“Each of us can do something more than we're doing today without risking our lives” – that message was delivered by Michelle Alexander during her keynote address, the highlight of UNC Asheville’s Martin Luther King Jr. Week 2018.
Alexander, author of the best-seller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, delivered her address in an informal question-and-answer style, sitting on the Kimmel Arena stage with UNC Asheville Professor of Math and Honors Program Director Patrick Bahls, who posed his own questions and some that area high school students had submitted in advance. The audience of more than 2,000 people represented a large age range, including retirees, university, high school and middle school students, formerly incarcerated persons, and members of Word on the Street, an online publication designed to give youth in communities of color a voice, headed by alumna Tamiko Abrose Murray ’06, who also introduced the speaker.
“I especially appreciate the fact that this event is open to and inclusive of people outside the university campus, and I’m grateful that you’re here,” Alexander said. “I know that there are some formerly incarcerated people that are here tonight, and I want to honor their presence here, and the fact that they are free and capable and joining us here tonight. And also to acknowledge the younger people in the audience, high school students and younger who are opening their hearts and minds to justice work.”
That wide representation was intentional – leading up to Alexander’s visit, Bahls along with other faculty, students and alumni were busy exploring and sharing her work in the community as well as on campus. One collaboration featured honors students at UNC Asheville and AP students at Asheville High School. Both classes read and discussed The New Jim Crow and the UNC Asheville students developed a special workshop for the high schoolers, with exercises that explored implicit bias, socio-economic oppression and systematic class perpetuation.
UNC Asheville Interim Chancellor Joe Urgo opened the evening by providing historical context for the discussion, recalling that one of the most difficult concepts to accept when studying American history is that the practice of slavery was considered acceptable by so many for so long. “We want to think that these people were villains. Some were, of course, but most were average citizens, of their time and their place. Some were presidents, some were philosophers, artists, and community leaders,” Urgo said. The same acceptance was true of racial segregation.
“The evidence of history strongly suggests that there are practices in which we engage today, phenomena that we consider perfectly acceptable, for which history will eventually judge as morally, and perhaps criminally, complicit,” Urgo said. “The question for us is, what are we going to do with the evidence in front of us? This, I think, is what we’re talking about tonight.”
Murray introduced Alexander, saying that Alexander’s work “calls us to look the ugly in the eye, and to stop placing blame on the individuals who are trapped in the cracks of the pavement of the system by the time they are in the third grade, standing in the hallway.”
Alexander, a former lawyer with the ACLU, explained that she had come to believe the mass incarceration of African-Americans in the United States was not just a legal or political issue, but she has moved to “viewing it as primarily as a profound moral and spiritual crisis that faces our nation.”
“Mass incarceration is not an isolated issue with a simple fix, Alexander said, but rather is deeply connected to a host of other issues facing the nation, including mass deportation, and equal access to health care, education, and meaningful work at a fair wage. The solution will not come from the legal system alone, Alexander said, but rather by the collective efforts of many.
“We do need lawyers who can represent people who are facing three strikes laws and the possibility of being separated from their children or families for the rest of their lives,” Alexander said. “We need organizers and people who are going to ensure that people do take the streets and that consciousness is raised. We need teachers, we need artists, and we need doctors, and we need all kinds of folks who are going to be fully awake in this period and do whatever they can within their circles of concern and influence to make an extraordinary impact.”
Alexander concluded with a call to action: “Each of us can do something more than we're doing today without risking our lives,” she said. “We've got to start there, by doing what we're willing and capable of to advance this movement. If we do, collectively, we can shake the foundations of the system.”
And the community discussion of criminal justice issues will continue when UNC Asheville students take the stage with three other Asheville community members to perform in “On the Row,” a reader’s theatre production written by death row inmates, at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 2 at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, 285 Livingston St. in Asheville.