Michelle Alexander: “A System of Racial and Social Control”


The long list you gave me there of obstacles to reform felt insurmountable as you were going through them. What can be done? What is being done other than this tinkering, as you say, to move things in a more just direction?

Despite the extraordinary obstacles, I remain hopeful and optimistic that a movement against mass incarceration is being born in the United States. It exists in communities large and small. Nationwide, young people are organizing against mass incarceration on campuses. Formerly incarcerated people are organizing a movement to abolish all the forms of discrimination against them, voting and housing and employment, access to public benefits.
There is a movement for major drug policy reform as well as a movement for restorative justice, to shift away from a purely punitive approach to dealing with violent offenders to a more restorative one that takes seriously interests of the victim, the offender and the community as a whole.
So there is a movement being born, and while the obstacles are great, I have to remember that there was a time when it seemed that slavery would never die. There was a time when people said segregation forever, Jim Crow will never die, and the Jim Crow system was so deeply rooted in our social and economic and political structure and all aspects of social, political and public life, it seemed impossible to imagine that it could ever fade away.
And yet the movement was born. People who recognized the gap between what we were doing, who we are, and who we wanted to be as a nation and were willing to fight for it, to make sacrifices for it, to organize for it, to speak up and to speak out even more than when it was unpopular, that kind of movement is being born again.

So I’m hopeful that as people begin to learn the truth about what is happening, and as the curtain is pulled back, that we will learn to care more about the folks in and beyond and commit ourselves to doing the hard work that is necessary to end mass incarceration and to ensure that no system like this is ever born again in the United States. …

… Talk to me about youth detention and how that affects life chances and the chances of being incarcerated later in life as well.

In communities where there are very high rates of mass incarceration, communities that have been hit hardest by the system of mass incarceration, the system operates practically from cradle to grave.

When you’re born, your parent has likely already spent time behind bars, maybe behind bars at the time you make your entrance into the world. And at a very young age, you find that you are going to be viewed as suspicious and treated like a criminal.

No matter who you are, what you’ve done, you’ll find that you’re the target of law enforcement suspicion at an early age. You’re likely to attend schools that have zero-tolerance policies, perhaps where police officers patrol the halls rather than security guards, where disputes with teachers are treated as criminal infractions, where a schoolyard fight results in your first arrest rather than a meeting with the principal and your parents.

You find that a very young age, even the smallest infractions are treated as criminal. You’re criminalized at a young age, and you learn to expect that that’s your destiny. You, one way or another, are going to jail.

When we think of criminals, we typically think of the worst kind of rapists or ax murderers or serial killers, or we conjure the grossest caricature of what a criminal is and think that is who’s behind bars, that is who’s filling our prisons and jails, when the reality is that most people’s introduction to the criminal justice system when they live in these ghetto communities is for something very small, something minor.
Maybe they were stopped and searched and caught with something like weed in their pocket. Maybe they got into a fight at school, and instead of having a meeting with a counselor, having intervention with a school psychologist, having parental and community support, instead of all that, you got sent to a detention camp. Suddenly you’re treated like a criminal, like you’re worth nothing. You’re no good and will never be anything but a criminal, and that’s where it begins.

Then we feign surprise that these young people then wind up very often with serious problems, emotional problems, act out in violent ways. We act surprised, and yet what have we done? What messages have we sent? How have we treated them? What forms of violence have actually been perpetrated by us, the state, the government, us collectively, upon them?

I think we ought to spend a lot more time thinking about how young people are criminalized at early ages rather than just imagining that a life of crime is somehow freely chosen. Many young people find they are criminalized long before they ever are able to make choices about who they want to be in our society.

… What effect does locking up so many people from one concentrated neighborhood have on that neighborhood?

Locking up extraordinary numbers of people from a single neighborhood means that the young people in those neighborhoods imagine that incarceration is their destiny. They have no reason to believe otherwise. All evidence suggests that that is in fact their fate.

It also means that in these communities, the economic structures have been torn apart. There are very few people who are able to work because they’ve been branded criminals and felons.

The economic base in those communities is virtually nonexistent. Jobs are often nonexistent in these communities. Housing is often difficult to come by or tenuous. People find themselves rotating from home to home, sleeping on couches or trying to find places to stay because they can’t get access to basic housing. Getting access to education or public benefits is very difficult.
When this happens on a large scale, when most people in the community are struggling in precisely this way, the social networks are destroyed. And it is a virtual statistical inevitability that if you’re raised in that community, you too will someday serve time behind bars.

Why is there so much drug abuse in Beecher Terrace?

Drug abuse and drug addiction is not unique to poor communities of color. It is like this everywhere in America, but how we respond to drug abuse and drug addiction in poor communities of color is radically different than how we respond to it in more privileged communities.

If you’re middle class, upper-middle class, living in the suburbs, and your son or daughter becomes dependent on drugs, experimenting with drugs, the first thing you do is not call the police. The first thing you do is figure out, how can I get my child some help?

If you’re a schoolteacher working in a suburban school, and you come to discover that a child in your school may be struggling with drugs or have a drug abuse problem, the most likely response is not to call the police. The most likely response is to get them help.

And in fact, if you’re struggling with depression in a middle-class, upper-middle-class community, you can get prescription drugs, lots of them, lots of legal drugs to deal with your depression, your angst, your anxiety.
But in ghetto communities, where there is more than enough reason to be depressed and anxious, you don’t have that option of having lots of hours in therapy to work through your issues, to get prescribed lots of legal drugs to help you cope with your grief, your anxiety.

No, people in these communities have little choice but to self-medicate, and when they do, when they decide to turn to marijuana or turn to cocaine or turn to some type of substance we’ve designed, we’ve decided is prohibited, is off-limits, then rather than responding to these people with drug treatment and say[ing], “How can we help you cope with your crisis and help you through this period of time and help you deal with your drug addiction?,” instead we say: “Oh, the answer for you is a cage. We’re going to put you in a cage, lock you in a literal cage, treat you like an animal, and when you’re released, we’re going to make it almost impossible for you to find work or housing or care for your children.” That’s our answer to drug abuse and drug addiction in these communities.

If we really cared about people who lived there, would that be our answer? I think not. I think the way in which we respond to drug abuse and drug addiction in these communities speaks volumes about the extent to which these are people we truly care about.  


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