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Criminal injustice: Michelle Alexander on racism and incarceration

In her 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander examines the practices and policies that have quintupled the U.S. prison population over the past 40 years. She argues that these policies have created a permanent underclass of disenfranchised convicted felons who are overwhelmingly black and Latino. Alexander has worked for the American Civil Liberties Union and was a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. She teaches at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.

How did you begin your research into the patterns of racial discrimination and social control that you call the “new Jim Crow”?

I was inspired by my experience working as director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU in California. I was representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality and investigating patterns of drug enforcement in poor communities of color. I was also working with people who were being released from prison to reenter a society that had never had much use for them. I awakened to the reality that our criminal justice system functions more as a system for racial control than as a system for crime prevention. I found out that what I thought I knew about the criminal justice system—and I thought I knew quite a bit; I was a lawyer, after all—was sheer myth.