I’m a Criminal and So Are You
CNN Editor’s note: America’s 300 million-plus people are declaring their identity in the 2010 Census this year. This piece is part of a special series on CNN.com in which people describe how they see their own identity. Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010) She is the former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Northern California and of the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School. She holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University.
Who am I? How do I identify?
Lately, I’ve been telling people that I’m a criminal. This shocks most people, since I don’t “look like” one. I’m a fairly clean-cut, light-skinned black woman with fancy degrees from Vanderbilt University and Stanford Law School. I’m a law professor and I once clerked for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice—not the sort of thing you’d expect a criminal to do.
What’d you get convicted of? people ask. Nothing, I say. Well, then why do you say you’re a criminal? Because I am a criminal, I say, just like you.
This is where the conversation gets interesting. Most of my acquaintances don’t think of themselves as criminals. No matter what their color, age or gender, most of the people in my neighborhood and in my workplace seem to think criminals exist somewhere else—in ghettos, mainly.
They have an unspoken, but deeply rooted identity as “law-abiding citizens.” I ask them, “Haven’t you ever committed a crime?” Oddly, people often seem perplexed by this question. What do you mean? they say. I mean, haven’t you ever smoked pot, didn’t you ever drink underage, don’t you sometimes speed on the freeway, haven’t you gotten behind the wheel after having a couple of drinks? Haven’t you broken the law?
Well, yeah, they say, but I’m not a criminal. Oh, really? What are you, then? As I see it, you’re just somebody who hasn’t been caught. You’re still a criminal, no better than many of those who’ve been branded felons for life.
Perhaps there should be a box on the census form that says, “I’m a criminal.” Everyone who has ever committed a crime would be required to check it. If everyone were forced to acknowledge their own criminality, maybe we, as a nation, would second-guess our apparent zeal for denying full citizenship to those branded felons.
In this country, we force millions of people—who are largely black and brown—into a permanent second-class status, simply because they once committed a crime. Once labeled a felon, you are ushered into a parallel social universe. You can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits—forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind.
This kind of stigma, discrimination and social exclusion may befall you for no reason other than you were once caught with drugs.
I doubt Barack Obama thinks of himself as a criminal, though he should. He has admitted to using illegal drugs during his college years—lots, in fact. What if he thought of himself as a criminal? What if he identified that way? Would it lead him to feel a bit more compassion for those who are branded drug felons for life, unable to find work or housing, and deemed ineligible even for food stamps?
Maybe if Obama thought of himself as a criminal he wouldn’t have just endorsed spending even more money on prisons at a time when scarce resources would be much better spent on education or healthcare, or just about anything else.
I am a criminal. Coming to terms with this aspect of my identity has helped me to see more clearly—with blinders off—the ways in which I have been encouraged not to feel any connection to “them,” those labeled criminals. I see now that “they” are me, and I am them.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michelle Alexander.
—CNN Opinion, May 19, 2010