Heinz Awards

A conversation with the civil rights law scholar Michelle Alexander on how to dismantle the mass incarceration crisis in the U.S.

When Michelle Alexander released her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in 2010, she had a difficult time getting anyone to pay attention to it. The U.S. was still relishing a bit in the euphoria of the possibilities of a post-racial milieu following the election of its first African-American president. Ferguson and Charleston hadn’t happened yet, and there was little public discourse about the historical legacies of debtors prisons, lynchings, and Confederate monuments. President Obama was such a shining (if blinding) symbol of how far America had come, that few had an appetite for discourse on America’s abysmal record of incarcerating African Americans.  

But then came the execution of Troy Davis in 2011—a death penalty case out of Georgia that raised significant questions about how fair the criminal justice system is for African Americans and the poor. The New Jim Crow suddenly started enjoying wider circulation, thanks to its exhaustive look at the ways in which black lives have been devastated, disenfranchised, and disappeared by the American criminal justice system. The book was re-released in 2012 and it became a certified hit, topping almost every best-seller list and winning numerous awards.

Today, one would have to go well out of their way to avoid a conversation about the racial disparities inherent to the U.S. criminal justice system. Ta-Nehisi’s Coates tremendous journalistic feat on mass incarceration builds upon Alexander’s New Jim Crow foundation. She will also be featured in an upcoming documentary from the acclaimed director Ava DuVernay, 13th, about the over-criminalization of African Americans. Alexander was just awarded the Heinz Award, a $250,000 grant given for groundbreaking work that shifts the public’s understanding of important issues. For Alexander, this sort of recognition was unforeseeable when the book was first released, in what seems like six long years ago.

Alexander recently spoke with CityLab, in advance of the Heinz Awards ceremony on October 4, about her changing path toward dismantling Jim Crow policies, new and old. She stepped away from her civil rights law professor post at Ohio State University—and away from the legal profession in general—earlier this month to join the Union Theological Seminary in New York as a visiting professor.

In retiring from law, you recently wrote that litigation and legislation are no longer enough to fix racial justice problems. Can you unpack that?

I don’t view mass incarceration as just a problem of politics or policy, I view it as a profound moral and spiritual crisis as well. I think that racial justice in this country will remain a distant dream as long as we think that it can be achieved simply through rational policy discussions. If we take a purely technocratic approach to these issues and strip them of their moral and spiritual dimensions, I think we’ll just keep tinkering and tinkering and fail to realize that all of these issues really have more to do with who we are individually and collectively, and what we believe we owe one another, and how we ought to treat one another as human beings.

These are philosophical questions, moral questions, theological questions, as much as they are questions about the costs and benefits of using one system of punishment or policing practice over another.

The grand bulk of the incarceration problem is in state prisons and local jails, but most of the sentencing reform is happening at the federal level. What will it take for that type of reform to trickle down?

I think if you step back and look at how deeply entrenched the system of mass incarceration is, it becomes fairly evident that there’s no way we would even get back to the incarceration rates of the 1970s, before the war on drugs and “get tough on crime” movement really kicked off, without a major upheaval. We would have to release the overwhelming majority of people who are in prisons and jails today in order to get back to that rate. Millions of people who are currently employed by law enforcement or in prisons would be forced to find new jobs. Prisons would have to close down in rural areas that have become dependent on prisons as their economic base.

All of these things won’t happen simply by making changes to sentencing practices for certain low-level drug offenses. Even as important as the legalization of marijuana has been, if we are going to dismantle this mass incarceration apparatus, it’s going to require a real upheaval in our politics and a level of change that I think won’t happen unless a real movement emerges that forces it into being.

As federal criminal justice reforms are preventing cities from bankrolling their budgets on things like traffic tickets and court fines, what do you say to the mayors who are now cutting services because they no longer have these revenue streams?

I’d say we need to think about restructuring the tax system in these states to ensure that cash-strapped cities and counties are able to provide basic services without exploiting the least advantaged. Many of these cities have legitimate needs for more revenue to provide quality services to their residents. But saddling the poorest residents with unnecessary court fees and fines is just unconscionable and results in debtors prisons, and debtors towns, and debtors neighborhoods where entire communities find themselves struggling to pay off enormous amounts of debt. These fines can often double, triple, and quadruple if not paid off on time, and it really amounts to nothing more than blatant exploitation of the poorest among us.

Many activists today are calling for disinvesting in, if not totally abolishing police departments. What do you think of that?

I understand it completely. I consider myself a prison abolitionist, in the sense that I think we will eventually end the prisons as we know them. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think we don’t need to remove people from the community who pose a serious threat or who cause serious harm for some period of time. But the question is do we want to create and maintain sites that are designed for the intentional infliction of needless suffering? Because that’s what prison is today. They are sites where we treat people as less than human and put them in literal cages and intentionally inflict harm and suffering on them and then expect that this will somehow improve them. It’s nonsensical, immoral, and counterproductive, and that is what I would like to see come to an end.

I think young people are saying something similar about police today. I don’t think anyone would deny that communities and society as a whole should have some kind of organized and effective means of responding to harms when they’re done. But the way the police operate today in many communities, I think it’s understandable for people to say, ’If this is what policing is then I don’t want it, I want something else.’ The police are a reflection of our politics and our culture. If we want a different kind of policing we are going to have to do more than lobby for a few isolated reforms. We’re going to have to find a way to persuade the public, and members of our own communities, that those who’ve been labeled the bad ones—those from ghettoized communities, or who have criminal records—are worth caring about, and are deserving of basic dignity and humanity and respect and can’t be treated as simply disposable.

Political conservatives have lately been heavily invested in criminal justice and sentencing reform—are there reasons to be skeptical of this?

There’s certainly room for skepticism for the role of right-wing political advocates who are now claiming to be part of this coalition for meaningful criminal justice reform. There are those who say that motivations don’t matter—that all that matters is that a deal is struck, some sentences are reduced, some people are able to go home to their families and reunite, and that some kind of reform happens in this political moment. I disagree.

There are Republican governors among others who are concerned about raising taxes on the predominantly white middle class in order to maintain this prison apparatus that’s been created. So now they’re interested in finding cheaper alternatives. I think that motivation is highly problematic. If those folks are able to come up with a solution that makes it possible for us to cage people more cheaply, they’ll take that. For those folks, if there are technical innovations that make it possible to keep people under perpetual surveillance for much of their lives— if it’s cheaper and it keeps crime rates down they’ll take it regardless of the impact on human beings.

I think we have to be clear-eyed and recognize that many of those folks are not true allies. They’re not actually interested in reinvesting the money that’s saved from downsizing prisons back into our communities and to our schools and for job creation, and better housing and healthcare. And until a moral consensus is built that says that our society should be organized in such a way to ensure that everyone has meaningful work, has quality education, has access to healthcare, especially mental healthcare, and not treated as disposable, we’re going to just keep seeing versions of these systems of racial and social control over and over again.

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