Last night, on Feb. 19, Goshen students, faculty, staff and community members, welcomed writer, civil rights advocate and professor Michelle Alexander.
Alexander, best known for her 2010 book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” presented at the Atlee and Winifred Beechy Peace, Justice and Reconciliation Lecture, in Sauder Concert Hall.
Alexander took to the stage and was immediately welcomed with a standing ovation from the audience.
Regina Shands Stoltzfus, associate professor of peace, justice and conflict studies, began the event by asking a question relating to The New Jim Crow – the book that spent just under 250 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list after its release. Stoltzfus asked what had changed in the 10 years since the book’s release.
Alexander explained that the nation, as well as herself, was not the same as 10 years ago. She stated how Obama hadn’t been elected as president and “the term ‘mass incarnation’ wasn’t even a term in public discourse.”
Alexander went on to explain that we are in a much better place but that she is still deeply concerned. She acknowledged that movements have sparked conversations that challenged police violence and racial injustice that she never imagined could occur when writing the book. However, she also spoke of the backlash against the perceived gains of President Obama and the demographic changes in the U.S.
“I hope that today, if nothing else, we can see more clearly than we could before these cycles of racial progress followed by backlash,” she said. “I hope that we can see it more clearly now and have a better sense of what is required of us if we are ever to finally break free of this cycle and be able to birth a new America.”
In regard to new systems of racial and social control, Alexander spoke of electronic monitoring. She explained how millions were being invested into these electronic monitors and that instead of spending five years in prison, convicts could spend 15 on an electronic monitor such as an ankle bracelet.
“We are turning homes into prisons, we are turning apartment buildings into prisons,” she said. “Very often, the restrictions won’t allow you to take your kids to school or get you to work and back.”
Alexander stated that she herself would prefer an electronic monitor over traditional prison, but she would not regard this shift as progress. “Are we now awakening to the dignity and value of all lives? Or are we just trading one form of control for another?” She asked.
Alexander also shared a personal story in which she admitted guilt of questioning who is worthy of care and concern in her refusal to represent an individual as a civil rights lawyer.
Alexander explained that at the time, she was working on a major campaign of racial profiling against the Oakland police force. She told the story of a 19-year-old black male who entered her office carrying stacks of paper containing enormous details of encounters with the police.
Alexander was overjoyed, she believed they had found their dream plaintiff. But then he said something that made her pause. He revealed that he had a drug felony and Alexander realized that they could not represent him due to the police and media response it would cause.
The man stated his innocence. He claimed that police had planted drugs on him and scared him into taking the plea. But Alexander explained that due to his record, they could not represent him. The man responded saying, “Good luck finding one young black man in my neighborhood they haven’t gotten to yet. They’ve gotten to us all already.”
As he walked out of the office he said, “I can’t believe I trusted you, you’re not better than them.”
Alexander explained that months later she saw a front page news story that exposed a gang of police officers in the Oakland force that had been planting drugs and beating up people of color. She stated that one of the main officers mentioned was the one that the man in her office had identified as planting drugs on him.
Alexander explained that she was embarrassed and a part of the problem. “He’s right about me,” she said. “I’m no better than the police, the minute he told me he was a felon I just stopped listening, I couldn’t even care what he had to say.”
Alexander concluded the story by stating, “I hope that if we again have learned anything, it’s that we have got to stand up with and fight with and work with and be in solidarity with those very people that society is more prepared to condemn and to treat as disposable.”
The story concluded with a round of applause from the audience, just one of four appauses that Alexander received throughout the night. The event concluded with two more rounds of applause and another standing ovation.