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As we recall the civil rights gains that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. worked so hard for, noted legal scholar Michelle Alexander claims there’s still a long way to go before blacks achieve true social equality.

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In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander, an associate legal professor at Ohio State University, describes how America’s war on drugs has resulted in the mass incarceration of black males, effectively undermining many of the civil rights battles won during the 1960s and 1970s.

Talking on NPR’s Fresh Air program, she explains that today there are more African-American men under correctional control (ie., in prison or jail, on probation or on parole) than in 1850, a decade before the start of the Civil War.

She says that in some major cities more than half of black men are under some sort of correctional control, are branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”

She calls the current situation the “new Jim Crow.”

“People are swept into the criminal justice system — particularly in poor communities of color — at very early ages … typically for fairly minor, nonviolent crimes,” she tells Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies. “[The young black males are] shuttled into prisons, branded as criminals and felons, and then when they’re released, they’re relegated to a permanent second-class status, stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement — like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of legal discrimination and employment, and access to education and public benefits. Many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again, once you’ve been branded a felon.”

Alexander also explains how the war on drugs, touted and implemented largely by former President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s, created an enormous political opportunity.

“He declared the drug war primarily for reasons of politics — racial politics. Numerous historians and political scientists have documented that the war on drugs was part of a grand Republican Party strategy known as the “Southern strategy” of using racially coded ‘get-tough’ appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were resentful of, anxious about and threatened by many of the gains of African-Americans in the civil rights movement.”

Read more of the highlights from her interview here.

And listen to the entire interview below.


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