I just returned from hearing Michelle Alexander, Associate Professor of Law at Ohio State, giving the Cleaver Lecture in Kansas City, on the topic of her book "The New Jim Crow". She points to the massive increase in incarceration over the last 30 years, with the quintupling of the prison population, 80% of whom are in for drug possession. She notes that this is a purposeful strategy pursued after the civil rights movement to create and maintain an "under-caste", where black men are more likely to be in the corrections system than in college; where in some cities and communities 80% of black men have a record. And felony records, often acquired before voting age, may prevent them from ever voting or even getting a job.
During the Jim Crow era, laws in the South institutionalized legal racism. The poor and working class white people, living in states that were often low-wage and non-union, could at least feel that they were superior to blacks. After the successes of the civil rights movement eliminated legal segregation, politicians seeking to mobilize the resentment of those same whites developed a "law and order" program, focused on the "War on Drugs" and targeted at people of color. Crime rates have gone up and down, but incarceration rates have only gone up. Drug use and sales are not significantly higher in minority communities, but arrests are. Felony convictions have decimated communities, and "kept them under control". One of my friends and colleagues notes that "If you're Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan, you can get away with virtually anything. If you're black or Latino, you get 5 to 10 years!" Indeed, you don't have to be Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan; if you are the right color and live on the right side of town, you can still go to college; if not, you probably will never get a job.
I would also like to congratulate the winners of the 2013 Matthew Freeman Social Justice Award, Nathan Lustig and Bailey Swinney. Lustig, 22, a psychology major, Chicago resident and native of White Plains, N.Y., was selected for the award based on his commitment and engagement as an activist and organizer both on campus and in the community.