The U.S. justice system has evolved into an authoritative regime designed to oppress communities of color, much like the Jim Crow laws of the 19th and 20th centuries, civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander argued in an impassioned address at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Alexander, the author of the 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, holds appointments at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.
She cited a wealth of statistics and anecdotal evidence demonstrating that the mass incarceration of young black men has devastating social consequences before, during and long after any individual spends time behind bars.
"We have created a vast new system of social control and oppression," Alexander said, "shuttling students from underfunded schools to new, technologically advanced prisons."
Even after a person serves time -- or, worse yet, is released on a plea deal but still carries a felony charge on his record -- a wide swath of civil life is made unavailable to him, she said. Felons are unable to vote, cannot qualify for subsidized housing or food programs, and face obstacles to finding a job.
These restrictions have taken the racial discrimination that used to be overtly directed at people of color and aimed it at a new, permanent "undercaste" of criminals -- an overwhelming proportion of which are young black and Latino men, Alexander argued.
"As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights and hardly any more respect than you would have had as a black man living in Alabama at the height of the Jim Crow era," she said.
Using the killing of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman as an example, Alexander said that mistreatment and abuse of young black and Latino men has become institutionalized in law enforcement. "If George Zimmerman had a badge, [the general public] wouldn't have known Trayvon's name," she said.
"It's a crime for a private person to commit aggravated battery against another person, but when a law enforcement officer does it, it's called 'stop and frisk,'" she added.
To make matters worse, recent judicial rulings have made it more difficult for advocacy groups and civil rights attorneys to bring charges of racial profiling against law enforcement agencies. "The U.S. Supreme Court has closed the courthouse door" to people who want to change this system, Alexander said.
What options are left to effect change? Alexander argued for increased spending on education and enhanced efforts to reduce joblessness in low-income communities, and called for the cessation of the War on Drugs. The challenges to social justice are huge, she warned, since for-profit prison companies and tough-on-crime legislators have poured investments into the current criminal justice system.
"Nothing short of a major social movement," will help address the lasting consequences faced by people of color, Alexander said.
The lecture was part of UCLA Luskin's Social Welfare Speaker Series, which brings scholars from around the world to UCLA for discourse and discussion.