‘Felon’ Is the New N-Word

Michelle Alexander's ‘The New Jim Crow’ challenges us to confront the shame of our criminal justice system in the pursuit of real justice.

For anyone who has read Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander’s deeply disturbing book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the conviction yesterday of a Brooklyn detective for planting drugs on Yvelisse DeLeon and her boyfriend, Juan Figueroa, should be a welcome one.

“Before announcing the verdict, Justice [Gustin L.] Reichbach scolded the department for what he described as a widespread culture of corruption endemic in its drug units,” The New York Times reported.

“I thought I was not naïve,” Reichbach reportedly said. “But even this court was shocked, not only by the seeming pervasive scope of misconduct but even more distressingly by the seeming casualness by which such conduct is employed.”

I’ve been reading Alexander’s book at bedtime, and it’s not a comforting read. As previously reported in our interview with the author, she contends that mass incarceration of people of color like DeLeon and Figueroa represents a new “racial caste system,” and nothing short of a social revolution can dismantle it.

I heard Alexander speak at the Princeton University “Imprisonment of a Race” conference earlier this year and something she said there has been nagging at me since I picked up her book again. She said the civil rights era strategy of shining a light on model black citizens and distancing ourselves from those with criminal records was a tragic mistake and is no longer viable.

“People of color are no more likely to use or sell drugs than whites. The color blind veneer of the system has made us blind to how racial bias permeates the system. We have to deal with the shame and stigma that keeps people silent,” said Alexander. “We’ve got to make safe places in churches, schools, etc.”

WILD YOUTH: Christine A. Scheller, third from left, in 1979 at age 15.

When I was a drug-using teenager, I was arrested two or three times for nonviolent crimes that were committed when I was under the influence. I spent a couple hours in a jail cell after one arrest and a life-transforming month in a juvenile shelter after a parental conflict over my incorrigibility. Both experiences convinced me that I never wanted to be locked up again.

I’m fortunate that I surrendered my life to Jesus when I was 17, because if it had been another year or two, and I had gotten into the same kind of trouble, I, like other members of my family, would have been saddled with an arrest record that could have limited my choices for far longer than justice would demand.

One of these loved ones spent eight months in prison, and became a Christian there, after police coerced his “friend” into falsely testifying against him. He went straight to Bible College when he was released and has been, for 25 years, a Bible teacher, elder, and pastor, but still can’t work in certain industries because he has a felony conviction on his record.

Another was stopped by California police, ostensibly because of a broken tail light on the car someone else was driving, and was arrested for possession of a hash pipe. No drugs, just a pipe. Bail was set at $20,000. This young man spent two days in jail and never used drugs again, but still isn’t sure if the felony conviction was dropped or not after he completed a diversion program and probation.

Alexander said, “Felon is the new n-word” and we should stop labeling people with it. She also disavowed “repeat offender” and “career criminal,” saying these terms mask the struggle of cycling in and out of an unjust system.

The members of my family with arrest records have managed to learn from and overcome our histories, in part because of the support of our middle class families and in part because we are white.

In a CNN column today about the decline of black political conservatism, Baptist preacher and former Atlanta Journal editorial board member Frederick Johnson said that he used to tell his son that if a racist cop pulled him over because he was black, that was the cop’s fault; but if the cop found drugs in the car, that was his son’s fault.

“Unlike some conservatives, I don’t wish to let either party off the hook,” said Johnson. Amen to that.

According to Alexander, if we were to return to the days before the war on drugs, we would have to release four-out-of-five prisoners who are currently incarcerated. That’s unlikely to happen, she said, because one million people are employed by prisons.

“This system is so deeply rooted now that it’s not going down without a major fight,” Alexander said.

She advocated movement building that includes the work of artists, students, and law enforcement personnel, and said there needs to be consciousness raising within the black community and an eradication of class divisions that keep middle class blacks from advocating for poor ones.

“Activists take the risks, while advocates are professional tinkerers with the system,” she said. “What’s necessary is for those who are advocates to support those who are activists and to envision themselves as activists.”

I’ve taken a small risk here by announcing that there are drug arrests in my personal and family history. I don’t enjoy doing it, but as a Christian I’m so deeply, personally unsettled by the injustice of “mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness” that I feel compelled to confront disabling shame by admitting that I too have been a criminal.

About the author, Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller is a widely published journalist and essayist, and an editor-at-large at UrbanFaith. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC, where she helps facilitate dialogue between scientific and religious communities.
  1. The scariest part in this whole story comes at the end. One million people are employed by the prison system. They won’t scale it down without a fight. Yikes.

  2. We are under a “government of laws”, not a “government of men”. But if someone can plant drugs among your belongings, and if you are then required to prove that the drugs are not yours (which you can’t), then you are under a government of men, namely of those who are willing to plant evidence. Therefore the reverse onus of proof cannot be valid in any jurisdiction. So, if you are on the jury in a drug case, and if you are told that the defendant must prove that his/her possession was unwitting, it is your civic duty to put the onus of proof back where it belongs (on the prosecution), raise it to the proper standard (beyond reasonable doubt), and hand down a verdict accordingly. More: http://is.gd/noreverse.

  3. Pingback: What I Wrote This Week @UrbanFaith: 10/31-11/4 « Christine A. Scheller

  4. This is disturbing in all kinds of ways – wow. Thank you for putting this into print – all of it – making the book known, wrestling with the premise of it, and so openly sharing your own personal and family history. Seems to me as followers of Jesus, we should be at the head of the line here, speaking up about the power of redemption. We should never give up on anyone, most especially those with a drug ‘record’ that can too often be interpreted through racial bias. Thanks for this.

  5. Christine, thank you so much for this article and for your candor concerning your past. There are many of us (Christians) who have had the unfortunate experience of the criminal justice system before realizing the destiny that God has for us. I too have had prior run-ins with the legal system, and I use my past as a testimony every chance I get. Aside from being a pastor I also serve as the Student Director of the Center for the Church and the Black Experience at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL on the campus of Northwestern University. We will be hosting Atty. Michelle Alexander on February 1, 2011 for a lecture on her work and reading your article only increases my anticipation of that event.

    May God continue to bless and use you for God’s work.

    • Thank you for your comment Rev. Fakir. If I were closer I’d come hear Ms. Alexander again. I’m sure she’ll be every bit as compelling as when I heard her speak!

  6. My sermon for the third Sunday of Advent makes many of the same points, asking, “Where is the good news for the oppressed, the healing for the brokenhearted, the release for captives, and the liberty for prisoners” about which Isaiah prophesied and Jesus declared had occurred? As Jesus’ feet, hands, and voice God calls us to complete what Jesus began.