What does a new underground railroad look like?

by Jordan Green

Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has been rightfully called “an instant classic” by no less an intellectual force than Cornel West. In its sweeping historic analysis and painstaking dissection of the US criminal justice system, it ranks with WEB Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk as a concise explanation of the age.

For the past year or so, Alexander, a former director of the Racial Justice Project of Northern California, has been persuasively making her case in speeches across the nation that the explosive growth in incarceration over the past three decades, fueled by punitive drug laws and long mandatory minimum sentences that target African-American men, has effectively created a new racial caste system that imposes second-class citizenship denying felons access to employment, education, shelter and food. It’s a stunningly effective system of racial and social control that makes the classic Jim Crow system of “whitesonly” drinking fountains and lunch counters seem unsophisticated and ham-handed.

Among the startling facts shared by Alexander at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem last week was that the US prison population has quintupled — multiplied by a factor of five — in the past 30 years while crime rates have fluctuated and currently rest at a national low. Many of those stuck behind bars are low-level nonviolent drug offenders who have been caught with small amounts of marijuana for their personal use or for sale to friends. Alexander said studies have consistently shown that people of color are no more likely to use or sell drugs than their white counterparts. She didn’t have to say that students on campus at Wake Forest who sell pot to each other are not subjected to the same stop-and-frisk procedures that black and Latino youth in poor neighborhoods of New York City experience.

If you don’t live in the black community, or if you’re not connected to it through work or family, you may not know that mass incarceration has roared through with terrible and devastating force: black men plucked out of their communities during prime earning years and prevented from providing for their children, creating a demographic skew that results in 70 percent of professional black women remaining unmarried. When ex-offenders come home, the scarlet letter of their records often prevents them from finding unemployment, leaving them perpetually behind on child support payments and vulnerable to a revolving door of incarceration.

In that sense, families and whole communities serve the sentence too. In our get-tough zeal to lock up bad guys — people whose only crime might have been smoking marijuana in the privacy of their living rooms — we’ve created a far greater harm than what we were trying to protect ourselves from in the name of public safety.

How many people adjudicated from Guilford and Forsyth counties and serving sentences in NC prisons are there because of nonviolent, lowlevel drug offenses? How many have cycled back into the prison system because they violated parole by smoking pot one time or fell behind in child-support payments? How many black men in Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point are looking for work while carrying the stigma of a felony or misdemeanor on their records?

In Milwaukee County, one in eight black men have served time, while about half in their thirties and early forties — coincident with the boom in Wisconsin’s prison population after mandatory minimum sentences went into effect — have done time, NPR reported on Oct. 3. If that sounds high, Alexander said almost 80 percent of black men in Chicago are burdened with criminal records.

Alexander argues that only a mass social movement has any hope of ending incarceration. She doesn’t minimize the need for systemic change, arguing that just as with slavery, “it wasn’t enough to shuttle a few, one by one, to freedom; you had to be willing to work for abolition.”

There’s another aspect that is equally important.

We have to be willing “to build an ‘underground railroad’ for people who are released from prison — an underground railroad for people making a genuine break for real freedom — people who are in need of shelter, a safe place to sleep, who need food, who need help finding work,” Alexander said. “We’ve got to be willing to open up our places of employment, open our places of worship, open our homes to people who are coming home from prison and support the families of those who have loved ones behind bars.”

What would an underground railroad to restore wholeness to communities in the Triad look like?

It looks like Dianne Bellamy-Small, a member of Greensboro City Council who runs the Transition Network, lining up employers who are willing to take a chance on ex-offenders, turning to her pastor to procure groceries for a woman who hasn’t been able to feed her children for a couple days, or scrounging up a pair of ACC basketball tickets for a 33-year-old man who has been in prison since his 16 th birthday.

It looks like a church activist in Milwaukee who told NPR’s Cheryl Corley: “We are working hard to get transitional money for jobs. We are doing grants. We’re trying to empower them to do better. We are the Paul Reveres. That’s what we are. We are getting the word out there: ‘Get ready, get ready, because this is going to change one neighborhood at a time.’” It looks like a friend of mine, who had to miss Alexander’s speech because he was picking up an incarcerated friend’s teenage daughter from school.