‘The new Jim Crow’: Michelle Alexander explains how our prison system condemns many African Americans to second-class status

“All people make mistakes … All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”

— The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
(By Michelle Alexander)

And those first-time drug offenders who end up in prison, says civil rights lawyer Alexander, JD, are disproportionately African-American, even though decades of studies show that people of color do not use or sell drugs at higher rates than whites.


This is just one of many beliefs commonly held by society that Alexander hopes to dispel in her talk at Washington University in St. Louis. The Assembly Series/Public Interest Law & Policy Speakers Series program, which is free and open to the public, will be held at noon Friday, Nov. 1, in Anheuser-Busch Hall’s Bryan Cave Moot Courtroom.

Alexander will give the same lecture at 7 p.m. that evening at the Missouri History Museum. Her visit to St. Louis is sponsored by WUSTL’s Office of the Provost, the School of Law and the Assembly Series, in cooperation with the museum.

The New Jim Crow, winner of the NAACP Award for best nonfiction in 2011, became a surprise best seller after the paperback version was released last year. According to The New York Times, sales reached 175,000 copies after an initial hardcover printing of a mere 3,000 by publisher New Press.

The book’s title refers to the author’s view of a new system of racial and social control imposed upon African Americans, created by the current state of mass incarceration that operates in a similar manner as the “old” Jim Crow system of rules, laws and customs that locked African Americans into permanent second-class status.

Because of the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” initiatives established years ago, Alexander argues, blacks are being incarcerated at a grossly disproportionate rate to white Americans and with much harsher sentences for first-time drug offenses. Those growing up in middle-class, white neighborhoods who make the same mistakes, she says, as people (mostly males) of color in the inner city are treated differently and don’t have to pay for those mistakes for the rest of their lives.

An associate professor, she holds a joint appointment with the Moritz College of Law and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.

For information regarding future Assembly Series programs, visit assemblyseries.wustl.edu or call (314) 935-5297; For information on the Public Interest Law & Policy Speakers Series program, visit here.