From the Alumni Board: Join YDS in reading "The New Jim Crow"

By Jeffrey Oak ’85 M.Div. ’96 Ph.D.
President, YDS Alumni Board

[Editor's Note: Jeffrey Oak ’85 M.Div. ’96 Ph.D. is president of the YDS Alumni Board. We have invited him to periodically share some of his reflections about what's happening at YDS.]

Book CoverIn her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander retells the story of Emma Faye Stewart, a thirty year old, single, African American woman, who is the mother of two children.  She was arrested in a drug sweep in Texas that was based, it turns out, on the false testimony of a single informant.  She is innocent, but finds herself in jail with no one to care for her children.  Her court-appointed attorney urges her to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge.  She refuses, maintaining her innocence. 

However, after a month in jail Emma Faye pleads guilty so she can return to her children.  She is sentenced to 10 years of probation, ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, and is branded a drug felon.  She is no longer eligible for food stamps; will likely be discriminated against by potential employers; cannot vote for a dozen years; and will be evicted from public housing.  Emma Faye Stewart’s children will likely be taken from her and placed in foster care. 

Emma Faye’s story is situated within a network of facts that makes the blood run cold:

  • The incarceration rate in the US is 6 to ten times that of other industrialized nations, even surpassing repressive regimes such as Russia, China and Iran
  • No other country incarcerates so many of its racial or ethnic minorities
  • The War on Drugs, the genesis of most incarceration of black and brown people, began when illegal drug use in the US was actually declining
  • Today it is legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways it used to be legal to discriminate against African Americans at the height of Jim Crow

Alexander argues that by targeting black and brown people—like Emma Faye Stewart—through the War on Drugs, the criminal justice system functions as a system of racialized social control, even as it officially adheres to the principle of colorblindness.  She says “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” 

With the words of Martin Luther King Jr. echoing, she observes that caste systems do not require bigotry or hostility to thrive, only indifference.

Michelle Alexander will be on the YDS campus at 5:30 on February 25 to give a lecture on her book and its call to action. If you’re not able to make it to Marquand Chapel, I’m pleased to say that her lecture will be webcast live at

Whether or not you think you’ll be able to participate, please join me, countless alumni, and current YDS faculty and students in reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

To borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich, it will “shake the foundations” of your thinking about race in America.

Jeffrey Oak ’85 M.Div., ’96 Ph.D.

President, YDS Alumni Board

Date Posted: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 10:17am