Detroit audience hears of new racial caste system


DETROIT — You might think that last month’s presidential election proved there are no longer racial barriers to success in America. A majority of voters have now elected and re-elected a black nominee as President.

But last weekend, author Michelle Alexander came to Detroit and told a spellbound audience that while she once shared that illusion, the happy image is anything but true.

Instead, in a powerful speech and a best-selling book, she argued that America has created a new “racial caste system that is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow.”

A law professor at Ohio State University, Ms. Alexander told a posh banquet at Detroit’s Renaissance Center that we’ve created a military-industrial-prison system “based on the mass incarceration of poor people of color, particularly black men.”

Her theory — which she said she contemptuously rejected a decade ago — is that “we haven’t ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it.”

Today, as she sees it, “poor folks of color are shuttled from rundown and underfunded schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons — and then out to life as a permanent undercaste.”

Permanent, because in many states (though not Michigan) felons can be forever denied the right to vote. She said they can also be “automatically excluded from juries and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits.”

Even if legal barriers don’t exist, the chance of a poorly educated black man with a criminal record succeeding in life is abysmally low. Nor are we talking about a small number of people.

“In many large cities, including Detroit, the majority of working age African-American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives,” she said.

“This is reality,” she added, “and nobody, not in Congress, not President Barack Obama, is talking about this.”

But she is. Last year, Ms. Alexander started a ferocious debate with her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Edition after edition sold out. On Dec. 2, Ms. Alexander was the keynote speaker at the annual Peace and Justice banquet sponsored by Detroit’s Central United Methodist Church.

Most big cities have a church whose religion is mainly social activism. In Detroit, Central United, led by the legendary Rev. Ed Rowe, has long been that place. For eight years, the church has held a major annual event designed to raise money and awareness.

The crowd, heavy on activists and labor leaders, sometimes can be boisterous. But this year, when the law professor spoke, you could have heard a pin drop.

Among those listening raptly was a middle-aged black woman dressed in blue. “I am here for my son,” Sybrina Fulton told me. “His name was Trayvon Martin.”

Trayvon became a national figure after the unarmed black teenager was shot to death in Florida last February. His alleged assailant, who goes on trial for murder in June, wasn’t arrested and charged until after the case generated national publicity.

That’s something that the author of The New Jim Crow found anything but surprising.

Though she is black, Ms. Alexander has spent her life far removed from the world of the permanent underclass.

She grew up in the middle class, the daughter of an Oregon marketing executive. Ms. Alexander has degrees from Vanderbilt and Stanford universities, and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun before she became a plaintiff’s attorney and then a law professor. She looks far younger than her 45 years.

Originally, she thought that while there were built-in racial biases in the system, it was possible for anyone to succeed. But gradually, while working with an American Civil Liberties Union racial justice project, she came to believe that the “war on drugs” was a successful attempt to impose a new system of “well-disguised, racialized social control” to keep people oppressed.

She saw this up close in the frustrated lives of those she represented. But what brought it home vividly was the night President Obama was elected in 2008.

“When I walked out of the election night party full of hope and excitement, I was immediately reminded of the harsh realities of the New Jim Crow,” she said.

“A black man was on his knees in the gutter, hands cuffed behind his back, as several police officers stood around him talking, joking, and ignoring his human existence,” she said.

That led to her writing a first book that stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for months. Now, she says, the only hope lies in building a new civil rights movement as powerful as the old one, dedicated to “education, not incarceration.”

Her theory is not without controversy, even in the black community. Among those who disagree is Carter Stewart, the U.S. Attorney for the southern district of Ohio. He also is Ms. Alexander’s husband.

But there were few dissenters Sunday in Detroit. When she finished speaking, U.S. Rep. John Conyers said: “Wow … she blew me away.”

Asked whether he thought what she said was true, Mr. Conyers, who has represented Detroit in Congress since 1965, said: “Of course it is. How do you think things got this way? What do you think has been going on all these years?”

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: