drugs, even if you didn’t drink underage, if the worst thing you’ve done in your life is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, well, you’ve put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of their living room. But who do we shame and who do we blame? I’ve spoken in churches and I’ll say to a large congregation, “We’re all sinners.” And everyone will nod their head, oh, yes, we’re all sinners. And then I’ll say, “And we’re all criminals.” And everyone just stares at me kind of bug eyed, like, what? You’re calling me a criminal?
And it was interesting. A young man came up to me after I spoke in one church and he said, “Isn’t it interesting how eager we are all to admit that we violated God’s law, but how reluctant we are to admit that we’ve violated man’s law?” And I think that there is a way in which we kind of give lip service to this idea that we’re all sinners, or we all make mistakes. But we have a difficult time acknowledging, oh, we’re all criminals. Those people that have been shamed and blamed and stigmatized, actually, we are on so many levels not really better than them. We may be luckier than them.
President Obama himself wrote in his memoir about doing quite a bit of drugs, marijuana and cocaine, in his youth. And if circumstances had been different for him, if he hadn’t been raised by white grandparents in Hawaii, if he had been raised in the hood, chances are very good he would have been stopped, searched, caught, and far from being President of the United States today. He might not even have the right to vote, depending on what state he lived in.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, that’s very starkly — yeah. I will say I believe that language is so important, and I do — I am so intrigued by how — it’s still fragile, but how I hear this language of mercy and redemption, words like that, entering our public sphere.
MS. ALEXANDER: Yeah, it’s funny, because I just recently read a quote by James Baldwin, and I wish I had it memorized perfectly. I don’t. But it had something to do with — along the lines of, “You think that I need to be forgiven, but it’s you who must be forgiven.” I can’t remember exactly the language, but it was this idea that we look at those who’ve been labeled criminals and we imagine that they’re the ones who ought to be forgiven, when in fact we are the ones who may have committed the greater crime, right?
The young man who’s caught with some weed in his pocket, he’s hustling to make some money on the side to buy some shoes, or help his mama pay the rent — how serious of a crime is that compared to the crime we commit by locking him in a literal cage, treating him worse than we would treat many animals, and then stripping him of all his civil and human rights upon release? Whose crime, really, is in need of forgiveness? And I think all of the shaming and blaming that we’ve been doing in recent decades of the poorest and, often, the darkest among us, I think really says more about ourselves than it does about them.
[music: “Perfect Darkness” by Fink]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today I’m with the civil rights lawyer and New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander.
[music: “Perfect Darkness” by Fink]
MS. TIPPETT: I think you’re really eloquent about — even for yourself — I’d say, one big theme, really, that we’ve been talking about this whole time that you write about is the conversations we don’t know how to have, we’re just grasping to have, culturally. And I find it very moving when you talk about the conversations it’s almost impossible for you to have as you are out there, and one of them you wrote about in November of 2014 in The New York Times, that — I think the title of this article, or the subtitle was, “It’s much easier telling the truth about race injustice in America to strangers than to my son, who will soon be forced to live it.” And that balance that you’re walking as a mother of a black son, of telling him the truth, and doing what every mother wants to do, which is help your child feel safe and comfort them. This was after Ferguson, right? After Michael Brown’s shooting.
MS. ALEXANDER: Yes. It is a painful thing for any parent, particularly black parents, to have to tell their children, “No, actually, you cannot trust the police.” And when I had to tell my son that I knew that the officer who killed Michael Brown would not be indicted, and that …
MS. TIPPETT: Right, because children have such a sense of justice, right? He was asking you — he’s ten, and he wants you to tell him that there will be a trial.
MS. ALEXANDER: Yes. He was saying, “How can there not be a trial? At least he’ll go to trial, right? Of course there’ll be a trial.”
MS. TIPPETT: And you’re a lawyer.
MS. ALEXANDER: “How could there not be a trial?” And even before the grand jury came back, I knew there’s no way they’re going to indict this officer. And I knew, because I knew how rare it is that officers ever get indicted for shooting unarmed black men. And to tell him that, because he’s — he deserves the truth. I owe him the truth. But also to see how it shatters him, and to know that he isn’t ever going to have the luxury of imagining that, a police officer pulls up behind him in a car, that he will be afforded the same presumptions of innocence that he might be afforded if he were white.
And I had an experience with my son when he was very young. Gosh, he must have been five, six, I’m not sure. But he had been playing outside with water guns. It was in the middle of the summer, and I was having to run a bunch of errands and I had told all the kids to jump in the car. We were going to go to the mall. I had to get a gift for someone. And unbeknownst to me, he brings his water gun with him in the car. And we get to the store, we jump out, crossing the street, and a police car drives by. And as the car drives by, my son whips out his little water gun, which I didn’t realize he had it, and starts pointing the gun at the police vehicle and saying, “Bang, bang, cops and robbers.” He’s laughing hysterically. And the fear and rage that welled up in me as I practically tackled my son on the sidewalk and telling him, “You cannot do that.”
And it was a knowingness that he wouldn’t just be a little boy playing with a water gun pointing at a police officer, but he would be a black boy pointing what might well be imagined to be a gun at a police officer, that shook me to my core. And when Tamir Rice was killed, my son came home and said, “I saw a picture of a boy who looks just like me who was killed by the police.” And I said, “Yeah, he does look just like you. And that’s why I tackled you on the street.”
MS. TIPPETT: You also tell a story about being confronted by a white woman whose son is in prison, who’s caught up also in this same cycle, which had a sense of racial disorder at its origins, but hasn’t stopped there. Do you know what I’m talking about?
MS. ALEXANDER: Yes. A couple of years ago, I gave a talk and afterwards during the Q&A period, a white woman approached the microphone and she said, “I hear you talking about all of the pain and suffering experienced by African Americans and the war on the drugs. And I hear you and I believe you, but I have a child who has been ensnared by the drug war, and they’re suffering, too. What about him?”
And I had to say, in all honesty, there are millions of white folks who are serving longer sentences than they otherwise would have, are having their cars or homes forfeited as a result of federal drugs forfeiture laws, who are getting prison sentences rather than drug treatment because of this war mentality that overtook the nation when we imagined, collectively, that drug offenders were black and brown. And not extending drug treatment on demand, not rushing to these neighborhoods with care and concern.
How can we help these folks who are living in these communities where work has disappeared due to factories closing down and moving overseas, and where there’s despair and hopelessness and rising drug addiction — how can we go in and help these communities? No, instead they declared a war on those people. And the mandatory minimum sentences, and the harsh drug laws, and the three-strikes laws, and the scaling back of drug treatment, and all of that, has impacted people of all colors.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, and it’s that story of suffering, that human wreckage, that human drama, that somehow we managed not to incorporate into our narrative, also, or obviously not our policies. And I feel like that’s what you’ve — that’s the story you’re shining a light on, and it’s so important. I just wonder how — as you’ve talked about that you, at some point, developed an obsession with this, the founding paradox of America that’s now so full-blown.
How do you think this shapes — I want to say this calling of yours, this knowledge, but also this calling — how do you think it shapes your presence in minute ways, in the course of your days? What do you see that you didn’t see before? How do you move through the world differently? I realize that’s a huge question, so maybe just talk about yesterday or today.
MS. ALEXANDER: Yeah. I don’t know. I talk a little a bit at the beginning of the book that once my own eyes were opened, there was no way I could unsee. There was no way that I could be blind anymore to what I had been in denial about for so long. And I think on many levels there are days when I think, oh, life might have been easier if I’d never woken up. And I think that’s one of the reasons why many of us stay asleep, because we sense that if we really woke up to the full reality and opened ourselves to seeing and witnessing and being present for the unnecessary suffering that exists, and that we’re complicit with, that our life won’t be as easy. More might be required of us, and we’re having a hard enough time making it through the day as it is.
But I have to say that waking up and seeing things as they are has also led me to just the most rewarding relationships and work that I could imagine. And I’m grateful to be awake and consciously committed to trying to birth a new America, and no longer lost in this fantasy, this American dream world that if you just get the two-car garage and keep plodding along this path, that somehow we’re going to make it to where we all want to go. So I have to say that I’m grateful. The relationships that I now have, and the work that I’m now involved in is much more rich and meaningful than the path that I had been on before.
MS. TIPPETT: And how do you think all of this has shaped, evolved your sense of what it means to be human?
MS. ALEXANDER: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this notion of “revolutionary love” and what that means. And it’s something that I spoke with Vincent Harding quite a bit about. And I think for me what it means to be fully human is to open ourselves to fully loving one another in an unsentimental way. I’m not talking about the romantic love, or the idealized version of love, but that the simple act of caring for one another, and being aware of our connectedness as human beings, and also the reality of our suffering, and the reality that we make a lot of mistakes, and we struggle and we fail.
That’s all part of being human. We suffer, we love, we struggle, we fail, and then we love again. And I think trying not to imagine that we’re anything more or less than that, as human beings struggling to love and find our way, making mistakes, but still yearning for a deeper connection and a sense of purpose in our lives is what being human is all about. Now of course, so many people, not just in the United States, but around the world, are struggling on a daily basis just to survive.
But even among those folks, what I have found is that there’s love to be found. There’s joy there. There’s suffering. There’s redemption. All of it. And that’s what it means to be human. And if we are going to evolve spiritually, morally, as human beings, we’re going to lean in to caring more, and loving more for one another, and honoring our connectedness, and our oneness, and resist that impulse, that fear-driven impulse to divide and label and react with punitiveness rather than care and concern.
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MS. TIPPETT: Michelle Alexander is an associate professor of law at the Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. Her book is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
At onbeing.org you can listen to this show again, and also find my full, unedited conversation with Michelle Alexander. We release the unedited interview for every show. This one is especially rich, with powerful and insightful moments we just couldn’t fit into the produced episode. Find our entire archive at onbeing.org, or by subscribing to our podcast.
[music: “Wish” by Hammock]
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