Michelle Alexander: Are You ‘Beyond Race’?

alexander_michelleWhile Stephen “I-Don’t-See-Race” Colbert pointedly jokes about being “colorblind,” Michelle Alexander asks – What in the world do we think we’re doing dragging ugly “Jim Crow” into the Obama Era?

Alexander is the former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU in Northern California. She also clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court. Now she holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.

She’s  just released her first book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). It’s a blockbuster! Read an excerpt from her post on Tom’s Dispatch below:

Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.

Most people don’t like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In the “era of colorblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:

*There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era. …

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colorblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure — the structure of racial caste.  The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.

This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.  This is not the promised land.  The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.

You can read her whole article here. Alexander’s incriminating claim reminds me of this haunting poem by Carl Wendell Himes Jr. written about Martin Luther King. We have so far to go to reach the Beloved Community.

Now That He Is Safely Dead
by Carl Wendell Himes Jr.

Now that he is safely dead,
Let us Praise him.
Now that he is safely dead,
Let us Praise him.
Build monuments to his glory.
Sing Hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient Heroes.
They cannot rise to challenge the images
We would fashion from their Lives.
It is easier to build monuments
Than to make a better world.

So now that he is safely dead,
We, with eased consciences, will
Teach our children that he was a great man,
Knowing that the cause for which he
Lived is still a cause
And the dream for which he died
Is still a dream.

“Now That He Is Safely Dead,” by Carl Wendell Hines Jr. in “Beyond Amnesia: Martin Luther King and the Future of America,” by Vincent G. Harding, Journal of American History, 74 (September 1987, p. 468).

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