Professor Anthony Thompson and Michelle Alexander

On November 3, NYU Law welcomed Michelle Alexander, senior fellow at the Ford Foundation and visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary, to speak at the 21st annual Derrick Bell Lecture on Race in American Society about Bell’s lasting influence on her own work. Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was a New York Times bestseller and won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in the nonfiction category.

After a musical introduction from Broadway singer Roslyn Burrough, Dean Trevor Morrison addressed the group. “I would run out of superlatives before I came close to capturing the enormity of Derrick’s impact on this law school,” he said, “and on the law and society across this country more broadly.”

Dr. Janet Bell, who started the lecture series in 1995, passed the proverbial torch to Professor Anthony Thompson during her opening remarks in the form of a gavel owned by her late husband. Thompson will be the founding faculty director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, and the annual lecture will be organized by the center going forward.

Eschewing the usual lecture format, Alexander sat down for a question-and-answer conversation with Thompson. Alexander discussed being influenced by Bell’s “interest convergence” theory, which suggests that a white majority will support racial justice only when they have a personal interest in doing so.

“This turn in the national consciousness can’t be explained by a growing concern for the black lives that have been shattered by mass incarceration,” she suggested, referring to increased interest in criminal justice reform among politicians. According to Alexander, the phenomenon is most easily explained by an increase in drug use within white communities and an increased tax burden on a predominantly white middle class.

Alexander also discussed her own shifting perceptions about criminal justice, remembering how, early in her career, she turned away a convicted felon as a named plaintiff in a racial profiling case. “We have allowed ourselves to silence the very people who have been most harmed by a system because we are so committed to challenging, always, the narrative that black people are criminals,” she reflected. “In fact, this is the time where we need to be willing as civil rights advocates and activists to stand with the criminals…to challenge the routine criminalization of African Americans, not just protest when one of the ‘respectables’ gets treated the wrong way.”

Watch the video of the talk (1 hr, 17 min):

Posted November 11, 2016