March 3, 2023 | NEWS | By Isabella Ingersoll, Co-Editor-In-Chief

On Wednesday evening, Colorado College’s Kathryn Mohrman Theatre welcomed Michelle Alexander, lawyer, civil rights activist, and author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”.

The event centered around a faculty panel, where four CC professors each asked Alexander a question. These four professors were Elizabeth Coggins, associate professor of political science, Manya Whitaker, executive vice president, chief of staff and associate professor of education, Christopher Hunt, assistant professor of religion, and Doug Edlin, chair of political science. 

Alexander published “The New Jim Crow” in 2010. Aside from holding a spot on the New York Times bestseller list for over one year, the book has also sparked numerous new ideas and discussions surrounding criminal justice reform, abolition, and racism in this country. The book brings to light the policing tactics that disproportionately target Black and Brown men and funnel them into the carceral system. This process is the result of both undeniable societal racism and the war on drugs – ultimately revealing how the justice system is a system of controlling the lives and the communities of non-white Americans.

Professor Coggins began Wednesday’s conversation as one of the members of the faculty panel onstage. She asked Alexander to respond to one of the primary criticisms her book has received, which is that her examination of mass incarceration does not account for violent criminal offenders. 

In Alexander’s powerful, almost ten-minute long response, she explained how this criticism is a mere distraction from the fact that nonviolent drug offenders make up the majority of those currently incarcerated. The statistics surrounding incarceration are misleading and ultimately inaccurate, as they do not account for the lengths of prison sentences. Shorter periods of incarceration for non-violent crimes ensure that convicts are constantly cycling in and out of prison, while violent offenders, although much fewer in number overall, have longer sentences. 

Alexander stated that there is little correlation between violent crime and mass incarceration. Rather, practices of racial profiling, police brutality, and drug-law enforcement tactics constitute a large majority of the ten million annual arrests in the United States. 

“The New Jim Crow”does not include a chapter on violent crime. Alexander noted this was deeply intentional. She wanted to ensure she was not actively feeding into the attempt to change the subject, diverting attention away from the racism embedded in our criminal justice system. 

Later on, in response to a question from Professor Whitaker, Alexander acknowledged the recent rise of police brutality videos circling on social media and the news, a phenomenon not nearly as common when she published her book thirteen years ago. From Alexander’s point of view, these videos present a complex duality: they provide assurance that the horrors of racialized police brutality are exposed, but also concurrently sensationalize Black trauma and perpetuate the system as a whole. 

Alexander explained how the firing or even prosecution of individual police officers for acts of brutality and misconduct reinforces the system. The removal of miscreant police officers is purely symbolic. This is perceived as removing a flaw from within the system, creating the false notion that the system overall is not flawed.

Alexander’s solution is to defund the law enforcement system in its current form, diverting that money towards improving educational and economic opportunities in America’s most vulnerable communities. Investment in these institutions would create alternative forms of security, thereby reducing the need for policing as a whole. 

At the end of the talk, members of the audience were invited to participate in a Q&A. Students and faculty members raised important questions, allowing Alexander to delve into more of her ideas surrounding the topics in her book. 

Alexander left the audience feeling deeply inspired. She planted ideas in their minds of mass organization and abolishing white supremacy, reminding them that liberation will only occur with unified solidarity. Her vision, and the vision she left in the minds of everyone who attended the talk, is building a radical new politics of multiracial, multiethnic solidarity. 

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