By Sue Henninger
ITHACA – It was 5:30 on a Monday night and The Space@GreenStar was overflowing with people of all ages, races, and genders, eager to participate in the Community Read Kickoff.
Organizers wasted no time in telling the standing room only crowd why they believed Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” is a timely, relevant read for all Americans.
Phoebe Brown is the membership coordinator for the Ultimate ReEntry Opportunity Program. According to its website, URO was founded in 2014 to support a comprehensive and coordinated reentry system in Tompkins County for formerly incarcerated individuals. Another goal is to reduce the risk of re-arrest and re-incarceration in Tompkins County.
“When we make sure someone else is OK, that makes us OK…,” Brown said, setting the tone for the evening. “There are returning citizens that need us.”
The evening held plenty of opportunities for active participation. A clip from Alexander’s TEDx Columbus talk, “The Future of Race in America” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQ6H-Mz6hgw), was shown. Alexander, a lawyer, advocate, and scholar, noted that there are currently more people of color under “correctional control” than were enslaved in the 1850s.
She asserted that young people of color are frequently shuttled from decrepit and underfunded schools to brand new high-tech prisons. Upon release, they are relegated to a permanent second-class citizen status, which is nearly impossible to escape from. Alexander maintained that this type of legalized discrimination occurs, not to control crime rates (which fluctuate over the years) but rather as a form of racial control.
People of color are no more likely to use or sell drugs than whites, she told her audience, yet there continues to be a disproportional amount of black and brown people in America’s jails. Following the film, people were encouraged to discuss what they had learned with their tablemates and the room hummed with lively exchanges.
Calling the Kickoff, “just the beginning of the conversation,” Stephanie Nevels skillfully moderated an informative panel discussion.
Russell Rickford, associate professor of history at Cornell University and a member of Black Lives Matter-Ithaca, was the first speaker. Outlining the history of blacks in America, he observed that each step taken toward equality, such as Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era, has been followed by a vicious backlash. Hostile responses have included both Jim Crow practices, which he said were not as much about separation as about subordination and subservience, and the current punitive structure of the country’s criminal justice system.
Barry Briggs – a parent of three, URO mentor and college student – emphasized that many who have been incarcerated prefer to be identified as “returning citizens,” rather than felons or criminals. Returning citizens have two things against them, he said, their skin color and a criminal record.
Noting that he began as a mentee of URO and now acts as a mentor to others, he asked, “Wouldn’t you want someone to help you if you had made mistakes?”
Attendees responded with a resounding “Yes!”
Briggs added, “This is one step; the next step is doing the work.”
Nicole LaFave – a parent, community organizer and cofounder of Black Lives Matter-Ithaca – spoke next. To her, the concept of colorblindness simply gives people an excuse to believe that she and her experience are invisible.
“For people to say that I’m not black makes no sense,” she said, adding that colorblindness tries to erase the history of race and racism. “If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not learning. Most of us are uncomfortable every single day in every situation.”
Additionally, LaFave said, people who persist in not seeing color won’t be able to acknowledge “all those missing black and brown faces” in their communities due to rising incarceration rates.
Cornell student, parent and mentor through URO, Rachel Evarts spoke next.
“Reading this book gives us a chance to organize and mobilize around mass incarceration,” she said.
Evarts thinks that digging deeper into the truth about mass incarceration is essential.
The final panelist was retired judge Marjorie Olds, who is currently involved in two prison projects, one with New York state and Cornell University, the other with Taitem Engineering of Ithaca. Olds said the Community Read will give Tompkins County residents a chance to “get together, think together, read together, and problem solve.”
“You’ve taken the first step by being here tonight,” she said. “Keep coming to other events.”
An audience member asked if anyone was exposing high school students to Alexander’s book.
“That’s a great question,” said LaFave, who also serves on the Ithaca City School District’s Board of Education.
Having the mostly white, middle-class, female teachers in the district address the often uncomfortable issues the book raises could do more harm than good, she said. A public space like GreenStar offers a better venue for discussion.
A final question was about why social activism continues to be so necessary today.
“We [you and I] have the power to shift the culture,” Rickford said, noting that the community shouldn’t count on judges, politicians, or members of the ruling class for help.
The key to success, he said, is to move beyond sentiment and the discourse of feelings and address structures.
“Don’t just feel but commit a kind of racial treason,” Rickford said. “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”
Mass incarceration is a bipartisan project-with a lot invested in maintaining it, Rickford added in closing. The grassroots movement is the only thing that will bring about social change and the ultimate goal is not to reduce recidivism; it’s to abolish the system altogether. Briggs reinforced this sentiment.
“It’s going to take the people as a whole to change the system,” he said.
Free copies of Alexander’s book are available at the Multicultural Resource Center. The author will be delivering Cornell University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture, at the State Theatre in Ithaca on February 21, 2017.
Reading the book isn’t a prerequisite to getting involved. Future community events include more public discussions, films, workshops, Re-Entry Theatre, and an art exhibit. For more information visit multiculturalresourcecenter.org/bookread.