Michelle Alexander, the renowned author of The New Jim Crow, prodded the city of Greensboro to go beyond police reform and tackle the larger systems of racial oppression that underpin law-enforcement policies during a panel discussion with Mayor Nancy Vaughan and the Rev. Nelson Johnson at the Carolina Theatre on Wednesday.
“Policing is just one part of a much larger system of racial and social control in America,” Alexander said.
The event, which drew about 500 people, was streamed live over the internet.
Alexander noted that while Presidents Nixon and Reagan initiated the drug war, President Clinton escalated it while at the same time ending welfare and other support programs during a period when the black working class was getting rocked by deindustrialization.
“This has been a bipartisan adventure in these wars,” she said. “And now we wonder why the police don’t treat people in black communities with more respect…. It’s because we’ve declared a war.”
At one point, Vaughan and Alexander got into a testy exchange, with Vaughan arguing for more compassionate policing and Alexander cautioning that structural change is also needed.
“We need to be compassionate when we pull someone over, and recognize it’s not always worth writing a ticket and sending someone to jail,” she said. “I think you can exercise discretion.”
Alexander countered, “And actually what we have found is that police exercise discretion in racially biased ways.”
Alexander applauded Doing Our Work, a series of workshops largely focused on educating white people about racism, but also argued for consciousness raising among “the folks who have been most harmed and most abused, the folks who have been viewed and treated as the enemy to not just wake up to the reality that they have been living with day in and day out, but to actually take the step of asking the revolutionary question of, ‘What are we going to do and what are we going to build instead?’”
Alexander encouraged people in Greensboro to not be deterred by regulations and laws that tell them their goals are unrealistic as they fashion a vision for a more equitable and just community.
“Ask yourselves: ‘What kind of police organization would you want in your community — if you want one at all,’” she said. “Do you want the police? What do you want it to look like? How do you want it to function? What are the forms of accountability?”
The Community-City Working Group is planning 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 districts 1 and 3 respectively. Subsequent dialogues 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.
Johnson, who has been leading the Community-City Working Group with Vaughan since March, said that although he and the mayor have had their differences, “I’m committed to hanging in with it.”
“I do believe we can lead this state and this nation in something truly transformational,” she said. “I think we have the bones for it and the desire for it.”