Greensboro's African American Community Newspaper since 1967

Author of “The New Jim Crow” talks race relations

Rev. Nelson Johnson with Beloved Community Center; Michelle Alexander, author; Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Dr. Timothy Tyson, senior research scholar at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. Photo by Charles Edgerton/Carolina Peacemaker Rev. Nelson Johnson with Beloved Community Center; Michelle Alexander, author; Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Dr. Timothy Tyson, senior research scholar at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. Photo by Charles Edgerton/Carolina Peacemaker

Civil rights lawyer, advocate and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander, was a guest speaker on Wednesday, Feb. 24, for the Greensboro City/Community Working Group on race relations meeting.

Alexander’s book addresses the complex issue of the judicial system and its aggressive incarceration of Black men through the War on Drugs. That war, according to Alexander, decimated many communities of color, while the judicial system functioned and continues to represent a contemporary system of racial control.

The acclaimed author spoke to a packed auditorium of nearly 500 people at The Carolina Theatre last Wednesday, February 24, in a panel discussion alongside Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Rev. Nelson Johnson of Beloved Community Center. Timothy Tyson, author and senior research scholar with the Duke Center for Documentary Studies, served as the moderator.

“We’ve been having some very difficult discussions about Black and White,” said Vaughan about the City/Community Working Group and the Doing Our Work series. The series is a monthly meeting with a primarily White audience that gathers to discuss varies topics on race.

While Alexander applauded the Doing Our Work series, she also encouraged the community and the mayor to think about building an alternative to what already exists.

“As hard as it is for White folks to wake up and change their minds, I think it’s important that the folks who have been most harmed and treated as the enemy to not just wake up, but to actually take the step to ask the revolutionary question of ‘what are we going to do or what are going to build instead,’” said Alexander. “The most revolutionary thing we can do is build the alternative.”

The people have the power to create the type of police organization they want, despite all the political red tape one may have to get through. Alexander noted that police should not be able to investigate themselves when a complaint comes against them.

“We have vastly more power than we realize. The conversation has to be broader than just police reform. We have to ask the bigger questions about the new racial and social control system that has been born in America,” said Alexander.

She also went on to explain how the government’s war on drugs has turned into a war being waged against poor communities of color. Deindustrialization moved thousands of jobs overseas, and suddenly Black communities that had been solidly working class were now struggling to survive.

“We’ve got to shift from that war, that us versus them mentality. And ensure that the police understand that serving and protecting is utterly inconsistent with behaving as domestic warriors on the street, ready to take down anyone who looks like a threat.” said Alexander. “We have to establish real accountability.”

She asserted that the old stereotypes that Blacks are lazy, shiftless, prone to violence and must be whipped and subdued still exist and are what influenced Jim Crow laws and what still influences policing in communities of color today.

She said the evidence of that can be seen with the disproportionate number of Black motorists who are stopped and searched, thus putting them into a system that makes them second class citizens for life because once they have a criminal record they can be denied employment, housing, and many other services they may need.

Vaughan suggested an approach to decreasing those numbers is for law enforcement to police with more compassion and discretion, saying that Greensboro Police Chief Wayne Scott has made steps towards that goal by no longer initiating traffic stops for minor vehicle infractions such as broken headlights or tail lights.

“But what we’re seeing is police using discretion in racially biased ways,” said Alexander. “If we’re going to talk about reforming our police system, then we also have to talk about how we’re going to change rules, laws and policies that help support the punitive damage of poor communities of color.”

The Greensboro Community-City Working Group is working on police reform through a series of city council district dialogues beginning with simultaneous events at Trinity AME Zion Church and Congregational United Church of Christ on March 17, representing Greensboro City Council Districts 1 and 3 respectively. Future forums are scheduled for the remaining districts on March 22, March 31 and April 6, with locations yet to be determined. The series will culminate in a citywide town hall meeting on April 21. Residents are encouraged to attend the meeting for their city council district and as many others as they are able to.

Vaughan said, “I do believe we as a city can lead this nation when it comes to something transformative, because we have the bones for it and we certainly have the desire for it.”