The left's racial dilemma: President Obama, Michelle Alexander & the nature of change

Why the president and a star academic are debating one of liberalism's central questions — without even knowing it

Published March 10, 2015 12:30PM (EDT)

Barack Obama participates in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015.          (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Barack Obama participates in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

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.

None of this is to say that Obama believes the civil rights movement’s work is finished. He granted in his speech that the past half-century has hardly been without its setbacks. Still, those who care about racial equality, Obama said, “do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America.” Skeptics, he said, should “ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s” whether life is better for people of color today. Dismissing that hard-won progress, Obama said, would “rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”

Alexander would never deny that what Obama calls the “abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement” looks different today than it did in the 1950s. But she would question whether the system of mass incarceration and criminalization that exists nowadays — what she calls the new Jim Crow — is, in aggregate, really that much of an improvement. “Nationwide,” Alexander said in her Union address, “about one-third of black men can expect to spend time behind bars.” When adjusted for those who lack a high school diploma, Alexander claimed, “that figure rises to about 60 percent.” And while it’s true that the rights of an African-American and a white person in the contemporary U.S. are nominally the same, once the system has branded you a felon, Alexander said, that already-thin veil is reduced to tatters.

“Once [you’re] branded a criminal or felon,” Alexander said, “you're ushered into a parallel social universe in which the basic civil and human rights that applied to others no longer apply to you.” The right to vote, the right to be on a jury, the right to be protected from discriminatory practices in employment, housing and education — for millions of felons, according to Alexander, these rights are once again up for public debate. The philosophy of “broken windows” policing, which is unselfconsciously directed toward poor communities of color, is “the practical equivalent of the black codes,” Alexander said. It bridges the gap between law-abider and felon just as those codes created a pathway from citizen to de facto slave.

In other words, what Obama described as the fruits of “hard-won progress,” Alexander would probably describe as provisional, at best. But while the president’s response would likely be to say, as he did in Selma, that this is simply proof that “our work is never done,” Alexander is more inclined to see it as evidence that “our work” requires a different approach. After referencing a quote from Dr. King — in which the greatest American reformer of the 20th century claimed to feel “quite differently” than he once did, and to believe that “a reconstruction of the entire society” and “a revolution of values” was needed — Alexander argued that the destruction of the new Jim Crow “will not be won in the courtrooms or in the halls of power.” The system as it exists, she said, is just too rigged.

Whether you find Alexander or Obama’s view of things more persuasive will likely have as much to do with your temperament as history as your estimation of the available facts. As the president himself has said countless times, he is an “eternal optimist,” the kind of guy who will always see the glass as half-full. Alexander, meanwhile, said that she used to be a stronger believer the power of reform. But now she fears “that many civil rights lawyers and advocates … have been stuck in a model of advocacy that King was determined to leave behind,” merely tinkering at the edges, waiting for inexorable progress to do the heavy lifting while a new racial caste system — at once different and the same — has arisen instead.

From my vantage, both make compelling arguments, and I’m loath to choose between them. But if forced, I suppose I’d side with Alexander — who, as an academic, is free from letting aspiration cloud her vision in a way Obama, professional politician, isn’t. What’s most striking to me, though, is an irony that my Obama-as-optimist and Alexander-as-pessimist dichotomy misses. Namely, that the president’s optimism is built on an implicit belief that, when it comes to human progress, the past 50 years is about as fast as it gets. Yet for all the president’s talk of playing the “long game” and the "long" arc of the moral universe, I can’t help but wonder if the millions of lives ruined by the new Jim Crow are better understood through a famous quote from the economist John Maynard Keynes, who noted, “In the long run we are all dead.”

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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