“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”
I’d like to dedicate my talk today to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. I find it difficult to overstate the contribution that Dr. King has made to my own understanding of the core spiritual truths that underlie all striving for racial justice. His life’s work and his vision for justice, his unapologetic radicalism in the face of injustice, offers for me a model of what truly inspired social justice advocacy can look like. But i’m not gonna spend my time here tonight merely singing his praises or telling you all of the ways in which were supposedly so much better off than in the year of his passing. No, if there’s one principle that Dr. King demonstrated as steadfastly as his commitment to nonviolence it was his commitment to telling the truth, the whole truth, about matters of race. As he put it quite bluntly just months before his death he said, quote, “I do not see how we will ever solve the turbulent problem of race confronting our nation until there is an honest confrontation with it, and a willing search for the truth and a willingness to admit the truth when we discover it.”
So, in Dr. King’s honor today I’m going to do my best to tell the truth about race in America. It’s a truth that most americans will deny. Just as they once denied the truth about slavery and Jim Crow. But it is the truth nonetheless, and the truth is this: We as a nation have taken a wrong turn in the stride toward freedom. We have betrayed Dr. King’s dream. A vast new system of racial and social control has emerged from the ashes of slavery and Jim Crow. It is a system that shuttles our children from underfunded school to brand new high tech prisons. This system, this system of mass incarceration traps poor people, overwhelmingly poor people of color, into a permanent second class status nearly as effectively as earlier systems of racial and social control. It is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow.
Now, there was a time that I thought talk like this was counter-productive. There was a time where I resisted comparisons between mass incarceration and Jim Crow, or mass incarceration and slavery and I actually thought that people who made those kinds of comparisons were doing more harm than good to efforts to reform the criminal justice system and achieve greater equality in the United States. In fact the first time I encountered the idea, that our criminal justice system might be functioning something like a caste system I rejected the idea out of hand.
I was rushing to catch the bus in Oakland, CA and this bright orange poster stapled to a telephone pole caught my eye. And on it, you know, in large bold print, it said “The drug war is the new Jim Crow”. And I remember pausing for a minute, scanning the text of the flyer, and I saw some, you know, small radical community group was organizing, were going to be holding a meeting in a community church a few blocks away and they were organizing to protest the three strikes law in California, racial profiling, police brutality, the expansion of the prison system in California and I remember thinking to myself, “yeah, you know, the criminal justice system is racist in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t help to make such absurd comparisons to Jim Crow. People just think you’re crazy.” And then I crossed the street, hopped on the bus, on my way, to my new job as director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU.
When I began my work at the ACLU, I assumed that our criminal justice system had problems of racial bias much in the same way that ALL of our institutions in society are infected to some degree or another with problems associated with conscious and unconscious, bias and stereotyping. I had been working as a civil rights lawyer litigating employment discrimination cases, large class action suits against fortune 500 companies like Home Depot, suing them for race and gender discrimination in employment. And i thought to myself, I’m just going to take the tools i had applied in the employment discrimination context and apply them to criminal justice reform and, you know, work with others to root out racial bias wherever and whenever it might rear its ugly head in the criminal justice system.
But by the time i left the ACLU, I had come to realize that I was wrong about the criminal justice system. It’s not just another institution in our society infected with bias, but a different beast entirely. And the activist who posted the sign on the telephone pole weren’t crazy, nor were the smattering of lawyers and activist around the country that were beginning to connect the dots between mass incarceration and earlier forms of social and racial control.
So really, quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration really had emerged as a stunningly comprehensive, and well disguised system of control analogous to Jim Crow.
(first 10 min of an hour long speech, watch this speech here)