After reading Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, I watched an interview with Ms. Alexander and journalist Bill Moyers on his show, Moyers & Company. On its website, Moyers & Company describes itself as “a weekly series of smart talk and new ideas aimed at helping viewers make sense of our tumultuous times through the insight of America’s strongest thinkers.” The interview takes place three years after the 2010 publication of The New Jim Crow. Since her book’s publication, Alexander has worked to bring her book to life by ending the mass incarceration in America, which currently holds 25% of the world’s prisoners. During the interview (which you can find here), Moyer and Alexander brought up many interesting questions and topics that I wanted to explore further.
About six minutes into the interview, Bill Moyer states, “How do you explain this [the difficult life that released prisoners face], given the fact that this is a society that celebrates second chances, for politicians in particular, a society that is built around the theme of renewal, born again and yet doesn’t extend that same act of forgiveness to people who have paid for their sins.” Alexander quickly responds with the statement, “Well, we say we’re a society that supports second chances. But in reality, we’re not.”
I found Moyer’s assertion to be extremely intriguing because, in my opinion, I agree with Alexander. I think American society is more willing to crucify someone—even white elites—than give him or her a second chance. Media outlets hunt for any scandal that can ruin a reputation. Campaigns attack their opponent’s character, past actions, and ideas in order to convince American society that this opponent shouldn’t be trusted. I am even reminded of high school where rumors can brand a teenager throughout their four years as “weird.” Yet, I ask three questions. First, do you think we are a culture that gives second chances? Second, what do you think defines a second chance? I think of Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods whose reputations were ruined by their womanizing ways. Yet, their elite status remains intact. Third, as scholar Ian Haney López points out, we are a culture permeated with white privilege that whites refuse to give up. Thus, do you think whites are granted second chances more than blacks?
Bill Moyer also asks how mandatory minimum sentences have contributed to the mass incarceration rate that results from the War on Drugs. Alexander answers, “Well, mandatory minimum sentences ensures that you will get the harshest possible sentence under law. The mandatory minimum sentence. And so it shifts the power to the prosecutor so the prosecutor can then say to you, ‘Well you take this plea or else you’re going to get this harsh minimum sentence.” Once again, we see how Robert Cover’s article, “Violence and the Word,” comes to life. Alexander highlights a prime example of legitimized violence here. Her explanation parallels Cover’s idea about a shared reality; the prosecutor destroys the accused’s reality until they live in a newly fashioned one that he or she has created. The power dynamic has shifted in the prosecutor’s favor, but his violence against the accused is legitimized by the legal system. Do you also think the prosecutor’s actions is a type of legitimized violence?
The interview is well worth watching, and I found myself buying even more into Alexander’s argument as she expanded and explained certain points in her book. Yet, I found it most intriguing when Alexander spoke about how she came to her conclusion in her book. Alexander stated, “Right around the anniversary of the march on Washington I found myself doing a fair amount of internal reflection about my own role at this time in building the kind of movement that I would hope for social justice. And what I had to admit to myself is that for the last few years, you know, I have spent all of my working hours talking about mass incarceration and trying to raise consciousness about what has happened in this country, how we’ve managed to birth a caste-like system again. You know, that there are more African-American under correctional control today, in prison or jail, or probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850. That we’ve created this vast new system again. And to try to raise consciousness so that people would wake up to this reality. And I realize that as well intentioned as all that work was it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking. That I wasn’t connecting the dots between other kinds of social injustices that are occurring here in the United States and abroad to the work that I was committed to and the cause that I had been committed to over the years.”
I find her explanation so intriguing because what if we had more people reflect as Alexander did and realize the scope of their narrow thinking? She is one person who (1) realized that she had narrow thinking, (2) realize that the racial problem needs to be seen as a social injustice problem instead, and (3) did something about it by writing her book and speaking out. Thus, as I write this final blog, I can’t help but ask this simple but broad question: Can’t we change the world one reflection at a time?