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Michelle Alexander on Bill Moyers: Locked Out of the American Dream

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Michelle Alexander. (Photo: Moyers & Company)Michelle Alexander. (Photo: Moyers & Company)Can you help sustain our work in 2014? Click here to make a tax-deductible contribution to Truthout!

After civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander published her book The New Jim Crow in 2010 on our dehumanizing system of incarceration, she ignited a national conversation about justice in America and sparked a movement. In her book, Alexander explores how the war on drugs, “get-tough” sentencing policies and racism has created a caste system similar to that of our segregationist past.

Since then, Alexander has traveled the country to meet advocates and everyday Americans working to end mass incarceration in America — home to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, despite representing only five percent of the world’s population.

She tells Bill that she has seen a grassroots movement brewing in communities across the country, “There are enormous victories that are being achieved precisely because the people whom we have written off and viewed as disposable are reclaiming their voice, standing up, speaking out, organizing even as they struggle to survive.”


BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Last month in Sydney, Australia, they threw an annual event called the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. One of the main speakers was David Simon, the writer and producer who created “The Wire” and “Treme,” two television series that vividly portray the vast gap between rich and poor. Nothing drives that great divide home, he said, like our prison system.

DAVID SIMON: You’re seeing the underclass hunted through a war on dangerous drugs allegedly that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, at this point. In terms of just the sheer numbers of people we’ve put in American prisons […] No other country on the face of the earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

BILL MOYERS: He’s right, of course. During the past 30 years, the number of inmates in federal custody has grown by 800 percent, and half of them are serving sentences for drug offenses. According to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group dedicated to changing how we think about crime and punishment, “more than 60 percent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities.” This book woke people up. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. She was my guest more than three years ago when the book was first published.

An outstanding work of scholarship on how our war on drugs, our harsh mandatory minimum sentencing, and racism have converged to create a caste system in this country very much like the one under Jim Crow segregation laws. None of us at the time anticipated the powerful impact her book would have.

It became a best-seller, spurred an even wider conversation about justice and inequality, and transformed Michelle Alexander from attorney and professor to an activist and advocate for an end to our dehumanizing penal system.

Michelle Alexander, welcome.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

BILL MOYERS: When the book came out one reviewer called it the bible of a social movement. Have you seen the apostles and the disciples and the church spreading? Have you seen the signs of a movement?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. And it has me so encouraged. As I travel from city to city, and I’ve been speaking in churches and at universities, I’ve been speaking inside prisons and reentry centers, just an incredible range of venues, I see over and over again people who are dedicating their lives now to ending the system of mass incarceration, to raising consciousness. People of faith who are organizing their church communities, organizing within mosques, holding study circles, holding film festivals and then organizing and mobilizing their memberships. Or their congregations.

I’m especially encouraged by formerly incarcerated people who are finding their voice and organizing to man the restoration of their basic civil and human rights. Organizations like All of Us or None which has successfully, you know, achieve Ban the Box legislation.

BILL MOYERS: Ban the Box?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Ban the Box on employment applications, the, you know, box on employment applications that asks that dreaded question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” And of course it doesn’t matter whether you’ve been convicted of a felony a few weeks ago or 40 years ago, for the rest of your life, you’re labeled a felon and then subject to legal discrimination, for the rest of your life.

BILL MOYERS: What do those ex-felons, what have they been telling you about what it’s like to come out and try to get back into the society to which they have paid for their sins?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I think it’s just an extraordinary challenge. And I think most people have this sense that when you’re released from prison, well, yeah, life is hard. But if you really dedicate yourself, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you know, knock on enough doors, you’ll get that job, you’ll get your life back together. It may be hard but if you really try, you can do it.

But what I’ve learned, you know, over the years from working with many formerly incarcerated people, and forming close friendships with many people who have been released from prison, is that it’s not just hard, it’s often impossible. You’re released from prison, often with, you know, maybe $20 in your pocket. Have nowhere to sleep.

You try to return home, maybe to your family who lives in public housing. Your family risks eviction in many places if they just even allow you to come home. Felons can be excluded from public housing. Whole families can risk eviction if they allow people with felonies to come home to them.

Trying to get a job can be next to impossible. You know, people say, “Well, they could get a job at, you know, Burger King or some, you know, minimum wage job.” No actually, you know, many low-wage jobs are, for all practical purposes, off-limits to people who have felonies. Hundreds of professional licenses are off-limits to people who have felonies.

In my state in Ohio, until just recently, you couldn’t even get a license to be a barber if you’d been convicted of a felony. Food stamps may be off-limits to you if you’ve been convicted of a drug felony. You know, what are people released from prison expected to do? Apparently what we expect them to do is to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs, accumulative back child support, which continues to accrue while you’re in prison.

And in a growing number of states you’re actually expected to pay back the cost of your imprisonment. And paying back all these fees, fines and court costs may be a condition of your probation or parole. And then if you’re one of the lucky few, the very few who even manages to get a job straight out of prison, up to 100 percent of your wages can be garnished to pay back all those fees, fines, court costs.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain this, given the fact that this is a society that celebrates second chances, for politicians in particular, a society that is built around the theme of renewal, born again and yet, doesn’t extend that same act of forgiveness to people who have paid for their sins.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, we say we’re a society that supports second chances. But in reality, we’re not. And I think the reason— to fully understand what’s happened in this country, with respect to mass incarceration, you have to look back at least 40 years to the law and order movement that was born in the midst of the Civil Rights movement.

You know, when Civil Rights advocates were beginning to violate segregation laws and sit-in at lunch counters and desegregate trains and busses violating what they believed were unjust laws— segregationists said, you know, “This is leading to the breakdown of the respect for law. We need law and order in this country.” And the call for law and order was in direct response to the Civil Rights movement and the non-violent, civil disobedience the protesters were engaged in.

But this law and order movement began to take on a life of its own as crime rates began to rise in urban areas and some politicians began to say, you know, “This rise in crime is a symptom of this attitude of lawlessness that is spreading through the nation. We need to get tough. We need to crack down. We need law and order.”

And as I’ve documented at great lengths in the book, and many other political scientists and historians have as well, the get tough movement and the war on drugs really is traceable to a backlash against the gains of African-Americans in the Civil Rights movement and a radical shift in mentality that occurred where as a nation we ended the war on poverty and declared the war on drugs. A wave of punitiveness really swept the nation on the heels of the Civil Rights movement. And this attitude— has infected not only our criminal justice system but our education system that now has a zero tolerance policy for school discipline infractions. And has led to this prison building boom unlike anything the world has ever seen.

BILL MOYERS: How have mandatory minimum sentences contributed to that?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, mandatory minimum sentences ensures that you will get the harshest possible sentence under law. The mandatory minimum sentence. And so it shifts power to the prosecutor so the prosecutors can then say to you, “Well, you take this plea or else you’re going to get this harsh mandatory minimum sentence.” And it gives prosecutors the power to, you know, encourage plea deals, you know, in a federal system. I think 97 to 98 percent of all, you know, charged cases result in a plea, not a trial because people are terrified of facing these harsh mandatory minimum sentences. And it ensures that it’s up to the prosecutor, not the judge, you know, what kind of sentence you receive. And mandatory minimum sentences has a lot to do with the exponential increase in our prison population in the United States.

And today, you know, even in this era of Obama, in this time of supposed-color blindness, we now have created a system of mass incarceration, a penal system unprecedented in world history. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of even highly-repressive regimes like Russia or China or Iran. And the majority of the increase in incarceration in the United States have been among impoverished people of color who, once they’re swept into the system, are then stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights movement. And yet, the topic of mass incarceration has been one, you know, that has been rarely raised.

BILL MOYERS: Is there research that confirms that the backlash is against black criminals or against criminals, just crime?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, there is. There’s an enormous amount of research that suggests that the backlash and the punitive impulse was not simply in response to crime but was much more deeply connected to racial attitudes, racial fears and anxieties. And in fact, you know, the political strategist who conceived of the get tough movement and the war on drugs quite deliberately used not so subtle racial appeals and racial code language with the purpose of trying to exploit both conscious and unconscious racial biases and stereotypes for political gain. The Southern strategy.

BILL MOYERS: By which Richard Nixon was elected president.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, yes. The basis of the Southern strategy was using these kind of racially coded get tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working class whites particularly in the South who were anxious about, threatened by, resentful of many of the gains of African-Americans in the Civil Rights movement.

And to be fair, I think we have got to acknowledge that poor and working class whites really had their world rocked by the Civil Rights movement. You know, wealthy whites could send their kids to private schools, give their kids all of the advantages that wealth has to offer. But poor and working class whites in the South, many of whom were themselves struggling for survival, who are desperately poor, often illiterate. They were the ones who might have to ship their kids across town to go to a school they believed were inferior. It was they who were suddenly forced to compete on equal times for limited jobs with this whole group of people they’ve been taught their whole lives to believe were inferior to them. And this state of affairs did create an enormous amount of fear, resentment and anxiety and an enormous political opportunity.

BILL MOYERS: What about now? How do you see that playing out?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I see it most obviously in the immigration debate. Today we see that this fear of immigrants coming across the border to take jobs and to take educational resources and who are going to drain the tax base of your county. These fears that they are coming to take from you is leading and has led to another for get tough movement. Get tough on them, those immigrants who have violated the law by crossing over. And this wave of punitiveness now directed towards immigrants is leading to the same kind of indifference towards their basic humanity that we have seen in the war on drugs and the get tough movement that led to the rise of mass incarceration. I mean, race has been used as a wedge again and again throughout American history to divide the lower classes, if you will. And to create an environment in which poor and working class people are pit against one another.

But that does not mean that, you know, all or even most poor or working class white folks are harboring any conscious racial resentments. I know that there are those folks out there, for sure. But I think much of it lies in the unconscious, stereotypes and fears and biases that we all have within us that get exploited in these moments where groups are scapegoated and fears are stoked, resulting in, you know, the emergence of these new systems. I mean, we are having mass deportation today at the same time as we are having mass incarceration.

BILL MOYERS: Mass deportation, I must say, by a black president.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely. It’s one of the great ironies. Just as it’s, you know, an irony that the greatest escalation of the drug war was under President Clinton who, you know, many African-Americans called our first black president.

BILL MOYERS: I remember that.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And it was President Clinton, you know, a Democrat, who escalated the drug war far beyond what President Reagan or President Nixon had even dreamed possible. And it was the Clinton administration that championed laws banning drug offenders even from federal financial aid for schooling upon their release. Banning drug offenders and people with criminal convictions from, you know, public housing. You know, to a large extent many of the rules, laws, policies and practices that now constitute this caste-like system were championed by a Democratic president administration desperate to win back those so-called white swing voters. The folks who had defected from the Democratic party in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.

BILL MOYERS: I was going to ask you what do you think is the dynamic that drove Clinton and now drives Obama? Is it to satisfy the base they think most hostile to them?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I think so. And, you know, what I find most unfortunate though, of the politics that have developed over the years, the politics of trying to appease, you know, poor and working class whites not by building explicitly multiracial, multi-ethnic, you know, coalitions and alliances that encourage solidarity across racial and class lines. But instead by kind of tossing these symbolic bones, you know, saying, “Well, we’re escalating the drug war. We’re getting tough on them. Don’t you feel better now? We’re willing to get tough by deporting even more immigrants than ever have been deported before. Don’t you feel better now?”

We fall into the trap of really playing to people’s, you know, baser fears and instincts rather than risking perhaps some short-term losses, but building the kind of unity and the kind of solidarity across race and class lines which I believe would help to ensure a much more stable foundation for the kind of multi-racial, multi-ethnic, inclusive democracy that I would hope for. Which is why my great hope does not lie with President Obama or our elected politicians no matter how well-meaning or well-intentioned they may be.

BILL MOYERS: You have talked recently in a way different from how you were talking three and a half years ago. You’ve been talking about moving out of your own lane. What are you suggesting?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yeah, well, you know, right around the anniversary of the march on Washington I found myself doing a fair amount of internal reflection about my own role at this time in building the kind of movement that I would hope for, for social justice.

And what I had to admit to myself is that for the last few years, you know, I have spent all of my working hours talking about mass incarceration and trying to raise consciousness about what has happened in this country, how we’ve managed to birth a caste-like system again. You know, that there are more African-Americans under correctional control today, in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850.

That we’ve created this vast new system again. And to try to raise consciousness so that people would wake up to this reality. And I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking.

That I wasn’t connecting the dots between other kinds of social injustices that are occurring here in the United States and abroad to the work that I was committed to and the cause that I had been committed to over the years.

BILL MOYERS: It was a larger breakdown of democracy that affected more people than African-Americans in prison or immigrants being deported. You’re saying that the system has broken down.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely. The entire system has been broken down. And it’s really I think, at its root about a failure on our part to develop a moral consensus about how we treat one another. You know, for me, I have to care. If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime. If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well?

Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.

So, I think we ought to commit ourselves to building a human rights movement in this country, a human rights movement for education, not incarceration, for jobs, not jails. A movement that will end all these forms of legal discrimination against people released from prison, discrimination that denies them basic human rights to work, to shelter, to education, to food.

BILL MOYERS: You don’t think practical politics leads you where you want to go?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: No. I think that the system, as it is designed today, with the amount of money that influences who gets elected and who even has a shot of holding office in the United States today. I think that the way the system is currently designed does not allow for that kind of policy change to occur. We’re going to have to build a movement that changes the nature of politics itself, that takes money and the profound influence of money out of politics and is one that is not, you know, a win/lose, winner take all kind of system. Today we have Democrats and Republicans battling it out with people joining camps and thinking that somehow through this war demonizing the opposition we’re going to come up with solutions that genuinely benefit all. I think that’s deeply misguided. We’re going to have to become more creative about how we do democracy in the United States. But it begins I believe, with people in their communities organizing around the issues that matter most to them

BILL MOYERS: Aren’t you talking in some instances about ghettoized communities that, where unemployment is high, families are in distress, schools are falling apart and there are very few life support systems. How do they organize?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: It’s incredibly difficult. Incredibly difficult. But it’s not impossible. I’m inspired by people like Susan Burton, for example. She’s executive director of an organization in Los Angeles called A New Way of Life. And Susan is an African-American woman who became addicted to crack-cocaine after a Los Angeles Police Department Officer ran over her five-year-old boy. And if Susan, you know, had been middle class, upper-middle class, she might have had a good health care plan and might’ve been able to get good legal drugs to help her cope with her depression and her grief.

But things were different for Susan. She became addicted to crack-cocaine and spent 15 years cycling in and out of prison and jail. Every time, tossed out onto the street, unable to get work or even access to drug treatment, cycling in and out for 15 years. Finally she gets access to a private drug treatment program, becomes clean, is given a job and decides to dedicate her life to ensuring that no other woman would ever have to go through what she has gone through.

And now Susan runs five safe homes for formerly incarcerated women in Los Angeles, providing them desperately needed shelter, support, finding work, reunifying with their families. But beyond that, she is part of All of Us or None and is organizing formally incarcerated people in California and nationwide to demand the restoration of their basic civil and human rights.


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And what’s happening is phenomenal.

BILL MOYERS: So they could become full citizens again.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And with the leadership of organizations like All of Us or None, they’ve succeeded in banning the box on employment applications in the entire state of California. You know, there’re enormous victories that are being achieved precisely because the people who we have written off and viewed as disposable are reclaiming their voice, standing up, speaking out, organizing even as they struggle to survive.

And so, you know, my own view is that in building this movement we’ve got to be able to do a number of things simultaneously. We’ve got to be able and committed to building an underground railroad for people who are released from prison, people who need desperate help finding shelter and food as they try to make a break for real freedom. But we’ve also got to be willing to work for abolition at the same time. Abolition of the system of mass incarceration as a whole.

And I see people like Susan Burton and so many others miraculously managing to do these things at the same time. And so I hope that, you know, people will donate generously to these organizations which often don’t receive the level of funding from foundations they deserve and also find ways to donate their time and their energy to this work and be part of this movement in a direct way.

BILL MOYERS: Aren’t there some signs of progress on the issues that concern you?

Attorney General Eric Holder has begun to advocate for some reform of our mandatory minimum sentences. Here he is speaking to the American Bar Association. Take a listen.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, non-violent drug offenders who have no ties to large scale organizations, gangs or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences. They—

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: It’s a very encouraging sign. It suggests that at least for a small category of cases, mandatory minimum sentences will no longer be automatically sought by federal prosecutors. And it’s a positive step in the right direction.

It doesn’t go all the way. Mandatory sentences are still on the books and will still apply to thousands of people who, you know, may be dubbed as having some kind of gang-related connections and of course those kind of connections do not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

And, you know, in a number of states across the United States in recent years mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, non-violent drug crimes have been reduced. And we’ve seen for the first time in 40 years state prison populations beginning to decline. The federal prison population is still rising. And most of the people who are incarcerated in federal prisons are there due to drug offenses and immigration violations.

So we still see, you know, the federal prison population rising. But the state prison population’s beginning to decline. And that is reason for hope. But my concern is that the primary reason that legislatures have begun to ease up some of their harsh mandatory minimum sentences is not because of genuine concern for the people whose lives have been destroyed or the communities that have been decimated by the drug war. But instead these changes have been motivated largely because of the fiscal crisis.

BILL MOYERS: They can’t afford these prisons anymore

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. These states find that there’s no way to maintain these massive prison systems without raising taxes on the predominately white middle class. So they’ve been willing to downsize a bit.

BILL MOYERS: Well, take California. Former Governor Schwarzenegger said they had been investing too much in prisons and not enough in schools. But ultimately it turns out that what he was proposing wasn’t altogether downsizing. It was privatizing the prison so that the responsibility for them was transferred to for-profit corporations. And I ask you what happens when there’s a profit motive to send people to prison?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, when there’s a profit motive it ensures that more and more people will be locked up and remain locked up in order for companies to maintain their profit margins. You know, the largest prison company, private prison company in the United States, The Corrections Corporation of America, sent a letter to 48 governors basically with an offer: we will buy your state-run prisons in exchange for a promise, a guarantee, that you will keep these prisons filled at least 90 percent capacity.

You know, these kinds of agreements and incentives are not in the public interest. You know, what would be in the public interest is, you know, a commitment to reducing crime so that our prison’s empty. But instead, private prisons want a commitment from state governors that these prisons will be kept filled by any means necessary which virtually ensures a high-level of commitment by politicians to these get tough measures, mandatory sentences, war on drugs, to keep prison beds filled, so.

BILL MOYERS: In fact, Arizona, Oklahoma, Louisiana and I believe Virginia all have privatized prisons that are kept at 95 to 100 percent occupancy because they have guaranteed that occupancy to the private industry. Even if the crime rate falls.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, that’s what’s most worrisome is that they will insist and have insisted on keeping their beds full even if crime rates are relatively low. And today, you know, crime rates nationally are at historical lows. But incarceration rates are higher than they ever have been

BILL MOYERS: Well, some people argue, as you know, that the crime rate nationally is down because we’ve been locking up the people who commit the crimes.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, which has been proven to be demonstrably false. You know, if you look at the data it shows that, you know, states that have been on an incarceration binge do not necessarily have lower crime rates than states that have incarcerated people at a lower rate. There is no clear connection between incarceration rates and crime rates. And in fact, in cities like Chicago and in New Orleans, New Orleans is the incarceration capital of the world, you know, they have some of the highest violent crime rates in the country as well.

And the same can be said for Chicago. In fact, you know, a growing number of researchers and sociologists now believe that incarceration rate, high levels of incarceration, actually can be a contributor to high crime rates because you’re incarcerating such a large percentage of a community or a population, you’re ensuring that people are going to be locked out of work and locked out of housing and living, you know, in a state of desperation for the rest of their lives.

So I would hope that as we build this movement to end mass incarceration, we will not be tempted to make purely fiscal arguments about the need for reform but ensure that the way we engage in our advocacy helps to inspire much greater care, compassion and concern for the very people who have been locked up, locked out and that we have been taught to despise.

BILL MOYERS: But when you look back historically at slavery, condoned by many people who quoted the bible, when you look at what happened after the Civil War. It took the Civil War to free the slaves and then they were put back into a form of slavery with a coerced labor, forced labor.

And use of Jim Crow laws, you referred to. You look at the racial violence that extended right on through our time. Where do you get any hope that this ideal of compassion, that we can create a society, such as you describe, given our conflicted, often savage past?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I get my hope from this revolutionary idea that doesn’t seem to die in the United States. This idea that all people are created equal with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That was a revolutionary idea in the Declaration of Independence. And it was wholly incomplete. It was all men are created equal and implicitly slaves were left out, you know, poor people were left out.

BILL MOYERS: Women were left out.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Women were left out. Right. But it was a revolutionary idea then and it remains a revolutionary idea today. This idea that keeps changing and growing and expanding as our consciousness changes and grows and expands that all human beings are created equal and have certain inalienable rights, it won’t die. It didn’t die with slavery, you know, a war was necessary to end slavery. But this idea has continued to survive and it’s continued to grow. And we see now that in the United States we do believe that women are equal. We have an idea that people of all races are created equal. We are now beginning to see that depending on, regardless of your sexual orientation, you are equal.

This idea itself has not died. And so I think the worst thing we can do is to fall into a sort of cynicism where we imagine nothing can ever be done. You know, these new systems of control just keep being born. This is just part of human nature. Well, it may be part of human nature to fear one another. But there is also a part of human nature I believe that wants to see the equality, even divinity, in each other and to honor it. And that spirit remains alive in the United States today. And if we give up on it then I think we’re giving up on the dream of truly thriving equitable multiracial, multiethnic democracy.

BILL MOYERS: Michelle Alexander, thank you very much for being with me.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me.

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