Blessed & Troubled

I was blessed and troubled to hear Michelle Alexander speak at Northwestern University Wednesday night.  My seminary, in collaboration with Northwestern, brought her to talk and she spoke about her book, The New Jim Crow.  She gave a similar talk as the one in this video.  I’m not sure if her talk the other night will be available yet.

Professor Alexander, last Wednesday, discussed her own early suspicions of calling what she’s investigated a caste system, before being personally changed after she, as a civil rights attorney, encountered story after story of young men being swept into the criminal justice system.  She dedicated Wednesday’s lecture to Martin Luther King, Jr, and she told us to press for a social movement against the legal system that is so historically and frequently assigning young men (most of whom are men of color) into a new racial undercaste system called incarceration.

I’ve mentioned her book on the blog before.  It’s probably the most memorable and distressing book I read last year.  It’s one of the reasons why I’m intentionally reading less this year–in order for me to digest harder readings like Alexander’s.  If you haven’t gotten The New Jim Crow, consider buying it or checking it out of your local library.  It’ll give you much to think through.  And it may change you.

Perhaps this video can appeal to your best self and whet your interest for the heavier work which is her book.

Former Governor Sentenced & The New Jim Crow

People are talking about our former governor’s sentencing, and I keep thinking about three things.  I think about his family and how difficult this must be for them.  I think about how this is an example, glowing or not, of our criminal justice system at work.  I think about the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Professor Alexander’s book is thorough and full and dishearteningly descriptive of mass incarceration.  I learned more than I’ll tell you in that book.  I read it a couple months ago and became an immediate fan of Michelle Alexander.  I didn’t plan to write a review of her book; in fact, I wouldn’t call this post a review but an expression of gratitude.  I couldn’t arrange a blog interview with her unfortunately.  But the fingers gripping the bars on that book cover keep looking at me.  I keep thinking of what she wrote.

Professor Alexander discusses the War on Drugs primarily.  She debunks the notion of the War, and she explains, in almost loving ways, how profit fuels the drug trade in our country and how the federal government rewards local and state political systems with money when they introduce people into the criminal justice system.  If you’re interested in learning about the history of the drug trade, where police swat teams developed, and the rights you have when and if the police pull you over, those will be covered.  There is a pervasive discussion of race in the volume.  Men–and what’s happening to us–is discussed carefully and respectfully.  She ties the excessive arrest rates in communities of color with policies from the 80s and threads the effects of those policies to the huge spikes in our prison population these days.

Professor Alexander does very little opining in the book.  Instead, she tells stories.  There are facts and facts and facts, but I couldn’t walk through the book with my highlighter.  Even though I learned a lot, her book felt more like a kitchen table than it did a legal seminar.  And I mean that in the most complimentary way imaginable.  She places legal detail on an edible plate for her readers, and you can almost feel her hand on your shoulder while you swallow the truth when it gets nasty.

If you haven’t picked up this book and read it, you need to.  I realize that I say that about many books.  I realize that I interview authors on this blog and that their books have my highest recommendations.  I tell you what I’m reading and sometimes why I’m reading it, along with what I’m learning from those readings.  I get it.  And you know that I like reading almost as much as I do eating because I need both to survive.  And again, The New Jim Crow is one of those books that should be required reading.  You should get it because it will teach you about the prison system.  It will provide you a historical context for discrimination and help you speak well about justice and injustice and crime and restoration.  It will give you a hunger, and perhaps a vision, for justice.

Be clear: the book is dismal because Professor Alexander is too good at what she does.  She paints portraits and tells stories in ways that leave you sad and angry and frustrated.  But you won’t close your nightly reading without feeling a little more grateful for people who pursue justice in the wide ways that people do.  Even people who work and serve the cause of justice in ways that may not intersect with the criminal justice system.

You won’t look at a news story or listen to a conversation about jail and prison and justice in the same way.  You’ll ask different questions.  You’ll wonder why so many people who look like you continue to go overlooked when a former governor gets convicted and sentenced.  You’ll wonder who will tell those stories.  You’ll question who will raise their faces and those of their families.  And then you’ll see those fingers gripping those bars on that glossy black book jacket.  And you’ll smile and you just may write a post or an email to somebody and mention a scholar and activist and teacher named Michelle Alexander.

Visit Michelle Alexander’s website here to learn about her book.