Michelle Alexander is an associate professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. This article was adapted from a speech delivered at Constitution Day, an event hosted by the Constitution Project and the Georgetown Center on National Security and the Law on Sept. 17, 2010. Copyright (c) 2010 by Michelle Alexander, reprinted here with permission.
Inmates at the Sierra Conservation Center, in Jamestown, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
The first time I encountered the idea that our criminal-justice system functions much like a racial caste system, I dismissed the notion. It was more than 10 years ago in Oakland when I was rushing to catch the bus and spotted a bright orange sign stapled to a telephone pole. It screamed in large, bold print: "The Drug War is the New Jim Crow." I scanned the text of the flyer and then muttered something like, "Yeah, the criminal-justice system is racist in many ways, but making such an absurd comparison doesn't help. People will just think you're crazy." I then hopped on the bus and headed to my new job as director of the Racial Justice Project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.