On May 6th, the Lawyers’ Committee proudly hosted author Michele Alexander* for a discussion of her recently published book, The New Jim Crow. This important work argues persuasively that, even as the nation celebrates signs of progress, including the election of Barack Obama, a racial caste system” persists in America. She emphasizes that this is most apparent in the discriminatory nature of our criminal justice complex, and outlines in devastating detail the policies of mass incarceration that functions as a de facto “contemporary system of racial control”.
The statistics are shocking. There are more African Americans under correctional control today, in prison, on probation, or paroled, there were enslaved prior to Emancipation. As of 2004, more black men were disenfranchised than in 1870 (a situation the Committee finds so unacceptable that we =have mounted a sustained and vigorous felon re-enfranchisement advocacy and litigation effort). In many American cities, more than 50 percent of black men have criminal records, and are subject to institutionalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. Not only can they be legally excluded from voting, but also denied housing, education and employment benefits and opportunities. Even after they have served their sentences, these men are, in effect, perpetually imprisoned by laws and policies that classify them as second class citizens.
The Lawyers’ Committee is committed to fighting this racial caste system by attacking the barriers to equal access to education and employment opportunities. For example, we will advocate strongly in the coming months that strong civil rights protections must be included in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that Congress is currently debating. In addition, we recently filed two important suits. In the first, E. Johnson et al v. Locke, we are seeking to eliminate the improper use by the Census of arrest records to screen job applicants. In the second, we represent a client whose offer of employment was withdrawn based on a prior conviction, despite the fact that he was well qualified and in fact had successfully performed the responsibilities of the position as a consultant for more than a year. These cases have generated significant media attention, including these New York Times editorials that appeared in the same week: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/21/opinion/21wed2.html?scp=1&sq=We%20Can’t%20tell%20you%; http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/22/opinion/22thu3.html.
The days of poll taxes and literacy tests, of Whites Only and Blacks Need Not Apply signs may be over, but the struggle continues.
*A longtime civil rights advocate and litigator, Michelle Alexander was a 2005 Soros Justice Fellow. She holds a joint appointment at the Moritz College of Law and the Kriwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in Columbus, Ohio where she lives. The New Jim Crow is her first book.