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Commentary: Race and caste

On Election Night, I heard a commentator say that the voters settled one thing: There are no longer any racial barriers to success in America-- that a majority of the voters have now voted for a black president not once, but twice, seemed to settle that.

Well, that theory is certainly a comforting one.

But last night I spent some time with a brilliant law professor who argues compellingly that the truth is anything but. Michelle Alexander is the author of the national best-seller, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

She was the keynote speaker last night at the annual Peace and Justice Banquet in Detroit, an event sponsored by Central United Methodist Church, a leading religious voice for social activism.

I was master of ceremonies for the banquet, and had the opportunity to meet her and hear her speech. Alexander’s theory is simple and devastating. America has created a new caste system in this country. In this system, she says, “poor folks of color are shuttled from decrepit and underfunded schools to brand new, high-tech prisons,” often for minor, drug-related offenses.

When they come out, they are for the rest of their lives, second-class citizens, quote, “ushered into a parallel social universe in which the rights supposedly won during the Civil Rights movement no longer apply to them.“

For the rest of their lives, convicted felons can be denied the right to vote in many states (though not Michigan) can be automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against.

Discriminated against in many areas, including employment, housing, access to education. Their chances of ever making something of themselves are usually close to zero.

Now, that’s not something idealistic patriotic white liberals want to believe. Alexander herself didn’t want to believe it. She is in no way a part of the underclass she describes. In many ways, she is even further removed from that world than Michelle Obama. Now 45, she is a child of the upper middle class, educated at Vanderbilt and Stanford, elegantly beautiful and a compelling speaker. She had every reason to believe and want to believe that this is a society based on merit.

But her work on “driving while black” racial profiling cases convinced her that we have indeed created a new caste system that is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow -- and in some cases, worse.

Her theory may be debatable, but much of her evidence is not. Incarceration rates in this state and this country have skyrocketed over the past 30 years, and it can easily be shown that much of this was due to our failed “war on drugs.”

Alexander argues that this can’t be linked to violent crime or even increasing crime rates. Instead, she believes it is about racial and social control. Reversing it, she says, will require the building of a new movement as powerful as the old, one whose slogans are “education, not incarceration,” and “jobs, not jails.’

That won’t be easy. But what keeps her going is thinking about those who risked their lives in the first civil rights movement. They used to tell people, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.’

Painful as it may be, she argues that a battle at least as important needs to be fought today.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.