Michelle Alexander at The Riverside Church
With the staggering numbers and statistics, you would think the problems and injustices surrounding the American prison system would be clear, and outrage would be widespread. And yet, to this point, that’s not the case. Momentum is slowly growing, but the vast majority of Americans don’t know it’s an issue. I, for the most part, have been one of them, until I started working with Fellowship magazine on its upcoming issue on prison abolition and, last Saturday, went to hear Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow , speak at The Riverside Church in New York.
Alexander diagnosed the core of the problem of motivating a movement by making an example of herself. She related the story of a time when, while doing research, she was confronted by a convicted felon who had gathered detailed reports of racial profiling in his neighborhood. Alexander, thinking strategically, dismissed the possibility of using his testimony because of his felony, to which he responded, “You’re as bad as the police!” The point of the story is that the problem isn’t one of evidence or even strategy, but rather getting beyond the now internalized stigmatization of those labeled “criminals” or “felons.” Viewing former prisoners as human rather than as social-pariahs is the most basic, but perhaps most challenging step in confronting the problem of racism and injustice in our prison system.
Alexander, Associate Professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, is known for her stirring talks and presentations concerning imbalances and racism found in our prison system. The New Jim Crow has resulted in a surge of interest into the problem generally, and the element of race in particular. Nevertheless, she continues to call for a massive, mobilized, revolutionary movement in order to displace the now entrenched, big-business role of prisons in the United States.
The entire South Hall of The Riverside Church was full of supporters. Still, more needs to be said and done about this overwhelming problem. The next issue of Fellowship will be devoted to the topic of prison abolition, including a wide range of voices from many different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, as well as an extended review of The New Jim Crow. The injustice of the prison system, though racist, is not that of any single race or community. It’s a problem that will take a huge effort on the part of the entire peace and justice community to even begin to address. Important voices like those of Alexander are just the frontrunners in a movement that will have to be widespread to ever be effective as it has to be.