Last month, Congress passed the First Step Act, a prison-reform bill intended to reduce recidivism. Do you think this bill will actually change the realities of mass incarceration? It’s important but insufficient, in terms of the actual number of people in jails and prisons. We’ve gone from 300,000 people in jails and prisons in the 1970s to 2.2 million people today. We have to radically reorient ourselves and start talking about rehabilitation, restoration and how we end crime. And if we do that, we’re going to come to very different choices than we’ve come to in this era of overincarceration, where the response to everything is punishment.
You’ve said we live in a society that hasn’t dealt with its past. What do you mean by that? We are compromised by the legal architecture we created in the 20th century that codified racial segregation and racial hierarchy. The great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude: It was the ideology of white supremacy, in which people persuaded themselves that black people aren’t fully human. When you look at the 13th Amendment, which talks about ending forced labor, it says nothing about ending this narrative of racial differences. Slavery didn’t end in 1865; it just evolved.
Do you think the rhetoric espoused by President Trump and his supporters is just a continuation of what America was founded on? If we had done the work that we should have done in the 20th century to combat our history of racial inequality, no one could win national office after demonizing people because they’re Mexican or Muslim. We would be in a place where we would find that unacceptable.
[For more on this story by Jaime Lowe, go to https://www.nytimes.com/2019/0...ace-its-history.html]