Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, delivered the keynote address of Northwestern’s 10-day celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Pick-Staiger concert hall was filled to capacity for the event. Audience members included Northwestern students, Evanston residents and visitors from other states, and expectations were high.
Alexander’s address focused on the issue of mass incarceration and the racial implications and discrimination that have resulted from policies such as the War on Drugs.
“People assume that [Jim Crow] is a phenomenon of the past,” said Kelsey Dennis, a sophomore majoring in legal studies, but she said Alexander’s book proves it’s still a pertinent issue when it comes to police brutality against and incarceration of people of color.
Alexander spoke about the more than 2 million people in prison in the United States, and that number has more than quadrupled since the 1980’s, when the War on Drugs began. Impoverished communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the policies enacted since then, she said.
“Today, in the so-called era of colorblindness, there are more African American adults under correctional control in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War started,” Alexander said in her address.
Alexander questioned the notion of progress from the perspective of race and equality, noting that even if an African American is the president of the United States, the goal of equality toward which King strived has not been reached.
“It has become nearly ritual and routine on days like today when we honor Dr. King, to reduce his words to mere platitudes. But we must never, ever forget that he died a revolutionary,” she said, advocating for radical changes to unequal and discriminatory power systems.
Alexander was critical of the criminal justice system and its treatment of the poor, particularly poor people of color.
“Millions of people are now permanently locked up or locked out of the very civil and human rights that Dr. King and so many others risked their lives for,” she said, alluding to the the discriminatory practices in place that impede people who have been convicted of crimes from applying for jobs, schools, welfare and loans.
“Yes, the ‘Whites Only’ signs have come down,” she said. “But new signs have gone up ... informing the public that people branded criminals and felons in this era, this era of mass incarceration, are not wanted. Are not welcome here.”
She described this system that “otherizes” communities as one that “has risen out of the ashes of Jim Crow” and “rests on the premise that some lives don’t matter.”
While Alexander highlighted the problems of mass incarceration in urban centers such as Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans, Djorgy Leroy said that the same problems exist in affluent suburbs too. Leroy is the social services director at Curt’s Cafe, which provides job training to at-risk youth in Evanston.
“The same patterns exist [here],” he said, and communities of color still see higher rates of incarceration.
Alexander’s keynote address was preceded by a speech delivered by SESP senior Sarah Watson, the winner of the MLK Oratorical Contest.
Watson also spoke about Michael Brown and Ferguson, but brought her own personal perspective to cases of police brutality that have received national attention.
“Against my better judgement, I checked Yik Yak,” she said, after the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the Ferguson case.
“The very first one read, ‘The new Planet of the Apes trailer leaked. Check it out.’ It had a link to a live stream of black people protesting in Ferguson. I realized then that this was not just a Ferguson issue.”
Watson talked about the reactions from her peers in the days following the decision, recalling that a white student hid behind a tree as she passed by with a group of fellow black students.
“It was a reminder that these degrees, internships, references and GPAs will not save us from racism on campus, and they definitely won’t save us if we’re staring down the barrel of someone’s gun,” she said.
Matthew Wright, a Medill junior who served on the MLK Day Commemoration Committee, is from the Ferguson area and said that both Watson’s and Alexander’s speeches hit home for him.
Although the turnout for the night’s event was strong, Wright said he wished it could have reached an even broader audience.
“A large percentage of the student body was not here tonight, and that’s still a problem,” he said, explaining that many of the topics highlighted in the night’s speeches may not be common knowledge for all students on campus.
Despite this, Alexander made it clear that all hope was not lost. She said she was glad to see so many people involved in this particular conversation, and pointed out that all across the country, “people are waking up.” She said that it was not Brown’s particular case that brought this issue into the spotlight – people of color had been living that reality for a long time – but the fact that young people finally got tired and stood up in Ferguson and nationwide propelled the discussion into the national sphere.
In a quote that inspired the MLK Oratorical Contest, King said that “riot is the language of the unheard.” With this in mind, Watson asked the crowd to join her, to “resist, fight, riot, protest, boycott, yell, scream, do anything,” to make sure that the movement King started decades ago is revived today.