Michelle Alexander at a December 2011 talk at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs
Miller Center, via Flickr
Author of ‘The New Jim Crow’ highlights recent examples of activism

Students have an essential role to play in creating a dialogue around social justice and pressing for social reforms, civil-rights lawyer and activist Michelle Alexander said during a Feb. 26 campus lecture.

“I no longer believe that the current two-party, pay-to-play political system will, as constructed, do justice to poor people and people of color in this country,” Alexander told a large audience in McCosh 10 and three overflow rooms.

“Students are the most likely to make a meaningful contribution to racial, historical, and economic justice,” she said. “I would hope that students demand that their educational institution support faculty, resources, and the conversations necessary to respond to the most pressing questions of our time.”

Alexander, who wrote the 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, spoke with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African American studies, about the legacy of racial discrimination in the United States. Alexander’s book argues that despite the end of Jim Crow laws, the U.S. criminal-justice system functions as a system of racial control through the denial of rights and benefits to convicted felons.

“As a nation, we’ve failed to recognize our past, the harm that we’ve done, and what it’s going to take to repair it,” Alexander said. “So much of the harm of slavery and mass incarceration is irreparable, and it’s going to take serious, meaningful conversation to address it.”

She encouraged students to draw hope from movements around them. She highlighted activism among young people in Ferguson, Mo.; survivors of the Parkland, Fla., shooting; and formerly incarcerated people as a source of inspiration.

“All of this leads me to believe we are going to grow and evolve as a country,” Alexander said. “I believe out of all of this, there will be new forms of organizing and activism and new possibilities about what our democracy can be.”