Acclaimed author, civil rights lawyer and legal advocate Michelle Alexander understands that a lot of change can happen in just 10 years. A decade ago, Alexander had just published her first book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Some critics at the time considered the book’s subject dubious, especially since the nation had just elected its first Black president in Barack Obama. Still, The New Jim Crow would go on to spend almost 250 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list—transforming Alexander’s career as a legal scholar and author—and recently had a 10th-anniversary edition released with a new foreword by Alexander.
On Tuesday, September 22, Alexander “visited” Hollins (via Zoom) as part of the university’s Distinguished Speaker Series. The bestselling author had a virtual sit-down with Hollins President Mary Dana Hinton to discuss the 10th-anniversary edition of her book as well as a host of other issues including racial unrest in the U.S. and social activism both on and off-campus. “We’re grateful to have these timely and robust conversations,” said Hinton in welcoming Alexander to the videoconference, which was live-streamed exclusively to the Hollins community, with over 400 in attendance. “The text remains as relevant and resonant today, perhaps even more so, than when it was released.” (This video features highlights of their dialogue.)
“It’s hard for me to believe it’s been 10 years,” replied Alexander. “When I was researching this book, Obama hadn’t been elected president yet. Trayvon Martin hadn’t been killed. I felt desperate to sound an alarm about the crisis of mass incarceration, seeing up close [through my work] the victims of racial profiling and police violence. And now 10 years later, with all of the viral videos of brutal police killings and the uprisings, it feels in many that the whole world hasn’t changed. The [criminal justice] system continues to function in pretty much the same way as it functioned 10 years ago—or 15 years ago—or 30 years ago.”
However, Alexander was quick to add that she did find hope in the creation of new protest movements and increased social activism, in particular movements led by formerly incarcerated and convicted people. “There’s been an explosion of movement-building and organizing and leadership,” said Alexander. “And that’s enormously encouraging to me. Until we hear from the people who’ve been most harmed, transformational change is impossible. And as long as those voices are excluded from decision-making spaces and tables, transformational change is impossible.”
A graduate of Stanford Law and Vanderbilt University, Alexander has received numerous legal awards and fellowships, including a Soros Justice Fellowship, and clerked for legal luminaries such as Justice Harry A. Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court and Chief Judge Abner Mikva on the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. Though just her debut book, The New Jim Crow has become so influential that it’s even been cited in some judicial decisions as well as read in countless book clubs and college classrooms across the country.
To that point, in advance of the Q&A on Tuesday, Hollins students were given access to free e-editions of the book (there was also a limited number of free hardcopies available). Students and faculty were then invited to meet virtually with Hinton to discuss and propose questions for the interview.
Following up on the book’s popularity on campus, Hinton said that colleges, universities, and, in particular, the liberal arts were good places where students could “rehearse what it means to have courage and have a voice and step up” before engaging politically in the bigger world off-campus.
“I don’t think it’s an overstatement that our democracy will not survive without robust liberal arts education,” Alexander replied when asked about the role of the liberal arts in relation to social justice. “That’s one of the main pillars of a successful, thriving, multi-ethnic, multi-gender, multi-faith democracy. It can help us learn more about our past and present so we can respond to our present moment with wise action and with greater concern and care for our fellow citizens. Without it, we are stuck in patterns of reactivity. We can be misled by demagogues and be inspired to resort to fear-mongering.”
Near the end of the hour-long discussion, Hinton asked The New Jim Crow author about finding courage to speak the truth in the era of Fake News and constant misinformation. “How are we ‘midwives to this next generation?’” Hinton asked, borrowing Alexander’s language, “How are we midwives as we look at the [transformational] change that’s so important?”
Alexander acknowledged the difficulty in answering that question. “It can feel overwhelming at times,” she said. “We’re at a moment where I think our democracy literally hangs in the balance. I think what’s important is for us to pause and think: How can we use our skills and our talents to their highest use for this moment? And how do we educate ourselves about history, our racial history, about the present, about how to do democracy? What’s important is not just being aware and awake, but being willing to act with some courage. Because if we see what’s happening but lack the courage to speak up or step out, we can be as awake as we want to be, but if we act without courage, it’s all for naught.”
Jeff Dingler is a graduate assistant in Hollins’ marketing and communications department. He is pursuing his M.F.A. in creative writing at the university.