December 2012 Bar Bulletin
 
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December 2012 Bar Bulletin

MLK Luncheon Spotlight: Penal Discrimination Casts Long Shadow

By Karen Murray

 

Lately, there has been a lot of excitement surrounding the book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, from its 2010 hardback publication to its 2012 paperback edition, even though the book's subject matter has been addressed in some form or another by other noted experts.

Nonetheless, the book's author, Michelle Alexander, takes a difficult, emotional and controversial subject, and with her many years of research and professional experiences sheds new light on race and the ever-growing incarceration rates of young black males, enabling the reader and her listening audience to engage in further dialogue.

The book's thesis, which Alexander outlined in a January 16 NPR interview, is that the new caste system is mass incarceration. She stated, "I think it's very easy to brush off the notion that the system operates much like a caste system, if in fact you are not trapped within it.

"I have spent years representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to help people who have been released from prison attempting to ‘re-enter' into a society that never seemed to have much use for them in the first place. And in the course of that work, I had my own awakening about our criminal justice system and this system of mass incarceration.... My experience and research has led me to the regrettable conclusion that our system of mass incarceration functions more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control."

Alexander, a noted civil rights lawyer and consummate legal scholar and advocate, will be the keynote speaker at the King County Bar Association's annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Luncheon on Friday, January 18, from noon to 1:15 p.m., at the downtown Sheraton Hotel in Seattle.

As a legal colleague, as someone who has written about a system many of us are either directly or indirectly familiar with, and as an individual, she argues that we in the legal community (along with our supporters) should and must provide solutions to this new caste system. For these reasons, the KCBA invited Alexander to address the bar and its members in honor of Dr. King and his legacy.

By exploring how institutions are created and then supported by laws enacted to maintain the status quo, Alexander takes the reader through a history lesson regarding how, over time, those laws created caste systems. In a simple fashion, she outlines the codes enacted when slaves became free men, demonstrating how far the plantation owners and their political allies would go to control a group of individuals they once owned, by writing laws such as:

  • black codes, which were established after the Civil War to limit the civil rights and civil liberties of blacks;

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