Litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, argues that we have not ended racial caste in America, we have simply redesigned it.
Her provocative new book challenges the civil rights community—and all of us—to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America. As the United States celebrates the nation’s triumph over race with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are either locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life.
According to Alexander, a major point that is often lost in debates about the so-called underclass – poor African Americans who are trapped in racially segregated ghettos – is that a huge percentage of them have been branded felons.
These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — a group of people who are permanently relegated, by law, to an inferior second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits.
Employment discrimination is particularly problematic for ex-felons. Today, more than 90% of all businesses routinely conduct background checks before interviewing an applicant. If you have a felony on your record you can almost rest assure you will not be called in for an interview.
If you are one of the lucky few who manages to get a job, up to 100 percent of your wages may be garnished to pay the cost of your imprisonment. Increasing numbers of states are requiring former prisoners to pay back the cost of their imprisonment, pay back court costs, court processing fees, even the cost of their representation, even if they’ve been assigned a public defender. Felons are also required to pay back all of the accumulated child support that they have incurred while they were in prison.
“What is the system designed to do?”, asks Alexander. “The system is designed to send you right back to prison, which is, in fact, what happens to the vast majority of people who are released.”
It is Alexander’s view that the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary means of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness.
Through a web of laws, regulations, and informal rules, all of which are powerfully reinforced by social stigma, black ex-felons are confined to the margins of mainstream society and denied access to the mainstream economy. They are legally denied the rights of ordinary citizens–much as African Americans were once forced into a segregated, second-class citizenship during the Jim Crow era.