Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” was supposed to discuss her book last Wednesday evening in the large central room of the Experimental Station, but the heating went out. So instead, about a hundred of us packed tightly into a small, multi-purpose room next door, filling even the kitchen at the back of the space, piling our coats together on refrigerators and over each other’s seats.
Sitting on a small stage in the Experimental Station across from Chicago Public Radio host Steve Edwards, Michelle Alexander described the systematic discrimination against racial minorities by the United States’ criminal justice system. Author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Alexander explained that the supposedly colorblind narcotics laws that came out of the War on Drugs specifically target people of color, especially young black men. This has led to mass incarceration of minorities, many of whom are stripped of their legal rights upon release. In the ’70s, before drug legislation was implemented, there were around 300,000 people incarcerated in America. Now there are over two million people in American prisons, Alexander said, and it’s not an accident that most of them are black.
What if, Alexander asked us to consider, the police treated drug use in college fraternities like they do in poor minority communities? What if they entered parties, lawfully seized the personal property of the offenders, sent 18-year-old University of Chicago students to jail for years, and stripped them of legal rights when they got out? A murmur rose up among us.
This discrimination is real, said Alexander, but it is not simple to explain. There are more black officers on police forces now than ever before, she pointed out to us, and there are more black men in prison now than ever before. She told us that she herself, an African-American civil rights lawyer born a generation after Jim Crow was dismantled, still finds her perceptions colored by racial biases.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say over and over again in his speeches that racial caste systems are supported more by racial indifference than racial hostility,” Alexander reminded us. “The same thing can be said about mass incarceration. We don’t care enough as a nation about black and brown youth, and if we did, the system of mass incarceration would not exist.”
When the discussion ended, many listeners lingered. We passed out fliers, we exchanged numbers, we filled the space with conversation. We left that small crowded room slowly, because we felt connected, and we did not want to be indifferent.
Clare Feinberg contributed reporting to this article.