Fighting the U.S. Caste Culture

Is our criminal justice system about crime prevention, rehabilitation, or social control? Michelle Alexander shares the hard truth with Harold Dean Trulear.

portrait by Robert Shetterly (

The dreadful legacy of the slave trade still haunts us in this country—and still requires brave souls to point the way to a world that recognizes the equality and dignity of all men and women. In the second half of the 19th century Harriet Tubman mapped out an escape route for runaway slaves, and in the 1950s and ’60s Martin Luther King, Jr., charted a course for civil rights. Today Michelle Alexander is pointing the way and gathering momentum toward a major shift in the nation’s criminal justice system.

Denouncing our present system as “a caste-like system that locks millions of Americans into permanent second-class status,” Alexander marshals both hard data and human stories to advocate for laws that would reverse our country’s escalating prison population. She exposes a system that boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world (almost one in 100 Americans is behind bars, and one in three African American males is currently in jail or prison, on probation or parole) and imprisons four times as many nonviolent offenders than violent offenders.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Alexander traces a contemporary trail of tears, from the introduction of “the War on Drugs” of the Nixon era, the “get tough on crime” laws under Reagan, and the mandatory minimums/“three strikes you’re out” rule under the Clinton administration, to the subsequent building and mushrooming of private prisons and today’s massive rates of incarceration—rates that are intimately linked not to rising crime rates but to private enterprise and a powerful prison lobby. In other words, she describes a draconian system that actually manufactures criminals in order to fill profitable prison beds. The winners? Big business. The losers? Disadvantaged communities that have neither the financial nor the social resources to fight back.

A civil rights lawyer who holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and Moritz College of Law, both at Ohio State University, Alexander also has extensive media advocacy, grassroots-organizing, coalition-building, and litigation experience. She advocates for an end to the war on drugs, which she says would bring US rates of incarceration back down to those of the 1970s and would mean the release of 80 percent of the people behind bars in our nation today. She has shared her passionate vision in TIME magazine, the New York Times—even on the Colbert Report.

Harold Dean Trulear interviewed Alexander recently about what she has learned about the criminal justice system in our country and what her hopes are for changing it to one of justice and rehabilitation rather retribution and dehumanization.

When you wrote The New Jim Crow, what were you hoping to accomplish?
Michelle Alexander: I was hoping to help other people have the same kind of awakening that I finally did. There was a time when I cared deeply about racial and social justice but really had so little understanding of the magnitude of the harm caused by mass incarceration to communities of color. I was in deep denial about the fact that we as a nation had managed to re-create a caste-like system, a system of legal discrimination that was locking millions of people into a permanent second-class status—yet again. As I began to wake up—through a series of experiences that I had working as a civil rights lawyer and advocate—I became filled with this passion and determination to help others around me wake up as well.

As I talked to my colleagues and fellow advocates about what I was learning—about how our criminal justice system truly operates as opposed to how it’s advertised, and what was really going on in so many communities hard-hit by the drug war—I found that people were often dismissive of the notion that things could really be that bad. People would often fall back on arguments such as “it’s all traceable to bad schools or poverty, that’s why millions of black and brown men are cycling in and out of our prisons today.” So I wrote the book in the hopes of helping people see that there’s much, much more going on here than immediately meets the eye. Our criminal justice system does in fact function now much more like a system of racial and social control than a system of crime prevention.

And now you’re speaking to people and groups around the country, building a movement to change the system. What keeps you motivated on a daily basis in this work?
Alexander: I am motivated by the people I meet in communities all over this country who are defying the odds and engaging in truly heroic acts of advocacy and courage and survival. This system is geared to keep poor people of color in a perpetual cycle of desperation and marginalization, and yet everywhere I go I meet people who not only have somehow found a way to escape the clutches of the system but who are dedicating their lives to ensure that others break free as well, people who are committed to consciousness-raising and movement-building with levels of dedication that are awe-inspiring. Meeting them fills me with hope that we are going to end this system and build something much more compassionate and just than this nation has seen to date.

I saw you in the documentary Our Turn to Dream, which juxtaposed what you are attempting to do with the work of Martin Luther King. One characteristic of King’s approach to changing social policy was that he wanted to change both law and culture, both institutions and hearts. How does your approach compare to his?
Alexander: Well, I really hope eventually to be able to live up to the model that King created for advocacy. I, too, believe that it’s not just a matter of changing laws or tinkering with the machine, that the ultimate goal is building a new moral consensus, shifting consciousness. But I don’t think that we build a new moral consensus by simply talking. It also takes courageous forms of advocacy, and it takes changing rules and laws so that people are required to behave differently. I agree 100 percent with Dr. King that we must change laws, but the way we go about changing the laws is as important as the laws themselves. If the way we go about seeking change does not create a fundamentally new way of viewing and interpreting our world, and if the way we go about change does not lead us to view one another with more compassion, then we may have won a short-term battle but we will have lost in the long run.

So I’m very hopeful that the movement that we build to end mass incarceration will understand itself as being about much more than simply changing the rules and laws. We must be thoroughly committed to building a new public consensus that views each and every one of us—no matter who we are or what we may have done—as fundamentally worthy.

For me, at its core, the movement to end mass incarceration must be a spiritual movement, much like the civil rights movement was. If it’s going to prove truly transformational, this movement has to be about a growing awareness that we’re all God’s children, we are all worthy, and we all are deserving of basic humanity and respect.

This country is so accustomed to viewing itself as a land of freedom and opportunity that your talk of a caste system must sound outrageous to many people. What are the blind spots that prevent us from seeing our country as it really is?
Alexander: That’s an excellent question, and it’s exactly the right question—where are our blind spots? When I look at myself 15 or 20 years ago, I can see that I had these huge blind spots. I prided myself as someone who cared deeply about social justice, and yet I was blind to a significant dimension of our social reality. I think these blind spots form because of certain cultural narratives that are embraced over time. One of the main cultural narratives that exists in black communities today is this idea that the fact that millions are cycling in and out of jails is somehow the fault of young black men who won’t pull up their pants, stay in school, act right, and just get their lives together. There’s a belief that the whole system of mass incarceration could have been avoided if our young black men hadn’t discarded the opportunities that have been provided to them. It’s a really powerful narrative, and it’s reinforced in popular culture by celebrities like Bill Cosby who are often very well-intentioned but who perhaps, like I did, have a blind spot as to how our criminal justice system and other systems—like our educational system and our mental health system—operate in ways that often keep people perpetually trapped. (Editor’s note: See infographic below.)

That’s not to deny in any way individual responsibility or the capacity of the human spirit to transcend and overcome even the most extraordinary challenges and obstacles. But it is to say that these stories that we tell ourselves—that all of this could be avoided if people just made different choices or acted right—keep us in deep denial about the ways in which systems have developed and even in this so-called era of colorblindness operate with the purpose and effect of keeping people perpetually locked up or locked out. It’s not about saying this is about racism and not individual responsibility. It’s about acknowledging the capacity of human beings and the importance of human agency and the ability of us as human beings to overcome tremendous obstacles while at the same time being willing to fully open our eyes and see how horribly unjust so many of our institutions in society are, especially our criminal justice system.

If you take a look at it, the system seems better designed to create a perpetual class of people labeled “criminal” than to create safe, caring, and thriving communities. I think we have to take a good hard look at our blind spots and the kinds of narratives that keep us believing that those who are trapped at the bottom are stuck there for reasons that can be described simply as “their own fault.”

Do these blind spots constitute the strongest resistance to your work, or are there other pockets of resistance that you come up against? Or is the response more apathetic?
Alexander: Well, I have to say that those people who have actually taken the time to read the book come away saying, “Oh, my gosh, I had no idea that the system actually worked that way.” They are typically blown away by the statistics that I share. They are stunned to learn that police departments get rewarded in cash for the sheer numbers of people swept into the system for minor drug offenses and that decisions of the Supreme Court have eviscerated fourth amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizures. They’re stunned to learn that it’s now nearly impossible to challenge racial bias in our criminal justice system because the Supreme Court has closed the courthouse doors to claims of racial bias at every step of the process, from stops and searches to plea-bargaining and sentencing. I find that the people who are new to this come away shocked and appalled.

But people who don’t take the time to actually expose themselves to the history of the system, the politics, the data, how the system has been designed, and how the Supreme Court has operated in the last 40 years in a way that has turned our criminal justice system more into a processing center than anything like a justice system—people who just hear the title The New Jim Crow or hear excerpts of me speaking typically react with shocked disbelief. “How can you say that something like a caste system exists when all you have to do is look at Barack Obama or Oprah Winfrey or Colin Powell?” I think these examples of black success lead people to believe that nothing like a caste system could exist in the United States today.

Educating people about the phenomenon of mass incarceration—its history and how it actually works—can’t be done in sound bites. The education process can be slow and difficult, but I’m encouraged by the numbers of people who have actually been willing to take on the challenge of raising consciousness within their faith communities, holding study circles or showing films, inviting people who are knowledgeable about the system to come in and to talk and share dialogue so that many of the system-sustaining myths can be evaporated. But it’s not going to happen overnight.

Often people in the communities that have a lot of experience with mass incarceration, communities that have been hit hard by the drug war, or communities that feel like a police state—many of these people already know at an intuitive level that something is horribly amiss, but they often lack the data or the research to back up those claims. So I think it’s critically important for people who have access to the information to share it, publicize it, and help make visible what has been hidden in plain sight for too long.

When my theology students at Howard University read your book, they are so overwhelmed by the compelling documentation of the clear connection between slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration that they often miss the call to action in your last chapters. I actually have had to assign the end of the book first. I really want my students to understand what you mean by human dignity. Can you elaborate on what you mean by “humanizing the system” as part of this call to action?
Alexander: Well, I think what has been lost over the past 40 years—and arguably has always been absent from our criminal justice system when it comes to people of color—is this basic recognition of the dignity and humanity of those who are accused of crimes. It’s easy to hate a person once you’ve put the label “criminal” on them or to be suspicious and unbelieving of the defendant. It is easy to have no forgiveness or compassion for the murderer, to believe that a person labeled a “felon” is no good, probably up to no good, and never bound to do any good. Once we attach labels to people—calling them a murderer, a felon, or a criminal—we reduce them to something less than human; we reduce them to the worst behavior they have ever committed.

But as one of my personal heroes, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, always reminds us, no one should be reduced to the worst thing they have ever done. All of us are better than the worst thing we’ve ever done, and there’s more to us as human beings, as children of God, than the worst act we’ve ever committed. So I think part of redeeming our criminal justice system is acknowledging at every stage of the process the dignity and basic humanity of all those involved, including the person who allegedly committed the crime, including the victim of the crime, including the community members who may be affected by what has taken place. All of these people who are impacted and involved are worthy of our care, compassion, and concern.

Of course, people who do wrong and cause harm must be held accountable. Punishment is warranted when people harm others, but not the reduction of any human being to something that denies their humanity. And that is what we do—we put them in cages and treat them worse than animals!

Take, for example, Herman Wallace, who was held in solitary confinement for 40 years for a crime he did not commit.  He was kept in a 6- by 9-foot windowless cell, a form of isolation that has been shown to cause severe and often irreparable mental harm if it lasts for weeks, but Herman’s severe isolation lasted 40 years.  He was released this past October just days before he died, when a judge acknowledged that he had never received a fair trial.

I know many people would shudder if a dog were held under those conditions for weeks, but there are tens of thousands of human beings who are suffering indefinite solitary confinement in the United States right now.  It is a recognized form of torture in other Western democracies, but here in the United States it is routine for people labeled as criminals.  It is because we have allowed these labels—often rooted in racial bias and un/conscious stereotypes and bias—because we reduce these people to labels that make them less than human, it becomes easy to dispose of them, and we wind up creating a so-called justice system that has little to do with justice for all those concerned and much more to do with the management and control of those we’ve labeled unworthy.

For me, reimagining what our justice system ought to look like has to begin with a commitment to acknowledging the basic dignity and humanity of all those concerned. One of the problems we face today is that so many people go to prison for things that probably shouldn’t even be defined as crime. My own views on drug policy have evolved over the years, and I now believe that no one should be treated as a criminal because they’re struggling with a drug addiction or because they’re caught in possession of some substance for personal use that we think might be harmful to them. We create criminals by defining whole classes of people as criminals because they are ingesting substances that might harm them. I no longer believe that criminalizing people who may have substance abuse problems is moral or rational. We ought to extend the same concern and treatment to people who are suffering from crack addiction as we do to those who are alcoholics or are trying to wean themselves from tobacco.

How have people of faith responded to your work? How would you like them to respond?
Alexander: I think that as people of faith, we must search our own hearts and acknowledge our own judgment and bias against those we view as criminals. That’s certainly something that I’ve had to do myself—recognize that in my own growing up and in coming into adulthood I absorbed, through osmosis, as part of the social culture, a lot of ideas about people who are labeled criminals. In my own heart I’ve had places of unforgiveness for people who have committed certain types of crime. I think it’s important for us to begin—before pointing fingers at the police, or judges, or prosecutors, or politicians—by acknowledging all the ways that we may be quick to judge or condemn. I do not imagine that we will ever fully cure or rid ourselves of some of these tendencies, but it’s an ongoing process of checking in and acknowledging our own biases and temptations to judge and then engaging in conversation and dialogue with people who are part of our faith communities.

I am deeply saddened that so many faith communities have been silent for so long as this unbelievably inhumane penal system—of a scale and size unprecedented in world history—has emerged in the United States. There’s just been so little resistance from people of faith. Certainly there have been many wonderful people who have worked within prisons over the last 40 years, tutoring and ministering to people behind bars, people who have performed wonderful acts of charity for those released from prison, helping to feed and clothe them, and that is all absolutely essential. But I find shockingly few examples of faith communities really coming together to organize and speak out collectively against a criminal justice system that flies in the face of so many of the values Christians claim to hold dear.

This is a system predicated on the idea that no one can ever be fully redeemed. It’s a system that allows people to be branded felons and punished for the rest of their lives without any pathway back to inclusion in our society. It’s a system that is explicitly based on a model of pure retribution, with no hope of forgiveness. It’s a system where it is difficult to find any trace of compassion. Yet so many of us have remained quiet, imagining that perhaps our role is to try to save individual friends behind bars rather than recognizing that as people of faith we have an obligation to speak out and to stand up for those who are being discriminated against, abused, and oppressed.

We have an obligation to do that if we are going to claim to really be about all the virtues and values we say we embrace. I hope and pray that faith communities will come to speak loudly and organize with great force. My hope is that one day people will look back on the movement to end mass incarceration as a spiritual movement, just as they do the civil rights movement.

To learn more about the issue, download the book study guide, and access action resources, go to

This interview was conducted by Harold Dean Trulear, director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and a fellow at the Center for Public Justice. He has written extensively on issues related to incarceration and is the coeditor of Ministry with Prisoners & Families: The Way Forward (Judson Press, 2011). A member of the Executive Session on Community Corrections at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Dr. Trulear is also an associate professor of applied theology at Howard Divinity School in DC and on the pastoral staff of Praise and Glory Tabernacle in Philadelphia, Pa.

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