The Legacy of Jim Crow + Intersectionality
Our work over these weeks has traced the unconscionable treatment and control of Black people through our nation’s history of slavery, aborted gains in Reconstruction, establishment of Black codes, lynchings, vigilante racist terrorism, debt peonage, and the Jim Crow South. We now arrive to consider our modern-day bondage of mass incarceration, the militarized police state, and a failed “War on Drugs” that must be viewed through the lens of this legacy.
We begin this week’s readings with an excerpt from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to help us see how the system of mass incarceration works to trap Black Americans in a criminal unjust system whereby tools of the roundup sweep them inside; a lack of money for legal representation makes them vulnerable to accepting plea deals regardless of guilt, and mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines confer a lifetime of the system’s formal control over the convicted — either within the walls of confinement or through the more invisible punishment of discrimination that denies housing, employment, education, public benefits, or the right to vote to those who serve their time and are “freed.” We also review the connection between the Jim Crow era and mass incarceration in an abridged excerpt from this book.
We bring Michelle Alexander’s voice to the table through an On Being podcast where she discusses her book in more detail. Bonus content includes a lecture she gives at the University of Chicago.
This week, we watch a feature film as part of our curriculum. In the Netflix documentary, 13th, director Ava DuVernay combines archival footage with testimony from activists and scholars to examine the U.S. prison system and looks at how the country’s history of racial inequality drives the high rate of incarceration in America. This Oscar-nominated film won Best Documentary at the Emmys, the BAFTAs and the NAACP Image Awards.
And to round out our review of this topic, we learn from civil rights attorney, author, and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, as he discusses his lifetime of work seeking “Just Mercy” in the criminal justice system during a keynote address he gives at Stanford University (followed by bonus content of a round table discussion on the same topic moderated by Katie Couric). Bonus content includes a Soul Force Politics podcast with Sister Helen Prejean discussing restorative justice principles and efforts to abolish the death penalty in consideration of how radical love can transform our criminal justice system.
We add to our considerations this week, a small dip into the dialogue about intersectionality. Now more than ever, it is important to understand how race and gender bias intersect and often combine to create even more harm. UCLA and Columbia School of Law Professor, Kimberlé Crenshaw, coined the term “intersectionality” to describe this phenomenon. She has said that, “If you’re standing in the path of multiple forms of exclusion, you’re likely to get hit by both.” We read a Vox interview that helps to give some historical background to this concept (and how it has gone viral in ways that go beyond her original legal concept) and in a moving TED Talk, we watch as Professor Crenshaw calls on us to bear witness to intersectionality and speak up for victims of prejudice. We listen to another compelling podcast from our friends at Scene On Radio to further explore this topic.
Remember to pay attention to how all of your experiences with this content are showing up in your body. Where does it land? Are you expanding or contracting? What is it (the discomfort, excitement, pain, tears, hope, etc) teaching you? What are you discovering about YOU in this process?
Two excerpts from Chapter 5 of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander — How It Works (pages 185-187) and an abridged section covering the similarities between now and the Jim Crow era (pages 190-220)
The Intersectionality Wars — an interview of Kimberlé Crenshaw by Jane Coaston for Vox
Michelle Alexander — Who We Want to Become Beyond the New Jim Crow (51 minutes) On Being podcast
NETFLIX documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay (1 hour 40 minutes)
Just Mercy: Race and the Criminal Justice System with Bryan Stevenson (43 minutes)
with bonus content — after the Stevenson keynote, there is a round table discussion moderated by Katie Couric at Stanford University
Michelle Alexander lectures at the University of Chicago (1 hour 10 minutes)