While I am not a fan of Common or John Legend, or fond of their now Academy Award winning song “Glory” from the movie Selma, what they said during their acceptance speech at Sunday’s Oscars ceremony resonated with me. Like several others who took center stage that evening, the two used their moment to acknowledge that while we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery and the signing of the Voting Rights Act, there is still a struggle for civil rights in this country.
“We wrote this song for a film that was based on incidents that were 50 years ago but we say that Selma is now because the struggle for equal rights continues…We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more Black men under correctional control now than there were under slavery in 1850,” John Legend said while holding his statue.
As I watched the show, the title of a book on the shelf below my television caught my eye. A book that RCCD Chancellor Michael Burke has mentioned on various occasions as one I should read: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The New York Times Bestseller directly challenges the belief that the election of America’s first Black president signaled a new era of colorblindness and equal access for all.
Alexander, a law professor, former director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California, and former U.S. Supreme Court law clerk, argues that, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” with the U.S. criminal justice system functioning as a contemporary system of racial control. She explains:
“No other country in the world incarcerates such an astonishing percentage of its racial or ethnic minorities.”
“The American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.”
“One in three young African-American men will serve time in prison if current trends continue, and in some cities more than half of all young adult Black men are currently under correctional control – in prison or jail, on probation or parole.”
Yet mass incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue as opposed to a racial justice or civil rights issue. She calls it a “crisis.”
So while we no longer have colored or white drinking fountains, or separate and UNequal schools or other facilities, we still have racial inequalities and a need to continue to fight an unjust system before we can claim that everyone in this country has completely equal rights.