By Sean Barron
When several civil-rights laws were passed in the 1960s ending overt forms of discrimination, many blacks exercised numerous rights denied them, and have continued to make economic, social and political strides.
So, the days of Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation and discrimination mainly against blacks are gone, right? Wrong, a civil-rights lawyer and author says.
“Many of us were asleep when a vast new system of racial control has emerged,” Atty. Michelle Alexander told a crowd of nearly 200 who attended her lecture at New Bethel Baptist Church, 1507 Hillman St., on the city’s South Side. “Today, something akin to a caste system is alive in America.”
Alexander’s presentation focused largely on her new book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
Alexander’s lecture, part of Youngstown State University’s Community Diversity Program series, focused on what she sees as racial discrimination in the country’s criminal-justice system, the so-called war on drugs and get-tough approaches to fighting crime.
Most people probably agree it’s no longer socially acceptable to use race to justify discrimination. Nevertheless, it’s still legal to discriminate against those who have been incarcerated with respect to housing, employment, the right to vote and educational opportunities — much as it was to deny rights to many Southern blacks under Jim Crow, she contends.
“We have not ended a racial caste system in America; we have merely redesigned it,” Alexander added.
The author said it’s a myth to assume mass incarceration, especially of black men, is driven by crime rates. During the last 30 years, violent crime has fluctuated while the number of people sent to prison has dramatically increased, she explained.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared a renewed war on drugs, yet the crack epidemic hadn’t yet started and few people cited drugs as a major problem in the U.S., Alexander noted, adding that his decision was “driven by racial politics,” which led to draconian sentences mainly against a growing number of minor black offenders.
President Bill Clinton escalated the drug war, leading to further jumps in incarceration rates, especially among blacks, many of whom upon release suffered institutionalized discrimination, shame and stigmatization, Alexander explained.