By Elias Isquith
Earlier this month, I attended a speaking event at Union Theological Seminary, the beautiful and nearly 180-year-old divinity school found on New York’s Upper West Side. The event was part of Union’s “Women of Spirit Lecture” series, and the speaker was Michelle Alexander, the legal scholar, civil rights activist and author of 2010’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” a book already considered by many to be among the most influential of its time. No less a figure than current Union professor Dr. Cornel West has called Alexander’s book “the secular bible for a new social movement”; and no less a celebrity than John Legend nodded in its direction in his Academy Award acceptance speech. Put simply, if today’s growing campaign against mass incarceration and the war on drugs can be said to have a foundational text, “The New Jim Crow” is it.
Alexander’s speech was strident and inspiring (you can watch here), but it focused less on the particulars of her analysis than I’d expected. Rather than recapitulate an argument she’s made God only knows how many times over the past 5-plus years, Alexander decided instead to explain why she now believes that a reform movement undergirded by her analysis will not be enough. “If we are serious about doing more than just tinkering with the mass incarceration machine” and want to dismantle the United States’ “massive systems of racial and social control,” Alexander continued, reformers will have to present a vision of the future that “transcends the politics of power and privilege.” Citing the example of Martin Luther King Jr., who was becoming more radical before he was murdered, Alexander argued that destroying Jim Crow would ultimately require a kind of new, “revolutionary understanding about who we are as human beings.”
As I said, this was passionate, gripping stuff. But the reason the speech is currently on my mind has more to do with what President Obama said in Selma, Alabama, this Saturday than what Alexander said at Union last week. And while I seriously doubt the president’s remarks honoring the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” were intended as a response, experiencing her speech and his in relatively quick succession made it feel as if both were part of a bigger and more enduring conversation. And whether the argument concerned the Jim Crow of the past or of the present was ultimately of secondary importance. Because it wasn’t strategy or tactics that were being debated — it was the meaning of social and political change itself.
Alexander and Obama diverge over a couple of progressivism’s biggest Big Questions, but the easiest way to understand their split is to listen to how differently they tell the story of race and politics in America’s recent history. In the president’s eyes, the campaign against white supremacy during the past 50 years has been mostly successful: most things are better, and only a few things are worse. The story Alexander tells is very different. In her version, white supremacy has changed its form in accordance with the times, but remains essentially intact. The lyrics may have changed — “thug” instead of the n-word, African-American instead of negro — but the melody is hardly any different.