Teaching Tolerance hosts webinar with “New Jim Crow” author Michelle Alexander

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in conjunction with author Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” is developing an innovative teachers guide to direct lessons on racism and social justice.  Part of a two-part webinar, the first broadcast to introduce the curriculum was held on Sept. 23. The second part will be broadcast Oct. 29.

Released in 2010, “The New Jim Crow” outlines the use of the justice system in the United States as a form of racial control that especially impacts young African American males.  There are more Black men in jails today in America than were enslaved in 1850, and explosion of incarceration that has taken place over the last 30 years.  Alexander’s studies have pinpointed the disproportionate effect of the War on Drugs on communities of color as the cause of mass incarceration. 

Exploring “The New Jim Crow” with students in the classroom can be a critical tool in undoing the oppressive systems. Teachers can participate in the “undoing” by leading discussions on race with young people, said Alexander. “Students need to view teachers as change agents,” she said. 

Alexander acknowledged that teachers could be reluctant to open the subject of racism with young people, fearing they will get something wrong or cause offense. However with an “open mind, open heart, and willing to take risks,” teachers can facilitate necessary conversations in the classroom.

Societal change will not come with just ending harsh punishments and changes to rules and laws, Alexander said, but it is important to bring about a shift in consciousness around the subject of race, because until that happens, society will still produce oppressive systems.

It is more important to listen to what people closest to the problem are thinking and feeling about race and how they are responding with movements, said Alexander, than to simply leave solutions up to politicians. 

Among the questions taken from the webinar participants was the question of how mass incarceration affects young women of color.  Alexander said that her thesis centered on young Black men, but it is critically important to also focus on young women, as there has been a recent increase in young Black and Latina women imprisoned. Women are often jailed for non-violent crimes, like drug possession, as a result of the war on drugs.

Young women of color often receive harsher punishments for refusing to inform on the men in their lives them to police, etc.

Men missing from families as a result of long, harsh jail sentences have an impact on women and children. There are far more single women of color trying to raise children and be the breadwinners as a result of fathers being in jail, or being barred from gainful employment and full rights as a result of felony post-incarceration restrictions. 

Despite this, the number of young Black women in college is growing in number, while the gap for young Black males is still wide. The disappearance of industrial work in cities had a greater impact on Black men in the United States. 

Alexander said her next book will be about building a transformative movement for justice

Photo: Michelle Alexander speaks at the Miller Center Forum, Dec. 3, 2011. (CC)


Michelle Kern
Michelle Kern

Michelle Kern is Adjunct Professor, Creative Arts and Social Science Department at College of San Mateo, California. She is Chapter Chair at AFT local 1493, Organizer at AFT local 1493 and contributing writer to Peoplesworld.org.