Michelle Alexander kicks off spring 2018 President's Lecture Series
Hallie Edwards | Contributing Writer
Michelle Alexander, an acclaimed author, civil rights lawyer and social justice advocate, delivered the keynote speech during the Jan. 16 President’s Lecture Series event.
Alexander spoke to a crowd of university and local community members in the Ted Center last Tuesday. For this, according to a Freedom of Information Act request conducted by the Mace, ODU paid her $20,000.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not foresee the mass system of incarceration we have in the U.S., Alexander thinks. She believes King never anticipated that over fifty years after Jim Crow laws ended, the criminal justice system would be disproportionately and intentionally targeting people of color, particularly black men.
In her 2010, New York Times bestseller “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Alexander argues that the criminal justice system perpetuates an undercaste of people who can be discriminated against by law much like the Jim Crow laws that King fought to end.
The night began with President Broderick presenting the Hugo A. Owens Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award to the Hampton Roads Committee of 200+ Men Inc. for the nonprofit’s dedication to providing mentorship programs for African American young people and adults in the region.
Alexander then took the stage and spoke with power about the criminal justice system. She noted that we are an American society that wants to bill itself as postracial, but we are not. We are a society that elected the first black U.S. president, and we want to be colorblind, but we’re actually blind to a new birth of racism, she argues. In the U.S., we have one of the harshest penal systems of the developed Western world, and it favors minorities and people of color, Alexander said.
WHRO radio host Cathy Lewis was on stage in a chair next to Alexander to facilitate the conversation and pull questions from Twitter. Some questions were about Alexander’s take on the decriminalization of drugs and President Trump’s racist remarks regarding African nations. When responding to how drug policy plays a role in mass incarceration, Alexander said decriminalizing a drug by itself will not end mass incarceration.
She also pointed out the differences between the cocaine epidemic of the ‘80s and ‘90s and the current opioid epidemic. Addicted African-Americans of the 1980s got the war on drugs and law-and-order crackdown while the majority rural white Americans afflicted with opioid addiction have received calls for understanding and treatment.
When responding to the question about President Trump’s remarks, Alexander said she has grown impatient talking about this, and was responded with applause from the audience.
This blunt yet respectful remark sums up Alexander’s take on how we can improve our system of mass incarceration. She said we must reimagine our criminal justice system. That means reimagining probation and parole and ending the private prison system. We must invest in education, healthcare and economic practices that include not exclude convicted criminals.
Alexander’s work with the Northern California ACLU in the 1990s and 2000s opened her eyes to the subversive and systemic racism within the criminal justice system. She saw racial profiling. She saw a disproportionate number of African American men charged and convicted. She saw their hurdles in finding employment and support after incarceration. “[They’re] essentially locked out of the legal economy,” Alexander said. She heard the stop and frisk and driving while black and brown stories. She heard the police chiefs who for years were in denial that racial bias could be influencing their departments.
As a civil rights advocate, Alexander heard black mothers describe how they fear for their sons. This stood out to Hampton University junior Kaylahn Jones, who made sure to travel to ODU for the talk. “I feel the fear of having the African-American son,” Jones said.
Jones and her friend, fellow Hampton University junior Maya Gaines-Smith, liked Alexander’s lecture. Her words made them think about their personal reactions and beliefs. “Getting pulled over is the scariest feeling ever,” Gaines-Smith said.
Jones liked Alexander’s biblical reference, that “what you do unto the lowest, you do unto me.” Essentially, Alexander stresses that we all have a role to play in dismantling this system. After Alexander’s remarks, a line of people wrapped around the outer hallway of the Ted for a book signing.
Two revisions were made to the original version of this article to include the amount Alexander was paid and location of the speech.