By Misty Urban
“A human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch,” Dr. Adrien Wing, Associate Dean at the University of Iowa College of Law, announced to a crowd of listeners in the student center at Muscatine Community College the evening of Tuesday, February 28. She was quoting the words of Michelle Alexander, author of the New York Times bestseller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
In a talk jointly hosted by The Alexander Clark Lecture Series, The Muscatine League of Women Voters, and Muscatine Community College, Wing moved through the main arguments of Alexander’s book. In the age of so-called “colorblindness” in the criminal justice system, mass incarceration and the war on drugs have put a disproportionate number of blacks in jail. Families are deprived of husbands and fathers. Released felons have difficulty getting jobs, housing, and food assistance. Mass incarceration has, in effect, created a new racial caste system—a new version of the “Jim Crow” laws that kept blacks from equal rights.
Wing kept her talk animated and relevant by adding her own personal experiences and knowledge about Iowa’s statistics. The information opened the eyes of many in her audience.
“I learned a lot,” said Lynde Hartman, an MCC nursing student. She was surprised by the statistic that Iowa has the most racially disproportionate imprisonment rate in the country. Blacks comprise two to four percent of Iowa’s general population, yet are 25% of the prison population. “It was shocking,” Hartman admitted. “I didn’t know that.”
José Zacarías of West Liberty already knew that Iowa has a disproportionate number of blacks in jail, many for minor offenses. He’s seen the caste system firsthand when interviewing applicants for manufacturing jobs. For those with a criminal record facing a background check, “they are in a corner,” Zacarías said. “That is the end of the road for many of them.”
But solutions to the problem are difficult and costly. The problem, Wing said, is racism. “Racism is a cancer. It can’t be cured by Band-aids. Cancer cannot be cured without the help of all of you,” Wing said to her listeners. “All of us.”
The League of Women Voters selected Alexander’s book for their Community Read program, now in its second year. Sue Johannsen, League president, chose the book because it addresses many of the criminal justice issues that the League takes a position on. One such issue is voting rights. Iowa is one of only three states that does not return voting rights to felons.
“It’s not an easy read,” Johannsen said, “but it’s well worth it.”
Wing is Director of the UI Center for Human Rights and has advised the governments of South Africa, Pakistan, and Eritrea on their constitutions. The Clark lecture is named after Alexander Clark, the Muscatine resident who in 1868 successfully sued for his daughter to attend the school of her choice in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Later, Clark was the first black graduate of UI’s law school. His son, Alexander Jr., was the second.