BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. On this weekend 42 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated -- gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. Many of us still have the images etched in painful memory -- Dr. King standing with colleagues on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the next day lying there mortally wounded, his aides pointing in the direction of the rifle shot.
CROWD: Everybody wants freedom...
BILL MOYERS: Then we remember the crowds of mourners slowly moving through the streets of Atlanta on a hot sunny day, surrounding King's casket as it was carried on a mule-drawn farm wagon; and the riots that burned across the nation in the wake of his death; a stinging, misbegotten rebuke to his gospel of non-violence.
We sanctify his memory now, name streets and schools after him, we've made his birthday a national holiday. But in April 1968, as Martin Luther King walked out on that motel balcony, his reputation was under assault. The glory days of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and the 1963 march on Washington were behind him, his Nobel peace prize already in the past.
A year before, he had spoken out against the war in Vietnam.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: A time comes when silence is betrayal. And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
BILL MOYERS: He said money spent on the war should go for social programs, and that angered many, including President Lyndon Johnson, some of his fellow civil rights leaders, and influential newspapers. The Washington Post charged that King had, quote, "diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people."
With his popularity in decline, an exhausted, stressed and depressed Martin Luther King turned his attention to economic injustice. His march on Washington five years earlier, he said, had not been for civil rights alone but "for jobs and income, because we felt that the economic question was the most crucial that black people and poor people, generally, were confronting." So, in 1968, King was building what he called the Poor People's Campaign for better pay and affordable housing.
But he first had to prove that he could still be an effective leader. And so he came to Memphis, in support of a strike by that city's African-American garbage men. 1,100 sanitation workers had walked off the job after two of them their ranks died in a tragic accident, crushed by a garbage truck's compactor. The garbage men were fed up -- treated with contempt as they performed a filthy and unrewarding job, paid so badly that forty percent of them were on welfare, called "boy" by white supervisors. Their picket signs were simple and eloquent: "I am a man."
A few weeks into their strike, which had been met with opposition and violence, Dr. King arrived. He addressed a rally then returned to lead a march that ended in smashed windows, gunshots and tear gas. So now King came back to Memphis one more time to try to put things right and made the famous speech that would prove prophetic.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything! I'm not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
BILL MOYERS: The next night he was dead. Twelve days later, the strike was settled. The garbage men's union was recognized and the city of Memphis begrudgingly agreed to increase their pay, at first by ten cents an hour...and later, an extra nickel.
That paltry sum would also be prophetic. All these decades later, little has changed when it comes to economic inequality. If anything, the recent economic meltdown and recession have made the injustice of poverty even more profound.
Unemployment among African Americans is nearly double that of whites, according to the National Urban League's latest State of Black America Report. Black men and women in this country make 62 cents on the dollar earned by whites. Less than half of black and Hispanic families own homes and they are three times more likely to live below the poverty line.
Look at this report from the non-partisan group United for a Fair Economy. Martin Luther King, Jr. is on the cover. But his dream is in jeopardy, the report says. "The Great Recession has pulled the plug on communities of color, draining jobs and homes at alarming rates while exacerbating persistent inequalities of wealth and income."
That's the subject of our broadcast: what has happened to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of economic justice?
With me now is Bryan Stevenson, one of the country's leading advocates for justice. He lives in Alabama, where he founded and leads the Equal Justice Initiative, whose mission is defending the poor and people of color. He's won wide recognition, including the MacArthur "genius" award, for his efforts to end the death penalty. He teaches clinical law at New York University.
Michelle Alexander is also an expert in civil rights advocacy and litigation. The former director of the civil rights clinics at Stanford Law School in California, she teaches law now at Ohio State University. You're going to hear a lot about her powerful new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Welcome to the Journal. Let's begin with some speculation. Martin Luther King, would be 81. Imagine for us what he might think today about the state of economic justice in America.
BRYAN STEVENSON: I think he would be heartbroken. You know, in 1966, Dr. King went to Wilcox County, Alabama, one of the counties in the black belt. And King became very close to the poor there. And really organized and tried very hard and inspired people to confront poverty. And they participated in marches and demonstrations. They were largely all been evicted from lands where they'd been sharecroppers and tenant farmers.
And if you go to Wilcox County today, virtually nothing has changed. Nothing. And I think he would be brokenhearted by that. Today in that country 27 percent unemployment. Half of all black families have household income under $10 thousand a year. That in 2010 there would be 40 million people in this country who live below the federal poverty level. That these are pre-recession data. I think we--
BILL MOYERS: Blacks and whites?
BRYAN STEVENSON: Blacks and whites.
BILL MOYERS: And Hispanics and others.
BRYAN STEVENSON: And others. I think he would be devastated by that. Because we've also had this explosion of great wealth. And it's this proximity of poverty next to wealth, that I think would make it very challenging. I also think it would be sad to him to see how wealth has caused many people, people of color and others, to abandon the poor. To give up on this dream of economic justice.
And it would, I think, force him to confront these larger psychological dynamics. What was so powerful to me about his work in Memphis was not only that he was pushing for economic justice, but he was also pushing for the kind of liberation that every person who's been excluded and marginalized and subordinated by poverty has to approach.
And that is this kind of recognition that you're as good as the people who have more than you. And so, that sign that those sanitation workers were wearing -- "I am a man" -- was almost more provocative than the fact that they were seeking higher wages. Because if these are men, we have to deal with them as men, that challenges everything
Because I continue to believe that in this country the opposite of poverty is not wealth. I really don't think that's what we're talking about. I think in America, the opposite of poverty is justice. I think there are structures and systems that have created poverty and made that poverty so permanent that until we think in a more just way about how to deal with poverty in this country, we're never going to make the progress that Dr. King envisioned.
BILL MOYERS: But surely he would have been thrilled on election night, as I know you must have been on election night, with the election of the first African American president in our history.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yeah. Yes. But I think individual black achievement today masks a disturbing, underlying racial reality. You know, to a significant extent, you know, affirmative action, seeing African Americans, you know, go to Harvard and Yale, become CEOs and corporate lawyers, you know, causes us all to marvel what a long way we have come.
But, you know, as Bryan just indicated, much of the data indicates that African Americans today, as a group, are not much better off than they were back in 1968. When Martin Luther King delivered his, you know, "The Other America" speech. Talking about how there are two Americas in the United States.
One where people have great opportunities and can dream big dreams, and another America where people are mired in poverty and, you know, stuck in a permanent second class status. Those two Americas still exist today. But the existence of Barack Obama and people of color, you know, scattered in positions of power and high places, you know, creates an illusion of much more progress than has actually been made in recent years.
BILL MOYERS: In fact, you describe powerfully in your book about how thrilled you were on election night. And then you walked out of the election night party, and what happened?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. Well, on election night, I was filled with hope and enthusiasm. Like much of America. And as I poured out of the election night party, along with, you know, hundreds of others folks, there in the gutter, was an African American man handcuffed behind his back, kneeling on his knees in the gutter. And he was surrounded by a number of police officers who were talking and joking, you know, completely oblivious to him, to his human existence.
And as people poured out of the party, people glanced over, briefly, took a look at him, and then went on their way with their celebrations. And I thought to myself, "What does the election of Barack Obama mean for him? Mean for him? In what way are those folks who are truly at the bottom of the well in America, in what way have they benefited?" And I think the difficult reality that we have to come to terms with is that not much has changed or will change for the folks at the bottom of the well. Until we as a nation kind of awaken. Awaken to their humanity.
BRYAN STEVENSON: I think one of the great problems for the communities where I work is that people actually still feel pained by the absence of any truth about the real cost of Jim Crow, about the real cost of segregation, about the real cost of decades of racial subordination.
BILL MOYERS: Jim Crow was that long and awful period when African Americans were forced into segregation and second and third class citizenship, right?
BRYAN STEVENSON: That's right. And humiliated every day. You could not drink the same water. You could not go to the same bathrooms. You had to get off the sidewalk when a person who was white came by. You were absolutely branded as inferior. And that went on for decades. And we've never been told the truth about what that did to these communities.
Other countries that have confronted historic problems of racism and gross ethnic conflict have recognized that to overcome that, there has to be a period of truth and reconciliation. In South Africa, they had to go through truth and reconciliation. In Rwanda, there had to be truth and reconciliation. In this country, we've never had truth and we've never had reconciliation. And so, the day to day reality for the clients where I work, the people I work with is one that's still hurt, angry, broken.
You know, people say to me, older people come up to me, and they say, "Mr. Stevenson, I'm tired of hearing how we're talking about-- we're dealing with terrorism for the first time in our nation's history." They were antagonized by the rhetoric around 9/11. They would come up to me and they'd say, "Mr. Stevenson, I grew up with terrorism. We had to worry about being bombed. We had to worry about being lynched. We had to live in communities close to each other, because the threat of violence was constant. My uncle was nearly lynched. My aunt had to leave Alabama and go to Kentucky or Ohio or the North, because they were afraid she was going to be lynched after doing something or saying something." And that reality still lingers with them. So that they experience the things that we talk about on TV very differently. There is, I think, a quite powerful psychic injury that comes with being told day in and day out, "You're not as good. You're not as worthy. You're less than. You're subordinate."
BILL MOYERS: Lyndon Johnson would be startled, I think, if he-- you know, he signed the Civil Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act. He thought a woman would be President before an African American. Here, just 40 years later, an African American-- doesn't that pull some of the sting out of the hurt?
BRYAN STEVENSON: I think it does. But I don't think it changes the fundamental dynamics. Let's not be confused about the election of Barack Obama. My state of Alabama, Barack Obama got ten percent of the white vote. He got 13 percent of the white vote under the age of 30. Those are very discouraging statistics. John Kerry got twice that in '04 when he lost.
BILL MOYERS: What do they say to you? Those statistics?
BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, they say to me that we still live in a society where there are incredible-- there was incredible race consciousness. Where there are these divisions. I mean, my state, again, is, you know, a state where in 2004, we tried to get rid of segregation language in the state constitution, and a majority of people in Alabama voted to keep that language in that prohibits black and white kids from going to school together.
And we're supposed to just carry on, as if somehow that doesn't matter. And these very stark racial divisions and realities are very dominant. There's a very strong reaction against the Obama election in the Deep South. In many places the number of incidents of hate crimes and complaints by black teachers and others has dramatically increased. So, I don't want us to think that the election stands alone. For every action there's a reaction. And the reaction is quite worrisome to many people of color in the Deep South.
BILL MOYERS: You call your book The New Jim Crow. What's the parallel between the old Jim Crow that Bryan has just described, and the new Jim Crow that you describe in your book.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, you know, just a couple decades after the collapse of the old Jim Crow system, a new system of racial control emerged in the United States. Today, people of color are targeted by law enforcement for relatively minor, nonviolent, often drug-related offenses. The types of crimes that occur all the time on college campuses, where drug use is open and notorious. That occur in middle class suburban communities without much notice, right?
Targeted, often at very young ages, for these relatively minor offenses. Arrested, branded felons, and then ushered into a parallel social universe, in which they can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in many of the ways in which African Americans were discriminated against during the Jim Crow era.
So, when I say that we have a new racial caste system, what I mean is that we have a system of laws, policies, and practices in the United States today that operate to lock people of color, particularly poor people of color, living in ghetto communities, in an inferior second-class status for life. Now, most people think the drug war was declared in response to rising drug crime or crime rates.
But that is not the case. The current drug war was, you know, was officially declared by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. A couple years before crack hit the streets and became a media sensation.
BILL MOYERS: We have Ronald Reagan's announcement, when he's launching the war on drugs. Let's take a look at it.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: We can put drug abuse on the run through stronger law enforcement, through cooperation with other nations to stop the trafficking, and by calling on the tremendous volunteer resources of parents, teachers, civic and religious leaders, and State and local officials.
We're rejecting the helpless attitude that drug use is so rampant that we're defenseless to do anything about it. We're taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts; we're running up a battle flag.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: The drug war was part of the Republican Party's kind of grand strategy, now known as the Southern strategy, to use racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare in order to appeal to poor and working class white voters who were resentful of and disaffected by many of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.
Folks who were upset by bussing. Desegregation and affirmative action. The Republican Party strategists, you know, openly talked about the need to use racially-coded political appeals on crime and welfare in order to get those voters who used to be part of the Democratic New Deal coalition, to get those folks to defect to the Republican Party.
BILL MOYERS: You have a quote in your book from President Richard Nixon's White House Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman: "The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to." But wasn't there also an issue of punishing criminals and stopping crime?
BRYAN STEVENSON: But I think that's where you have to really focus on what's a crime, and what's a threat to public safety, and what's something else? We've always had a commitment to stopping crime. And people convicted and charged with violent crimes were always people who were going to be arrested and prosecuted. And what's interesting is that over the last 35 years, there haven't been tremendous fluctuations in the violent crime rate in this country.
At the same time, we've gone from 300 thousand people in jails and prison in 1972, to 2.3 million people in jails and prisons today. With nearly 5 million people on probation and parole. Most of that is explained by this so-called war on drugs. And I think the point can't be overstated that when we talk about challenging drug use, we're not talking about challenging drug use throughout society. Because it, you know, this is actually one crime area where there aren't huge differences between black use and white use for illegal drugs. It's about the same.
We're, you know, black people are 13 percent of the population of this country. They're about 14 percent of the drug users. But they end up being about 60 percent of the people sent to prison. And so, here you have to focus on these policies and the targeting. And I think that that's what's meant by these policies. Is that we didn't have to incarcerate people for 10, 20, 30, 40 years for simple possession of marijuana, for drug use.
We didn't have to do that. We made choices around that. And now the consequences are devastating. I think they're not only devastating from a political perspective, but I think-- this is the way I think it relates to Jim Crow, as well. It's also been devastating within communities of color. Right now, for black men in the United States, there's a 32 percent chance you're going to jail or prison.
In poor communities and minority communities, urban communities, rural communities, it could be 60 percent or 70 percent. Well, what does that do? You're born, you're a ten-year-old kid. There's a 70 percent chance that you're going to go to jail and prison. What does that do to you? And the heartbreaking thing for me, and when I work in communities like that, is I see kids who are 13 and 14, who believe, who expect that they're going to go to prison.
And they tell me, "Mr. Stevenson, don't tell me about staying in school. I've got to go out here and get mine before I'm dead at 18 or 21 or I'm sent to prison for the rest of my life." And this culture of despair is a function of this so-called war on drugs, that is also like Jim Crow, because it has actually diminished the aspirations and hopes of people of color in ways that actually contribute to these cycles of violence and destruction. And hopelessness.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: The enemy in this war is not drugs. The enemy has been defined in racial terms. Now, if we were to look for drugs as aggressively in suburban, middle class white communities as we do in ghetto communities, we would have those kinds of stunning figures in middle class white communities, as well. And as Bryan indicated, you know, the rates of drug use are about the same. Among all racial groups. But also, and what many people don't realize is that the rates of drug sales are about the same among people of all different races.
Now, this defies our racial stereotypes, right? When we think of a drug dealer, we think of a black kid standing on street corner with his pants hanging down, right? Well, drug dealing certainly happens in the ghetto, but it happens everywhere else in America, as well. You know, a white kid in Nebraska doesn't get his marijuana or his meth by driving to the hood to get it. No, he gets it from a friend, a classmate, a coworker, who lives down the road.
BILL MOYERS: So, how-- why is it, Michelle, that the burden then falls the hardest on the people you've described? Young, black men in the inner cities?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well there's a number of reasons. Now, first, the enemy was defined politically as black and brown. For the reasons I described. Political reasons. It was part of the Republican Party's effort to prove they were getting tough on them. The people that many poor and working class whites had come to believe were taking their jobs and disrupting their lives through the social upheaval brought by the Civil Rights Movement.
The Reagan Administration actually hired staff whose job it was to publicize crack babies, crack dealers in inner city communities, in the hope that these images would build public support for the drug war and persuade Congress to devote millions of more dollars to the war.
So that it was possible to convert the war from a rhetorical one into a literal one. It was part of a larger political strategy. And once the media became saturated and our public consciousness began to associate drug use and drug crime with African Americans, it's no surprise that law enforcement efforts became concentrated in communities defined by race as well.
BRYAN STEVENSON: The reality is, is that in poor communities, the police do raids all the time. I've worked in communities where the SWAT team comes and they put up a screen fence around the public housing project. They do searches. They stop people coming in and out. There are these presumptions of criminality that follow young men of color.
And whenever they're someplace they don't belong, they're stopped and they're targeted. And so-- and because you don't have the resources actually to create privacy and security, you're much more vulnerable to prosecution. As Michelle said, you know, we could do the same thing, but middle class communities, elite schools in this country would not tolerate drug raids from federal law enforcement officers and police. Even if there's drug use.
And so, there is this way in which resources and economic status actually makes you more vulnerable to criminal arrest and prosecution. And it becomes a self-fulfilling story. So that when I walk down the street in the wrong kinds of clothes, if I'm in the "wrong place," there's a presumption that I'm up to something criminal.
And that means that a police officer being very rational, being very thoughtful, not necessarily being racist, has an interest in me and a concern about me that he's going to follow up on. Or that she's going to follow up on. And a lot of these things, I don't think are willfully or intentionally racist in the sense that I'm out to get people of color. But we have so embraced this image, this notion, this narrative about black criminality and drug use and all that sort of thing. We almost unconsciously accept that yes that person looks like a drug dealer.
BILL MOYERS: In your book, you used the metaphor of the bird cage to describe what Bryan is talking about. What do you mean by that?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Academics have a tendency to use terms like structural racism to explain how people of color are trapped kind of at the bottom. But one way of thinking about these forms of structural disadvantage is to think about it as a bird cage. Not every wire of the cage needs to be intentionally designed to keep the bird trapped, right?
Now, the rules and laws that exist today, the drug laws and the ways in which they're enforced, all of the forms of discrimination that people who have been branded felons now face. All the forms of legal discrimination against them. These are all wires of the cage that serve to keep people of color trapped in an inferior, second-class status.
So, you know, not every law or policy has to be adopted with discriminatory intent in order for it to function as part of a larger, and in this case, a literal cage for black people.
BILL MOYERS: There are people who are going to disagree with you, of course. And they're going to say, "Look, there was a great deal of concern back in the '60s and early '70s with law and order. And that lock them up became a way to deal with crime. And in fact, they will say today that prisons actually work because as the prison population goes up, the crime rate has been dropping.
BRYAN STEVENSON: But that would, first of all, would not be accurate. That is, we have huge prison growth between 1984 and 1991. And the crime rate actually increased. It's interesting. The states that have had the lowest rates of incarceration growth have actually had the greatest rates of reduction of crime. So, I don't know that we can simply say that, yes, because we have this huge prison population there's been a decrease in crime.
No one disputes that things that threaten public safety, things that are violent crimes have to be managed with some intervention. But what we're talking about here is a huge increase in the prison population around things like marijuana possession.
Around things like using illegal drugs. Most of these crimes are not violent crimes. My state we have a three strikes law, where you can be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for four felony convictions.
I represented a man who stole a bicycle worth $16 after being convicted of public urination, stealing a transistor radio, and stealing a hand tool from a hardware store. He got life without parole. A Vietnam vet I represented, who was back from Vietnam, three marijuana possession convictions. The fourth conviction, life without parole. These cases do not reflect the debate about law and order. I don't think it's about that. I think it's more about control and this kind of use of the politics of fear and anger as a way of empowering some and disempowering others.
BILL MOYERS: Are most of those people who get the life imprisonment African Americans?
BRYAN STEVENSON: Yes. About two thirds of the people in our state prison system are people of color. You know, there are other-- there are complexities to this. And I don't want to understate the complexities. We have a criminal justice system that's very wealth sensitive. Our system treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent.
And so, poor people brought into that criminal justice system, who don't have the means for good legal representation, who don't have the resources to protect themselves, who can't afford to pay the fees for getting into drug court and avoiding jails and prisons are going to fare worse than people who do have those resources. That's a function of the criminal justice system.
But now we see these incredibly troubling race effects. The Federal Government has created a sentencing scheme for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine that has been devastating to people of color. We sentence 100 times to one.
BILL MOYERS: And Bill Clinton signed that law, by the way. It's not just Republicans who are--
BRYAN STEVENSON: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: --whose hands are in this, right?
BRYAN STEVENSON: Absolutely. That's exactly right. 1996, President Clinton signed a provision in the Welfare Reform Act that bans people with drug convictions from public housing and public benefits and food stamps. And women with children have been devastated by that.
And that was a policy signed by a Democratic president. What I mean by failure, though, and our failure, our inability to recognize it is that we now know that this has been horrific. In my state, 31 percent of the black male population has permanently lost the right to vote, as a result of felony convictions in these collateral consequences.
And yet, we are unwilling to talk about that, even as we celebrate the Selma to Montgomery March a couple of weeks ago. And talk about the Voting Rights Act as this great period in American revelation around race consciousness. And the projection is in a few years we're actually going to have a higher level of disenfranchisement among African American men than existed at the time of the Voting Rights Act.
And if we don't recognize that that's a failure, most politicians wouldn't concede that having a third of the black male population in prison is a bad thing. And that's what I mean by failure.
BILL MOYERS: Your passion is the abolition of capital punishment. And relatively, although each case is horrendous in its own right. Relatively few people are affected by capital punishment. Why is it capital punishment has become so symbolic of what you see as the crisis in American justice and American life?
BRYAN STEVENSON: Yeah, well, I think several things. It shapes all of criminal justice policy. It's only in a country where you have the death penalty that you can have life without parole for somebody who writes bad checks. Somebody else who steals a bicycle. And so, it shapes the way we think about punishment. You know, we've gotten very comfortable with really harsh and excessive sentences.
And I think the death penalty permits that. But I also think that it really challenges us, if we will execute innocent people. We've had 130 people in this country who've been exonerated, proved innocent who were on death row. For every eight people who have been executed, we've identified one innocent person. If we will tolerate that kind of error rate in the death penalty context, it reveals a whole lot about the rest of our criminal justice system and about the rest of our society.
BILL MOYERS: There was a death penalty case that went to the Supreme Court, McCleskey versus Kemp. You used this as an example of our tolerance of failure. Give me a very brief description of the case.
BRYAN STEVENSON: The case was an African American who was accused of killing a police officer in Atlanta, Georgia. And the history is, in Furman the court said, in 1972, that the death penalty is arbitrary, in part because it is so racially biased. They noted that 87 percent of the people executed in this country were-- for the crime of rape, were black men convicted of raping white women.
But they didn't say it's cruel and unusual punishment. So, in 1976, the court says, "We're not going to presume bias and discrimination in the death penalty until you prove it to us." McCleskey comes back in 1987 and says, "Here's the evidence of your proof." And I think the devastating thing about the opinion is that they said, "These kinds of disparities based on race are inevitable." And that was what was devastating.
BILL MOYERS: Inevitable?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes.
BRYAN STEVENSON: Inevitable. I'm a product of Brown versus Board of Education. I mean, I grew up in a community where black kids couldn't go to the public schools. I remember when the lawyers came into our community and made the public schools accessible to me. And I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you but for that intervention. And the difference between Brown and McCleskey can't really be defined or explained by jurisprudence. It's defined and explained by this perspective, this hopelessness that we have projected onto this community.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: McClesky versus Kemp has immunized the criminal justice system from judicial scrutiny for racial bias. It has made it virtually impossible to challenge any aspect, criminal justice process, for racial bias in the absence of proof of intentional discrimination, conscious, deliberate bias. Now, that's the very type of evidence that is nearly impossible to come by today.
When people know not to say, "The reason I stopped him was because he was black. The reason I sought the death penalty was because he was black." People know better than to say that the reason they are, you know, recommending higher sentences or harsher punishment for someone was because of their race.
So, evidence of conscious intentional bias is almost impossible to come by in the absence of some kind of admission. But the U.S. Supreme Court has said that the courthouse doors are closed to claims of racial bias in the absence of that kind of evidence, which has really immunized the entire criminal justice system from judicial and to a large extent public scrutiny of the severe racial disparities and forms of racial discrimination that go on every day unchecked by our courts and our legal process.
BRYAN STEVENSON: And for me, it was devastating. I mean, I argue cases at the Supreme Court. And I, you know, every time I go there, I have this little ritual. I stand outside the court. I read where it says, "Equal justice under law." And I have to believe that to make sense of what I do. And this decision essentially said, "There will be no equal justice under law."
BILL MOYERS: It seems to me your book boils down to this. Mass imprisonment, mass incarceration constitutes a racial caste system. And the entrance to this new caste system can be found at the prison gate. Is that what you mean by that metaphor?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. Absolutely. The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate, because that is when you are branded. Once you are branded a felon, right? Your life as you knew it before is over. All the forms of discrimination that are illegal for the rest of the country, now can be practiced against you with impunity, you know?
I think it's important to recognize, though, that there are white people who have been harmed by the drug war. There are white families, particularly poor white families that have been shattered by the incarceration of loved ones. The drug war was declared with black folks in mind, and mass incarceration as we know it would not exist but for the racialization of crime in the media and in our political discourse.
But just because African Americans have been the target of this war doesn't mean that people of all colors haven't suffered as a result. And so, for the first time I think we have a nation may have the opportunity to see how racial caste systems can harm people of all colors. And that truly few benefit from the imposition of these vast systems of control.
BILL MOYERS: Two progressive groups, the Economic Policy Institute and the Urban League both say that structural inequality, as a sort of situation we have in America today, can not be confronted if we practice what conservatives call "identity politics." And these progressive groups are asking for targeting universalism. What does that mean to you?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, universal policies are policies that apply to everyone, right? And obviously, health care, education, are examples of the type of thing. Quality education, quality health care, the types of things we would want to be available to everyone. But not everyone is similarly situated. Which means that we need to take into account unique, lived experiences of particular communities and particular groups which in our country are still often defined by race.
BILL MOYERS: All poor communities and all poor groups are not the same, right?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: That's right. And so, having a blanket approach to all communities as though they were all similarly situated is doomed to failure. We have to take into account the unique experiences. We need to be race conscious. Conscious of the ways in which communities that are still segregated by race may experience educational inequity. May experience the under-funding of their schools in ways that are different from communities that are located in other areas. So, we have to take into account difference in order to treat everyone fairly.
BILL MOYERS: But can you target racial differences, as Michelle just said, without a racist backlash?
BRYAN STEVENSON: I think we have to. That is, I don't think we can overcome our racist past without recognizing the consequences of decades of segregation. Without recognizing the consequences of terrorizing a group of people based on their race. And I think we can actually find some reconciliation if we tell the truth about those histories and we deal with them in a structured, sensible way.
I actually think we can undermine this tension, this tendency toward backlash, if we just deal with these things. For example, you know, my state, we still have, you know, segregated school systems. Even in integrated school systems, there's a black homecoming queen and a white homecoming queen. Sometimes there's a black prom and a white prom. Dealing with that, I think we can challenge some of these, the thinking behind that without backlash. It just means we have to kind of move forward.
BILL MOYERS: Some politicians, African American politicians are urging that we give a pass to President Obama because as the first African American President, he can't really be expected to take on racially targeted issues. That is, he can't appear to be president of black people. He has to be president of all people. Do you agree with that?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, what I think is important is for us to have a president who cares about all people. And what it means to care about someone who lives in a racially-segregated ghetto is to be responsive to their unique concerns, their unique challenges. Alright? So, if we're going to care about all people and treat all people fairly, we're going have to extend certain types of help and support to some groups of people that may not be needed for others. So, it's not about having a black agenda and a white agenda, a brown agenda, right? It's about having an agenda that genuinely extends care, compassion, and concern.
BILL MOYERS: And jobs.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: To all people.
BILL MOYERS: And jobs, right?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Especially jobs today. Yes.
BRYAN STEVENSON: You know, I think sometimes when we say American agenda, we don't mean, we don't include people of color. We don't include poor people. I mean, a real American agenda. I expect every president to care about poverty in this country. If we have 40 million people living in poverty, I think every president has to deal with that. And you don't get a pass just because you're African American or because of anything.
I think if we have mass incarceration, that's an American problem. Every President needs to be concerned about the fact that we incarcerate more people than any other country in the world. If we want to be the home of the brave and the land of the free, we've got to think about what that means and what that says. If we violate people's rights, because they're poor. Because they're people of color. If we incarcerate them wrongly. If we condemn them unfairly, then that implicates who we are. That's an American issue. And I don't think that that in any way is a black agenda issue or poor people agenda issue. It's an American issue.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I think it's critically important for us to recognize that throughout our nation's history, poor and working class whites have been pit against people of color. Triggering the rise of successive new systems of control. Even slavery. You know, many people don't realize that before we had an all-black system of slavery, there was a system of bond labor that included both whites and blacks working right alongside each other on plantations.
Well, when blacks and whites joined together and challenged the plantation elite, and there were slave uprisings or bond laborer uprisings, the way in which plantation owners were able to split the workforce and gain control over their workers was by proposing an all-black system of slavery. Which led the white folks to believe that they had received some kind of benefit.
And they no longer were willing to engage in struggles with the fellow black laborers, with whom they had once joined in struggle. And so, we had an all-black system of slavery in part because plantation owners wanted to prevent poor whites and blacks from joining together to seek economic justice.
BRYAN STEVENSON: There's a tremendous effort right now to antagonize and polarize black and white, poor communities, and direct that anger towards new immigrants and people in this country who are undocumented. And I think that has to be challenged and resisted.
In poor communities, rural poor communities, the issues are different sometimes than in urban communities. We have huge problems with transportation. We will not solve the economic problem until we do something about the transportation problem. My community, you know, people working minimum wage jobs, they have to drive 70 miles to get to work when the gas prices go up. It no longer becomes sensible for them to work. They have to quit their jobs, because it actually costs them more to get to work and work eight hours and get home than what they earn.
So, we've got to think about that in that way. Urban communities where there are these horrific housing conditions that feed violence and drugs and all of these other conditions. We've got to talk about it in that way. But I think the basic commitment is universal. That is, we've got to recognize that poor people in America have to be addressed. We can't keep ignoring them. This is a country with tremendous wealth.
And so, if we keep ignoring the poor, I think we not only undermine Dr. King's vision, but I think we corrupt our values. And I think, you know, the observers said you judge the character of a society not by how you treat the rich and the privileged and the celebrated. You judge the character of a society by how you treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated. And I think this is an American challenge that Dr. King understood. But that we haven't embraced. And that's what's universal for me.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I think that we need to go back and pick up where Martin Luther King left off. With the poor people's movement. When he dreamed of joining poor and working class whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans in a mass movement for human rights in the United States. Martin Luther King said it is high time we switch our focus from a civil rights movement and begin building a human rights movement. He said the gains, you know, of the past several years, shortly before he died, he said the gains of the past several years, those have been easy compared to the work that lies ahead."
Gaining the right to vote. Earning the right to sit at, you know, the same lunch counter. That cost people relatively little. Costs folks relatively little. But the changes that lie ahead, which require a restructuring of our nation's economy and ensuring that every person has their basic human rights. The right to work, the right to education, the right to health care honored, no matter what their race or ethnicity. Those challenges require a movement even larger the one that he inspired, along with other civil rights activists in the 1960s. So, we need to go back to the movement building work that Martin Luther King believed in so strongly at the time of his death.
BILL MOYERS: So, what would a commitment to economic justice, economic equality of opportunity for all look like?
BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I think we can take the incarceration question and turn it on its head. We're not spending in some states $45 thousand a year to keep a 19-year-old in prison for the next 30 years for drug possession. $45 thousand a year. What could we do if we spent half that amount of money on that 19-year-old when he's five or six or seven or eight?
Economic justice would say, let's not wait until we've arrested them at 18 and 19 and spend $45 thousand a year on them. Let's spend half of that a year, between five and 18. And see if we can avoid incarceration. See what kind of opportunities we can create. See what kind of society we can create if we invest in the lives of these children who are living in the margins. What kind of America we can create if we invest in deconstructing the systems that have created poverty. Reinvesting in jobs. Reinvesting in a kind of politics of hope. We talk about it, but we don't make it real unless we deal with the most hopeless, marginalized, subordinated communities in our society.
BILL MOYERS: Does President Obama get it?
BRYAN STEVENSON: I think that elected politicians, at this point in our history, have a very difficult time confronting the politics of fear and anger. I really do. I think that it's very hard. President Clinton used crime to reinforce support among conservatives and moderates. He went back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector even though that man was brain-damaged, and it was a really horrible thing.
He signed the 1996 anti-terrorism and effective death penalty act. He used tough on crime rhetoric throughout that administration. That was certainly embraced by his successors. You know, we're hearing some of that from this administration. We haven't seen the kind of commitment to this issue that many of us had hoped for. So, I think it's very difficult for majoritarian politicians who have used the politics of fear and crime to create support to turn against that.
BILL MOYERS: Your book is the least romantic and the least sentimental of any book I've read in a long time. You're a really tough on what you call the new Jim Crow.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely. I believe that the mass incarceration of people of color in the United States is the most pressing racial justice issue of our time. And that it is a tragedy of as great proportions as Jim Crow was, in its time. And you're right. I pull no punches in the book. But I do have great hope. And I devote the last chapter of the book to talking about why we must and we can build a new movement not just to end mass incarceration, but the history of racial caste in America.
BILL MOYERS: Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson, thank you for being with me on the Journal.