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Bestselling Author Tells University Community: ‘I Hope We Dream Big and Don’t Settle’
Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer, advocate, and author of an award-winning book that inspired a national conversation about mass incarceration, spoke to the University community following the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, encouraging students to “be courageous.”
May 4, 2021
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
Jennifer Edwards ’21 and her fellow Chargers recently had the chance to engage in a thought-provoking conversation with Michelle Alexander, an acclaimed author and legal scholar. Edwards says it was an opportunity for her and her classmates to discuss systemic racism and the justice system reform in a critical moment of the nation’s history: the aftermath of the guilty verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer found guilty of murdering George Floyd.
“I’m so grateful for this experience,” said Edwards, a forensic science major and vice president of the University’s NAACP chapter. “We were so inspired by this discussion, and we were grateful to be a part of it.”
Edwards introduced Alexander, who spoke to the University community as part of “An Evening with Michelle Alexander,” an event hosted by the University’s NAACP chapter. She spoke to the University community the same day as the verdict, which she says “did provide some answers, though it also raised more questions.”
“We’ve come to confuse punishment with accountability,” she said. “What would accountability even look like in this situation? We’ve been prevented from even imagining what genuine accountability would look like. But the verdict represents some acknowledgement that George Floyd’s life matters and that what happened was wrong.”
‘I hope we are as courageous as the freedom fighters who came before us’
A civil rights lawyer, legal scholar, and advocate, Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, an award-winning and bestselling book that inspired national debate about mass incarceration. Now a visiting professor of social justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Alexander discussed the disenfranchisement of Black individuals in everything from politics – including poll taxes – to the criminal justice system.
Alexander suggested reimagining the political system so that it is not structured as a “pay to play” system and fostering more opportunities for representation and participation. Discussing mass incarceration and the war on drugs, she explored what “justice” really means in the United States.
“Churning millions of people in and out of prisons and jails has little to do with addressing the problem of violence,” she said. “It is about managing and controlling the dispossessed, such as the poor, those with mental health challenges, and people on the margins. That’s how the system actually functions.”
A graduate of Stanford Law School and Vanderbilt University, Alexander says she has learned to listen and to admit when she is wrong. She encouraged students to also keep an open mind, saying that it will enable them to continue to learn. Predicting more challenges, changes, and uncertainties to come, she urged students to consider how they will respond.
“As the demographics continue to shift in this country and as pressures of economic inequality continue to grow, we’re going to be seeing more upheaval in the future, not less,” she said. “The question is how are we going to respond? How are we going to rise to the challenges of our time?
“This is a time when our political and economic systems are going to be called into question,” she continued. “I hope we are as courageous as the freedom fighters who came before us would want us to be. I hope we dream big and don’t settle.”