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NWC Hosts Book Discussion for Black History Month

Alex Nicholson, Editor

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On February 9, NWC held a book discussion as its first event for Black History Month. A group met at NWC’s Intercultural House at 6:30 to talk about the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

The event was sponsored by NWC’s Office of Intercultural Programs and the Friends of the Powell Library, and the discussion was led by associate professor of English Rachel Hanan. Hanan said that she wanted to have a discussion on the book for a while, and felt that it would be appropriate as an event for Black History Month.

“There was a book on my bookshelf and I needed someone to talk about it with,” said Hanan. “Race is a fundamental subject in our civilization, and in Wyoming, it is a subject that isn’t as broached as it should be. It’s telling that the only people to show up to this event were all white.”

The book was written by Michelle Alexander, a professor of law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law and a civil rights advocate. Alexander was also a lawyer for the ACLU, and Hanan described that she started out focusing on employment discrimination but shifted to criminal justice reform at the end of her career there. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” is primarily about systemic racism embedded in the War on Drugs, a government campaign against illegal drug trade that is greatly tied to the Nixon and Reagan administrations that continues to this day.

“It really challenges the way that I think about race,” Hanan said. “I think that it is really useful for us to recognize our own unconscious biases.”

One of the myths of the War on Drugs discussed at the event was the idea that black men are more likely to sell and take drugs, which is why they are more often arrested for drug crimes. Hanan said that research showed that white men are more likely to sell drugs and that children are equally susceptible to drug use, regardless of race. Many of the attendants also talked about the War on Drugs and its negative impacts, such as the ways asset seizure was used in drug cases and the disproportionate sentencing.

“What is so terrible about the whole War on Drugs is the fact that the police departments were given unbelievable power, and not just power to stop people for probable cause, it could be for anything,” said Mary Bowmen, one of the attendants. “There were so many things that happened with the War on Drugs, it’s unbelievable, that all of a sudden all this money was taken away from education and helping people with addiction and put into incarcerating people. All of a sudden, the whole prison system in our country, the whole building of prisons burgeoned into this sort of money making operation, and it was a way to control this fear of people of color, in a way.”

At the end of the discussion, Hanan discussed the necessary steps of dealing with racism, and one of the first steps is not denying its existence, no matter how insignificant it might seem in any given circumstance. Another step she mentioned was acknowledging that the biggest burdens of dealing with these civil rights issues will mostly fall on lower class white families, a topic that Alexander also wrote about in her book.

“She points out that the people who bear the brunt of desegregation are your poorest white folks, because it is their jobs that are going to be lost and their jobs that are going to be threatened,” said Hanan. “So what we do at the end of the Civil Rights Movement, when again, it is their schools that are going to be desegregated, is that anger, and anxiety, and need for punishment for the other was funneled and directed into this War on Drugs.”

The event was well received by the attendants of the event, and many of them said that the topics discussed were things that needed to be more openly talked about.

“It was stimulating, very eye opening, and it made me want to learn more and talk more,” said Harriet Bloom-Wilson, one of the attendants. “We need to talk more.”

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NWC Hosts Book Discussion for Black History Month