NPR

Legal Scholar: Jim Crow Still Exists In America

Under Jim Crow laws, black Americans were relegated to a subordinate status for decades. Things like literacy tests for voters and laws designed to prevent blacks from serving on juries were commonplace in nearly a dozen Southern states.

In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes that many of the gains of the civil rights movement have been undermined by the mass incarceration of black Americans in the war on drugs. She says that although Jim Crow laws are now off the books, millions of blacks arrested for minor crimes remain marginalized and disfranchised, trapped by a criminal justice system that has forever branded them as felons and denied them basic rights and opportunities that would allow them to become productive, law-abiding citizens.

"People are swept into the criminal justice system — particularly in poor communities of color — at very early ages ... typically for fairly minor, nonviolent crimes," she tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "[The young black males are] shuttled into prisons, branded as criminals and felons, and then when they're released, they're relegated to a permanent second-class status, stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement — like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of legal discrimination and employment, and access to education and public benefits. Many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again, once you've been branded a felon."

On Monday's Fresh Air, Alexander details how President Reagan's war on drugs led to a mass incarceration of black males and the difficulties these felons face after serving their prison sentences. She also details her own experiences working as the director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union.


Interview Highlights

On the number of blacks in the criminal justice system

"Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. There are millions of African-Americans now cycling in and out of prisons and jails or under correctional control. In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives."

On the war on drugs — and federal incentives given out through the war on drugs — as the primary causes of the prison explosion in the United States

"Federal funding has flowed to state and local law enforcement agencies who boost the sheer numbers of drug arrests. State and local law enforcement agencies have been rewarded in cash for the sheer numbers of people swept into the system for drug offenses, thus giving law enforcement agencies an incentive to go out and look for the so-called 'low-hanging fruit': stopping, frisking, searching as many people as possible, pulling over as many cars as possible, in order to boost their numbers up and ensure the funding stream will continue or increase."

On President Reagan's war on drugs

"He declared the drug war primarily for reasons of politics — racial politics. Numerous historians and political scientists have documented that the war on drugs was part of a grand Republican Party strategy known as the "Southern strategy" of using racially coded 'get-tough' appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were resentful of, anxious about and threatened by many of the gains of African-Americans in the civil rights movement."

On racial profiling

"I think it's very easy to brush off the notion that the system operates much like a caste system, if in fact you are not trapped within it. I have spent years representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to help people who have been released from prison attempting to 're-enter' into a society that never seemed to have much use to them in the first place. And in the course of that work, I had my own awakening about our criminal justice system and this system of mass incarceration. ... My experience and research has led me to the regrettable conclusion that our system of mass incarceration functions more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control."

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today we remember Martin Luther King and his contribution to the cause of civil rights. Our guest, legal scholar and attorney Michelle Alexander, believes the gains of the civil rights movement are being undermined by the mass incarceration of African-Americans associated with the war on drugs.

She says millions swept up in the drug war, even those who avoid lengthy prison terms, are forever branded as felons and denied basic rights and opportunities which would allow them to become productive, law-abiding citizens. The result, Alexander says, is a new caste system in America.

Michelle Alexander is a graduate of the Stanford law school who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. She was director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Racial Justice Project in Northern California. She's now an associate professor of law at Ohio State University.

Her book is called "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." Well, Michelle Alexander, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the scale of incarceration among African-Americans. How big a problem is this?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, it's truly staggering. Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

There are millions of African-Americans now cycling in and out of prisons and jails or under correctional control or saddled with criminal records. In fact, in major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men either are under are correctional control or are branded felons, and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.

This is something that now affects the overwhelming majority of African-Americans in the United States. If not them directly, then they often have a relative who's been affected by the system.

DAVIES: And you call this the new Jim Crow. Why use that phrase?

ALEXANDER: Well, I think it's important for people to understand that the system of mass incarceration isn't just another institution infected with conscious or unconscious bias. It's a different beast entirely. People are swept into the criminal justice system, particularly in poor communities of color, at very early ages, targeted by police, stopped and frisked.

Sometimes when they're walking to school, their backpacks are rifled through in a search for drugs. Once they're old enough to drive a car, their cars may be pulled over, stopped and frisked. So they're shuttled from their decrepit, underfunded schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons; typically for fairly minor, nonviolent crimes, often drug offenses, the very sorts of crimes that occur with roughly equal frequency in middle-class white neighborhoods and on college campuses but go largely ignored - shuttled in to jail and to prisons, branded as criminals and felons. And then when they're released, they're relegated to a permanent second-class status, stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement; rights like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.

So many of the old forms of discrimination, that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era, are suddenly legal again once you've been branded a felon.

DAVIES: Let's talk about the origins of this. I mean, it was President Reagan, I believe, that declared the war on drugs in 1982. I mean, do you see this as directed at African-Americans in cities?

ALEXANDER: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it was President Richard Nixon who first coined the term a war on drugs, but it was President Ronald Reagan who turned that rhetorical war into a literal one. And he declared the drug war primarily for reasons of politics, racial politics.

Numerous historians and political scientists have now documented that the war on drugs was part of a grand Republican Party strategy, known as the Southern Strategy, of using racially coded get-tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were resentful of, anxious about, threatened by many of the gains of African-Americans in the civil rights movement.

You know, to be fair, I think we have to acknowledge that poor and working-class white really had their world rocked by the civil rights movement. Wealthy whites could afford to send their kids to private schools and continue to give their kids all of the advantages of wealth has to offer.

But in the wake of the civil rights movement, poor and working-class whites really were faced with a social demotion. It was their kids who might be bussed across town to go to a school they believed was inferior. It was their kids and themselves who were suddenly forced to compete on equal terms for scarce jobs with this whole new group of people they, you know, believed, had been taught their whole lives to believe were inferior to them.

And this state of affairs created an enormous amount of confusion, resentment, but it also created an enormous political opportunity.

DAVIES: You know, what's interesting about it is that when I remember - I mean, I'm old enough to remember back in the '80s, and what I associated with the war on drugs were some things that seemed to be aimed very much at middle-class kids, too.

I mean, my sense was that, you know, Nancy and Ronald Reagan didn't like, you know, middle-class kids who had experimented with the drug counterculture in the '60s and '70s doing that stuff. And so we saw these ads, you know, the fried egg that said, you know, this is your brain, this is your brain on drugs.

There were these DARE programs. I'm not sure what the acronym stands for, but it's a drug education program that was done in all kinds of high schools, including middle-class high schools.

ALEXANDER: Yes, there was a public-education effort that occurred in middle-class, white communities associated with the drug war. But what happened in poor communities of color wasn't public education but rather mass incarceration.

So, you know, after the drug war was declared, a couple years after the drug war was declared, crack hit the streets and really began to ravage inner-city communities, and with the media frenzy associated with crack cocaine, a wave of punitiveness really washed over the United States.

But this wave of punitiveness did not result in sweeps of college campuses or universities or middle-class white students having their backpacks, you know, searched and rifled through. It wasn't them who were being followed home from school, you know, from the school bus. That became the reality.

The drug war was a literal war. It has been, it continues to be, a literal war waged in poor communities of color complete with SWAT teams and military-style equipment and tactics, even though studies have consistently shown now, for decades, that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites.

DAVIES: Let's talk about how the war on drugs actually worked and the impact that you write about on African-Americans in - particularly in inner cities. What about the way federal grants were administered, and the kinds of incentives they gave to local police departments? How did that work?

ALEXANDER: Yes, well, you know, after the war on drugs was declared, drug convictions increased astronomically. In fact, drug convictions have increased more than 1,000 percent since the drug war began, and many people assumed that the explosion in drug arrests and convictions was due to some kind of spike in drug use and abuse. But that's not actually the case.

One of the reasons that drug arrests have skyrocketed is because federal funding has flowed to state and local law enforcement agencies who boost the sheer numbers of drug arrests. Through the Edward Byrne Memorial Grand Program and related funding streams, state and local law enforcement agencies have been rewarded in cash by the millions for the sheer numbers of people swept into the system for drug offenses, thus giving law enforcement agencies an incentive to go out looking for the so-called low--hanging fruit: stopping, frisking, searching as many people as possible, pulling over as many cars and trying to search them as possible, in order to boost their numbers up and ensure that the funding stream will continue or increase.

DAVIES: All right, so you see a lot of legal latitude in what police can do. You see federal incentives for mass arrests. And it's easier to go into communities of color because they can get away with it?

ALEXANDER: Oh absolutely. If these kinds of sweep tactics were employed on college campuses or directed towards middle-class high-school students in suburban neighborhoods exiting from their school bus, there would be just incredible amount of outrage. You know, the drug war would have ended a long, long time ago if these tactics had been employed in middle-class or upper-middle-class white communities.

But because they are employed almost exclusively in ghettoized communities, they face virtually no political repercussions. And because so many of these communities are just fighting for survival, with people suffering from, you know, staggering rates of unemployment and often high rates of violent crime, there is a tremendous amount of disorganization, a lack of political power.

Many people have already been disenfranchised as a result of felony convictions, and the police and politicians face few repercussions for engaging in incredibly aggressive and counterproductive tactics.

DAVIES: Michelle Alexander's book is called "The New Jim Crow." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Michelle Alexander, she's a legal scholar and lawyer. She's written a book called "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

You know, I wanted to read something from David Kennedy, he's a criminologist whose work I know you know, you actually quote him at one point in your book. He's spent many years working in communities - working with law enforcement, working with community leaders, with victims, with ex-offenders. And he's also somebody who agrees that there are far, far too many young African-American men incarcerated and thinks that the police tactics which lead to that are counterproductive.

But I want to read something that he wrote in his book "Don't Shoot." He writes: The relentless law enforcement we see is intended to save lives, to protect neighborhoods, to bring order to the streets. I have spent my adult life with the men and women who do the work, and I know this to be true.

I have no time for the easy armchair cant that says this is all about profiling and racism and bias in the criminal justice system. It simply is not so. Nobody who has ever actually been on these streets could believe it for a moment. There is disparate treatment in law enforcement, no question, but that's not what's driving the problem.

The smug notion that there is no problem here, or that this is all a moral panic, or that the problem with high-crime communities is the institutional racism of the criminal justice is a crock.

You know David Kennedy's work. Do you think he's not getting it?

ALEXANDER: I think he's not getting it in that instance. There's - you know, much of David Kennedy's work I agree with, but I think it's very easy to kind of brush off, as he does, the notion that the system operates much like a caste system if you are, in fact, not trapped within it.

You know, I have spent years representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color; and attempting to assist people who have been released from prison, quote-unquote "re-enter" into a society that never seemed to have much use to them in the first place.

And in the course of that work, I had my own awakening about our criminal justice system and this system of mass incarceration. Probably 10 years ago, I might have shared David Kennedy's view, but I don't any longer. My years of experience and the research that I have done has led me to the regrettable conclusion that our system of mass incarceration functions more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control.

Now, that's not to say that many of the people who work within it, including my own husband who's a federal prosecutor, aren't well-intentioned. Many of them are. But the problem is that the structure of the system guarantees that millions of people will be swept into the system for relatively minor crimes, the very sorts of crimes that are ignored on the other side of town, swept into the system, branded criminals and felons and then stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement.

DAVIES: In Philadelphia here, we have an African-American mayor and an African-American police commissioner, who say they're very, very concerned about what's happening in African-American communities. And I think one of the things that they would say is that no, it's not an accident that this aggressive policing occurs in the communities they do because that's where the murders are happening.

Mayor Nutter, here in Philly, often says that 75 to 80 percent of the murders in the city involve black male victims and, where they are solved, black male perpetrators. And so when you get aggressive police tactics going, they're going to focus on the communities where the violence happens, it's seen as connected to drugs, and that's going to generate a lot more arrests.

ALEXANDER: Yes, I hear that all the time, that the reason that the police are rounding up folks en mass in poor communities of color is because that's where the violent offenders are, that's where the drug kingpins can be found. But the reality is, is that law enforcement has invested an extraordinary amount of their resources, their time, energy and resources not into investigating the most serious crimes or bringing down the drug kingpins but rather in arresting people for these low-level, relatively minor offenses.

In these communities, you make the same kinds of mistakes in your youth, experiment with the same kinds of drugs, sell drugs at the same rates as the middle-class white kids, but you must pay for the rest of your life for your mistakes.

Now, to say that this is because we are concerned about violence I think is to miss the larger point here, which is that, you know, all of the research shows, in fact William Julius Wilson's work in his book "When Work Disappears," I think is particularly apt, shows that those communities that have the highest levels of joblessness also have the highest levels of violence.

In fact, as William Julius Wilson points out, if you compare rates of violent crime, but control for joblessness, you'll see that white jobless men have about the same rates of violent crime as black jobless men. That doesn't exclude - excuse violence by any means, joblessness does not excuse violence, but what we see is that violence, particularly in communities where there's concentrated poverty, is very much related to joblessness.

DAVIES: What are the consequences of having a felony conviction on your life?

ALEXANDER: Well, I think most people have a general understanding that, you know, when you're released from prison, life is hard. It'll be hard, but, you know, if you really apply yourself and show some level of self-discipline, you'll be able to make it.

The reality is far harsher. The reality is that when you're released from prison, people who are released from prison typically have little or no money at all. They need to find a place to sleep, but if they try to get access to public housing, they find often that they're barred from public housing because of their criminal conviction.

In fact, people returning home from prison who want to go reunite with their children or their spouse, that - their family risks eviction from public housing if they allow their loved one to come home to them.

DAVIES: So it is legal for a public housing authority to make a felony conviction a basis for exclusion?

ALEXANDER: Absolutely. In fact, even arrest without a conviction, can be the basis for exclusion from public housing. So people who have arrest records but have not been convicted are frequently excluded from public housing. So, you know, people released from prison, you know, having been convicted, often find that they cannot get access to public housing, and in many regions of the country, you're barred from public housing for a minimum of five years when you're released from prison.

So where do you sleep? Where do you go? Trying to find work is extraordinarily difficult. You know, trying even to get a job as a barber or get a job as a janitor can be difficult. Employers are legally authorized to discriminate against you. Food stamps may be off-limits to you. Under federal law, you're deemed ineligible for food stamps for the rest of your life if you've been convicted of a felony drug offense.

Fortunately, many states have now opted out of the federal ban on food stamps for drug offenders, but it remains the case that thousands of people still can't even get food stamps to feed themselves because they were once caught with some drugs.

And to make matters worse, you know, when you're released from prison, you're often saddled with hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs, accumulated back child support. In a growing number of states, you're actually expected to pay back the cost of your imprisonment.

And, you know, get this: If you're one of the lucky few who actually manage to get a job upon release from prison, up to 100 percent of your wages can be garnished to pay back all those fees, fines, court costs, accumulated back child support. What, realistically, do we expect folks to do? The system seems designed to send folks back to prison, which is what, in fact, happens the vast majority of the time.

DAVIES: Michelle Alexander is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University. Her book is called "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. It's Martin Luther King Day, and our guest Michelle Alexander's book argues that many of the gains of the civil rights movement have been undermined by the mass incarceration of African-Americans in the war on drugs. Alexander says millions arrested for minor crimes find themselves branded as felons for life, and thus denied basic rights and opportunities. Her book is called"The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

Let me ask you, you described this as, you know, in effect a caste system. What do we do about this?

ALEXANDER: Well, my own view is nothing short of a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in the United States. Piecemeal policy reform just kind of tinkering with this machine I think is doomed to fail in the long run. You know, if we return to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s or the early 1980s, before the war on drugs, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today - four out of five. More than a million people employed by the criminal justice system would lose their jobs.

Most new prison construction has occurred in predominantly white rural communities, communities that are quite vulnerable economically and have often been sold on prisons as an answer to their economic woes. Very often these rural communities have been offered benefits of prisons that haven't really materialized, but nonetheless, those prisons across America, you know, would have to close down. Private prison companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange would be forced to watch their profits vanish.

This system of mass incarceration is now so deeply entrenched in our political, economic, and social structure that it is not simply going to fade away without some kind of major shift in our public consciousness, which is why I hope that, you know, in honor of the memory of, you know, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and so many of the other people who risked their lives for meaningful racial and social equality in the United States, that we will build a new human rights movement for education, not incarceration, for jobs, not jails, a human rights movement that will honor the basic human rights to work, to shelter, to food for all people no matter who you are or what you've done.

DAVIES: You know, there are civil rights organizations still active today. Do you see any of this happening?

ALEXANDER: I think there are definitely promising signs. You know, one of the reasons I was inspired to write the book was that I became frustrated at the failure of civil rights organizations to really rise to the challenge that mass incarceration poses for our country and for communities of color. I'm encouraged by so many inspiring grassroots efforts that are underway. There are faith communities nationwide that are beginning to organize to end mass incarceration. The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, which is a network of several thousand progressive black churches has made ending mass incarceration its number one priority. The United Methodist Church recently announced that it was divesting from private prisons and all companies that profit from caging human beings. There is, I think a real turn that's occurring among people of faith and conscience and it definitely gives me hope for the future.

DAVIES: How do you rate President Obama's performance?

ALEXANDER: Oh, I've been very disappointed. You know, I think that he's had numerous opportunities to speak boldly and forcefully about the harms of the drug war and the need for us to end mass incarceration as we know it. What we see is that in his drug policy budget he has invested about the same ratio of dollars to enforcement as compared to prevention as the Bush administration did. So we haven't seen the change that I was hoping for in the Obama administration, although the rhetoric has changed. Gil Kerlikowske, the drugs czar in the Obama administration, has said publicly that he doesn't think we should call it a war on drugs anymore because we shouldn't be at war with our own people. But it's not enough just to change the rhetoric. We have to be willing to actually end the policies and practices that have proved so devastating over the past 40 years.

DAVIES: You know, the book makes a powerful case that I think that of some terrifically harmful impacts of the war on drugs and the way it's implemented in these communities. But there is a question of sort of its origins and the extent to which it is racially motivated. And you describe this war as quote, "a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control." It sounds like you're saying policymakers engineered the mass arrest of African-Americans to keep them subjugated. Do you mean to say that?

ALEXANDER: Well, what I mean to say is that the system of mass incarceration was born of racial opportunism. It was born of a desire by politicians to exploit our nation's racial divisions and anxieties for political gain. When politicians began, you know, rallying around the get tough bandwagon it was an effort to appeal to the racial anxieties, stereotypes and resentments of poor and working-class whites.

War on drugs was in fact an effort to make good on those campaign promises to get tough on a group of people not so subtly defined as black, brown. But that doesn't mean that, you know, everyone involved in the drug war or all those politicians who have ever supported harsh tactics were racist in the old Jim Crow sense but, you know, it's critical for us to remember that many people, even during the old Jim Crow, who voted for segregation laws voted for literacy tests and poll taxes and all of that weren't hostile bigoted people who would gleefully watch a black man hanging from a tree in a lynching. Many of them were good people. Martin Luther King Jr. in his speeches would often remind his audiences that, you know, most folks who support Jim Crow aren't evil bad people, they're just deeply misguided. They're blind, spiritually blind to the harms of the policies that they support. And I think the same thing can be said today, many people of good will are blind to the harms of mass incarceration and the devastation, the war on drugs has caused.

DAVIES: You know, it seems to me that it would not be in anybody's interests, including the people who dreamed up the war on drugs or who have advocated aggressive police tactics, it's certainly in none of those peoples' interest to have, you know, huge numbers of African-American men condemned to a position where they can't get employment, they can't become law-abiding citizens and in fact ,are much more likely to become criminals or predators. That doesn't - that's not in anybody's interest. Is there an appeal that says we simply have to do something different for all our sakes?

ALEXANDER: Oh, absolutely. You know, at the end of the book I argue that what is necessary is for us to build a broad-based human rights movement that is multiracial, multiethnic and includes poor and working-class whites who are typically pit against poor folks of color or treating the rise of successive news systems of control. We need to see, understand the ways in which the system has harmed all of us, but especially folks who are trapped in ghettos and cycling in and out of prisons and jails in their families. The system has harmed all of us, not in identical ways, but has harmed all of us nonetheless. And most importantly, it has damaged our ability to see our fates as linked, to see the fates of poor and working-class whites, have linked the fates of poor folks of color so that it is possible to build a meaningful alliances for quality jobs, quality education, quality health care for all.

Dismantling the system of mass incarceration is going to require connecting the dots between forms of discrimination that harm Latinos, you know, have become really the new boogie man in, you know, in recent election cycles and we now have a prison building boom aimed at suspected illegal immigrants, with the fate of African-Americans, as well as with the faith of poor whites living in rule communities where they believe their only hope for a good job may be working in a prison. So this movement absolutely must be broad enough to encompass the quest for basic human rights, the right to work, the right to a quality education, the right to quality health care for all, no matter who you are or what mistakes you have made in the past.

DAVIES: Michelle Alexander's book is called "The New Jim Crow." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Michelle Alexander. She's a legal scholar and lawyer. She's written a book called "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

How did you get involved in this issue?

ALEXANDER: Well, really, my commitment to this work began when I became the director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU in California. And we launched a major campaign against racial profiling known as the DWB Campaign or the Driving While Black or Brown Campaign. And it was during that period that I began working representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to assist people who have been released from prison quote/unquote "re-enter" into a society that never had shown much use for them in the first place. And it was during that period of time that I had a series of experiences that really began what I often refer to as my awakening.

DAVIES: You want to describe a case that was particularly compelling to you?

ALEXANDER: Yes. You know, there is one case in particular I'll never forget. It involved a young African-American man probably no older than 19 who walked into my office one day. I was interviewing young black men that day who had claims of racial profiling against the police. As part of our campaign against racial profiling we had put up billboards in Oakland, in San Jose and in other communities with a hotline number for people to call if they believed they had been stopped or targeted by the police on the basis of race. And immediately after that hotline number was announced we received thousands of calls. In fact, our system crashed temporarily, we had to expand it. A

And this young man walks into my office with a thick stack of papers. He had taken detailed notes of his encounters with the police over a nine-month period of time. I mean he had names, dates, witnesses, in some cases badge numbers, just an extraordinary amount of documentation. And he was a good-looking young man. He was charismatic, well-spoken, and the stories of discrimination he told were compelling and were corroborated by other stories we had heard about what had been going on in his neighborhood in Oakland, and so I became excited. I thought here's our dream plaintive. Here's the one we've been looking for, as we had been looking to file lawsuits against the Oakland Police Department and a number of others.

And so I began asking more talking and we're talking, and then he says something that makes me pause. And I said did you just say you're a drug felon? And he says yeah, yeah, you know, I'm a drug felon. I am, but listen. And I just interrupted him and I said I'm so sorry. We're not going to be able to represent you. We, in fact had been screening people with prior criminal convictions. We believed we couldn't represent someone who had been convicted of a felony or really had any criminal record at all because we knew that law enforcement would argue that, of course, we should be following stopping and searching people like that, people with prior criminal convictions. And we knew that if we put someone with a criminal record on the stand they would be cross-examined about their prior criminal history and their credibility might be destroyed before the jury. So I said I'm sorry we can't represent you if you have a felony record. And he becomes enraged and he says but listen, listen, I was innocent. I was framed. The police planted drugs on me and they beat up me and my friend. I have this drug conviction but I was framed, I was innocent. And I just kept telling him sorry, I'm sorry. We can't represent you. And he keeps trying to explain the circumstances and how he accepted a plea even though he was innocent. And I kept apologizing.

...represent you and he keeps trying to explain the circumstances and how he accepted a plea, even though he was innocent, and I kept apologizing.

And finally, he becomes enraged and he tells me, you're no better than the police. You're just like them. The minute I tell you I'm a felon, you stop listening. You just can't even hear what I have to say. He's like, what's to become of me? What's to become of me? I can't even get a job now that I have this felony. He said, I can't even get housing. I'm living in my grandmother's basement right now, because nowhere else will take me in. I can't even get food stamps. How am I supposed to feed myself? How am I supposed to take care of myself as a man? He says, good luck finding one young black man in my neighborhood they haven't gotten to yet. They've gotten to us already.

And he snatches up all those papers and detailed notes and just starts ripping them up and he's yelling at me as he walks out. You're no better than the police. You're just like them. I can't believe I trusted you.

Months later, I opened the newspaper and what was on the front page? Well, the Oakland Riders police scandal had broken. It turned out, a gang of police officers, otherwise known as a drug taskforce - known as the Oakland Riders - had been planting drugs on suspects in his neighborhood and beating folks up. And who is identified as one of the main officers accused of having planted drugs on suspects and beaten folks up, was the officer he had identified to me as having planted drugs on him and beat up him and his friend.

And it was really at that moment that the light finally went on for me and I realized he's right about me. The minute he told me he was a felon, I stopped listening. I couldn't even hear what he had to say. And I realized that my crime wasn't so much that I had refused to represent an innocent man, someone who had been telling me the truth, but that I had been blind to all those who were guilty and that their stories weren't being told.

The millions of folks who have been labeled criminals and guilty, that even civil rights lawyers like me, people who claimed to care and have dedicated themselves to working for racial justice - we were turning a blind eye to the millions who had been labeled guilty and weren't allowing their stories to be told.

And that was really the beginning of my journey, of asking myself, how am I, the civil rights lawyer, actually helping to replicate the very forms of discrimination and exclusion I'm supposedly fighting against?

DAVIES: Did you ever talk to that guy again?

ALEXANDER: No. I never have. I actually tried to find him to apologize. I even wanted to dedicate this book to him, but was unable to track him down. The only phone number I had for him was disconnected and I have been unable to offer my apology.

DAVIES: Do you have any particular rituals for Martin Luther King Day?

ALEXANDER: Well, the one that I adhere to consistently is to reread his speeches. I find that Martin Luther King has become so sanitized and so watered down that it's easy to forget how radical his message was, how fierce a critic he was - not just of the systems, of racialized exclusion and oppression that were manifested in Jim Crow, but of our nation, as a purveyor of war and as largely indifferent to the needs of the poor and the least advantaged.

So I find that reading what he actually said, as opposed to listening to the soundbites that are recycled in the media and on the radio are important to stay connected to his memory and legacy.

DAVIES: Well, Michelle Alexander, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Michelle Alexander is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University. Her book is called "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness."

Coming up, David Bianculli on the season premiere of the FX series, "Justified," and the premiere of a new Fox drama called "Alcatraz." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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