A panel of speakers from All of Us or None, an organization fighting for the rights of people who have been imprisoned, was talking to my senior economics class at Berkeley High School in California. Manuel La Fontaine introduced himself as the father of three, a survivor of juvenile halls, jails, and prisons who organizes to restore the human rights of people inside prisons and those formerly incarcerated. He asked my students to introduce themselves and, if they wished, to disclose any personal connections to prisons, prisoners, or former prisoners.
Student after student did so (approximately 50 percent of my students are African American, 30 percent Latina/o, 20 percent Asian and white). In both classes, nearly everyone spoke of family members or friends who were currently locked up or formerly incarcerated, back on their feet or struggling. A somber weight hung in the room as we finished going around the room. The students' stories reflect what Michelle Alexander argues about the label “felon” in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. That label is increasingly common and has a tremendous impact on our communities. Yet there is a great deal of silence and shame around it. As Manuel and his colleagues shared their stories, they took the shame out of acknowledging an issue of increasing significance in our students' lives and in our whole social and political landscape: mass incarceration.
This meeting with All of Us or None was part of a unit I created with Rethinking Schools Managing Editor Jody Sokolower, prompted by a reading of Alexander's book. I'd seen the title of the book when it was first published and frankly wrote off the idea of a “new Jim Crow” as far-fetched. (Alexander actually writes about a similar moment in response to a flier posted in her community.) But I later heard her speak on the radio and was persuaded to pick up the book.
According to Alexander, mass incarceration, justified and organized around the war on drugs, has become the new face of racial discrimination in the United States. In less than 30 years, the prison population has exploded from 300,000 to more than 2 million. What is most striking about these numbers is the racial dimension. More black men are under the control of the criminal justice system, either behind bars or on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850. Equally disturbing is Alexander's description of the lifelong civil and human rights implications of being arrested and serving time in prison. As she explains in her introduction:
Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you're labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal.
- Lois Ahrens, ed. “Prisoners of the War on Drugs,” in The Real Cost of Prisons Comix. PM Press, 2008.
- Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2012.
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