Michelle Alexander, ‘The New Jim Crow’ Author, Explains Her Transition From Law to Religion

Acclaimed author, legal scholar and civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander will be joining Union Theological Seminary in NYC as a Visiting Professor.

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After sharing news about being awarded the 21st Heinz Award for Public Policy, Alexander explained on Facebook:

I am enormously grateful for this award and look forward to sharing it with organizations and advocates who are committed to courageous and creative work for racial justice. My book, The New Jim Crow, would never have had a national impact if it wasn’t for the many, many people who not only read the book, but decided to take action by handing it to others, teaching it in classrooms, organizing study circles, holding forums or town halls, going into prisons, providing support to people returning home, and engaging in protest and direct action — in short, doing something meaningful rather than simply letting the book sit on a shelf. So this award belongs to all of you who not only read the book, but gave it a life of its own. I am creating a fund for the purpose of donating this money and book royalties, and I hope to help support great work that is being done all over the country for many years to come.

But I will also be taking my work in some new directions. This week I officially joined Union Theological Seminary in NYC as a Visiting Professor. I have known for some time that I need to stretch myself, move beyond what I know and out of my comfort zones. As a lawyer, it comes naturally for me to speak only when I’ve done all my research, know all the facts, and can make my case. Law, policy and advocacy have been my world for more than 20 years, and my singular passion for 10 of those years has been finding ways to awaken people to the racial dimensions of mass incarceration and help them see it for the human rights nightmare that it is.

And yet I now feel compelled to change course. I am walking away from the law. I’ve resigned my position as a law professor at Ohio State University, and I’ve decided to teach and study at a seminary. Why?

There is no easy answer to this question, and there are times I worry that I have completely lost my mind. Who am I to teach or study at a seminary? I was not raised in a church. And I have generally found more questions than answers in my own religious or spiritual pursuits. But I also know there is something much greater at stake in justice work than we often acknowledge. Solving the crises we face isn’t simply a matter of having the right facts, graphs, policy analyses, or funding. And I no longer believe we can “win” justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout. Yes, we absolutely must do that work, but none of it — not even working for some form of political revolution — will ever be enough on its own. Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power. American history teaches how these games predictably play out within our borders: Time and again, race gets used as the Trump Card, a reliable means of dividing, controlling and misleading the players so a few can win the game.

This is not simply a legal problem, or a political problem, or a policy problem. At its core, America’s journey from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration raises profound moral and spiritual questions about who we are, individually and collectively, who we aim to become, and what we are willing to do now.

I have found that these questions are generally not asked or answered in law schools or policy roundtables. So I am going to a place that takes very seriously the moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions of justice work: Union Theological Seminary. Union has a proud history of deep commitment to social justice, and I am happy to call it home for awhile.

Alexander then pointed supporters to her remarks at Union Theological Seminary from last fall, which you can watch at YouTube or below.

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