In a virtual campus event that drew hundreds of attendees, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Education Kelsey M. Jones ’08 and noted legal scholar, advocate and author Michelle Alexander discussed community building, fierce love and the messy, courageous path to justice.
Kelsey M. Jones ’08: We have folks in the audience who are just starting to carve out their paths and making choices about who they want to be in the fight for racial justice. Can you share some of the experiences that led to the choices you made in becoming a civil rights lawyer, leader, author and educator?
Michelle Alexander: Our family did not have a lot of money, but they did everything they could to shelter me from the racial realities of the world. I went to Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn. I came from the West Coast, from a very protected environment, and I was not ready. The racial pain and trauma I suffered, as well as a painful awareness of my own ignorance, propelled me. I wanted to do what I could as a civil rights lawyer to fight for justice and for a world in which we all could belong. When I think about young folks starting out, I would say: “Do what brings you joy.” And I’d ask: “What are your natural gifts and talents?” But also: “Where does it hurt? What don’t you understand?” I would have never written The New Jim Crow if it hadn’t been for a terrible mistake. I was working as a civil rights lawyer at the ACLU, directing the Racial Justice Project, representing victims of racial profiling and police violence. I didn’t believe a young Black man when he told me a story about being framed by the police. I was searching for the perfect plaintiff and unwilling to represent someone who had a felony record. He tried to tell me: “No, look, I was framed.” He asked, “What’s to become of me? I can’t get a job anywhere because of my felony record. I have to live in my grandma’s basement. I can’t even get food stamps.” He said, “Good luck finding one young Black man in my neighborhood they haven’t gotten to yet.” And with that, he grabbed his notes and papers and started ripping them up, throwing them in the air, and walked out, saying, “You’re no better than the police. I can’t believe I trusted you.” Several months after that, the Oakland Riders police scandal was broken. A gang of officers, otherwise known as a drug task force, had been rounding up, stopping, frisking, searching and planting drugs on folks, beating them up. One of the main officers charged was the officer the young man identified to me. I realized, he’s right—I am no better than the police. The minute he told me he was a felon, I stopped listening. Even civil rights lawyers, people devoting their lives and their careers to fighting the good fight, were on the wrong side of justice. I wasn’t just wrong for not representing an innocent guy. I was wrong because I thought there was some path to racial and social justice that did not include him.
Jones: Even the perfect case doesn’t matter. That’s not how justice works.
Alexander: We shouldn’t have to prove our worthiness. There’s a long history of civil rights lawyers searching for the innocent one, the person who defies the prevailing racial stereotypes and proves to white people that we are deserving of respect, dignity and inclusion. That’s a failed strategy. It will never end mass incarceration, mass criminalization and mass deportation. It denies the reality that we are all flawed, and we all make mistakes. This idea that the criminals are them—the others—is a lie. It’s important for those of us who do not have felony records hanging around our necks and have been able to get college degrees or graduate degrees to remind folks that it’s not because we’ve done right. It’s because we haven’t gotten caught. We haven’t been punished relentlessly for the mistakes we’ve made. It’s not because we’re better. It’s because we’ve been afforded more grace.
Jones: In an interview a few years ago, you talked about the common error of imagining progress as linear. For folks who feel that sense of urgency, who want to change the institution, how would you encourage them to embrace progress as nonlinear, specifically when we think about missteps and mistakes we’re going to make?
Alexander: I heard an interview with poet Nikki Giovanni a while back where she said, “There’s no such thing as justice after the fact.” Once the harm has been done, the idea that there’s some way to balance the scales and make things right is mythology. There is no repairing the harm of slavery. There is no repairing for the family of George Floyd. The idea that we can do justice by simply arresting those cops and locking them up and then justice has been done—no. Justice is being in right relationship with one another so that no one ever has a knee on their neck for more than eight minutes while they’re calling out to their dead mother. It’s organizing our relationships with one another and our society and government in a way that minimizes the potential for trauma, harm or injustice. A lot of times, we look for what’s going to make it right. We seek a punitive form of justice, the eye for an eye, or we imagine there are some elaborate machinations we can go through that will somehow clean the slate, and then we’ll be able to start over. It’s much messier than that. There is no way we’re going to bring George Floyd back. There’s no amount of money that could be paid by the U.S. government to repair the harm of slavery. We have to be more imaginative, creative and courageous as we think about what it takes to try to repair, to the extent that we can, harm that has been done—recognizing that so much of it is irreparable—while we commit ourselves completely to the radical change necessary to ensure those harms never occur again. What is so promising about many of the movements that have been born is that they are forward-looking, asking, “What does it take to reimagine justice? What would a world look like without police and prisons? What do we need to invest in instead of the punitive apparatus we have today in order to ensure thriving, healthy, safe communities in which it is utterly unnecessary and unthinkable to have the level of police, patrolling and militarism we see in our communities?” We’re recognizing both the messiness of it and the necessity of abandoning this pretense that
we can tinker with this machine and somehow fix it. We have to think much bigger and bolder.
Jones: Many of these ways of repair—this is how you make it right, an apology and “X” thing—we learn when we’re young. It takes a lot of creativity to think about something different.
Alexander: Yes. It’s exciting, hard and painful, beautiful and terrible. One of the historians and activists I admire most, Vincent Harding, would ask: “Is America possible?” His point was that nothing like this has ever been done before—this attempt to create a multiracial, multiethnic, multigender, multifaith, egalitarian democracy out of the ashes of slavery and genocide. The fact that it’s hard, and sometimes feels impossible, shouldn’t surprise us. It’s going to take an enormous amount of creativity, courageousness, experimentation, failing and messing up and trying again as we fumble our way as heroically as we can. I hope we’ll extend a lot more grace to one another in this process. We don’t have to beat each other. There’s enough of that being done to us.
Jones: There are folks who are having a hard time loving themselves, and folks who feel, “You’re asking me to show love and compassion to a group of people or to a person who is actively dehumanizing me with their words and their behaviors.” How do we root ourselves in grace when we have these challenges to love in our work for justice?
Alexander: We think of love as niceness, in this Hallmark way. The word has lost meaning. What you just said about loving ourselves is key. When I was working as a civil rights lawyer, and we were waging lobbying and media campaigns, we would often imagine that what we needed to do was figure out how to persuade the so-called middle, mainstream, white swing voter. If we could only persuade a certain percentage of them and tip them into our column, then we could win whatever legislation we were trying to pass. At some point, it became clear to me that chasing after the white swing voter was not the path to liberation for our people and that we had to ask ourselves, “What would it look like for us to really show love for ourselves and one another?” Rather than asking white people to stop doing this to us, what would it look like for us to show up for one another in a real way, to fight for one another, to speak up and speak out for one another, to organize in support of one another, to be active in solidarity with people in our community and beyond who are fighting similar fights in deep solidarity, rooted in love? I just saw the new Fred Hampton film (Judas and the Black Messiah), which shows the Black Panthers were motivated by love for their communities and for the young people, wanting to feed them and care for them and protect and defend. That’s a form of revolutionary love. It’s not about necessarily hating the others. That can be a fierce love. It can be a tender love. I’m grateful that we see so many people determined to do long-term organizing work in our communities. I credit organizers since Ferguson. People kept working, kept organizing, kept building—even when the cameras went away. That work to keep going when the money starts to run out, when the cameras go away, when it begins to seem hopeless again, when the videos and the police killings keep circulating, to keep going, that’s got to be coming from a place of love.
Jones: The theme of this year’s Claiming Williams Day is “From Racial Justice to Restoration.” It’s very much rooted in grassroots organizing. The day originally came out of the activism of a group called Stand With Us that I was a part of as a senior here. It was incredibly transformational. I learned a lot about loving myself alongside folks who were part of that movement. In the 2007-2008 school year, there were many racist, sexist and homophobic moments that harmed the well-being and safety of students, faculty and staff. I remember feeling so energized and inspired to act—and also devastated because it was the first time that some of the people who’d known me for years realized I was a Black woman with a Black woman’s perspective and needed to be seen, valued and loved. In that moment, we were not welcomed with open arms by the college, broadly. We were called hypersensitive. We were told by peers and by faculty that we should find more palatable language in response to unpalatable injustices. They could not understand what it was like to feel that pain in your bones. Like the young man you described earlier who, at a certain point of frustration—like, all you can do is rip up the paper and say, “I’m on my own.” It’s painful for folks to accept what you’re saying when you’re saying it about the place they love, a place that’s been very good to them. So we had all this connectedness in the community, but also loneliness trying to speak with people who were skeptical and defensive.
Alexander: Learning to be true to yourself is one of the most important skills. When I was on the faculty at Stanford Law School, I was hired as an associate professor to direct the civil rights clinics, and I was thinking about transferring to the tenure track. There had never been a Black female tenured faculty member before. A lot of people were saying, “You need to be the one.” I told folks I wanted to write this book, The New Jim Crow. And they were like, “What? You want to write a book arguing that our criminal justice system functions more like a racial caste system than a system of crime prevention and control? Have you lost your mind?” It was long before Trayvon Martin, long before Ferguson, at a time when people were still calling Black men superpredators. People didn’t believe in what I was trying to do. One of my closest mentors said, “Wait till you get tenure, and then you can write whatever kind of crazy stuff you want to say. But you can’t say that. You will ruin your career. You want people to take you seriously. You’ve gotten your education. Don’t throw it away.” I remember having this feeling of utter aloneness. We all find ourselves at those crossroads moments where we’re wondering, “Can I be true to myself? What will it cost me? And is it really worth it?” I ended up deciding to leave Stanford Law School and go to Ohio State. John Powell was there, leading the Kirwan Institute [for the Study of Race and Ethnicity], and he said, “You come here and you write whatever you want to write. We’ll support you.” I was able to connect with people willing to support my vision. I’ve heard [activist] Mariame Kaba talk about the importance of joining a group. Even if it’s a matter of grabbing a handful of people around you or figuring out how to connect to a friend, form a group that can sustain and support you. None of us is meant to fight this alone. I’ve formed women of color writing circles. I’ve joined activist circles. It’s essential for our organizing. It’s essential for our activism. But it’s also essential for our mental, emotional and spiritual health.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.