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Nov-L: I’m a criminal and so are you

By Michelle Alexander, Special to CNN  


  • Michelle Alexander says calling herself a
    criminal to friends starts an interesting exchange
  • Many of us, even Obama,
    commit small crimes, but still think we’re good citizens, she says
  • Stigma, social exclusion
    attach simply because you were once caught with drugs, she says
  • Writer: Copping to our
    crimes gives us more sympathy for the convicted, disenfranchised

 Editor’s note: America’s 300 million-plus people are
declaring their identity in the 2010 Census this year. This piece is
part of a special series on in which people describe how they
see their own identity. Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim
: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press,
2010) She is the former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU
of Northern California and of the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford Law
School. She holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the
Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio
State University.

(CNN) — Who am I? How do I identify?
Lately, I’ve been telling people that I’m a criminal. This shocks most
people, since I don’t "look like" one. I’m a fairly clean-cut,
light-skinned black woman with fancy degrees from Vanderbilt University
and Stanford Law School. I’m a law professor and I once clerked for a
U.S. Supreme Court Justice — not the sort of thing you’d expect a
criminal to do.
What’d you get convicted of? people ask. Nothing, I say. Well, then why
do you say you’re a criminal? Because I am a criminal, I say, just like
This is where the conversation gets interesting. Most of my
acquaintances don’t think of themselves as criminals. No matter what
their color, age or gender, most of the people in my neighborhood and in
my workplace seem to think criminals exist somewhere else — in
ghettos, mainly.
They have an unspoken, but deeply rooted identity as "law-abiding
citizens." I ask them, "Haven’t you ever committed a crime?" Oddly, people often seem perplexed by this question. What do you
mean? they say. I mean, haven’t you ever smoked pot, didn’t you ever
drink underage, don’t you sometimes speed on the freeway, haven’t you
gotten behind the wheel after having a couple of drinks? Haven’t you
broken the law?
Well, yeah, they say, but I’m not a criminal. Oh, really? What are you,
then? As I see it, you’re just somebody who hasn’t been caught. You’re
still a criminal, no better than many of those who’ve been branded
felons for life.
Perhaps there should be a box on the census form that says "I’m a
criminal." Everyone who has ever committed a crime would be required to
check it. If everyone were forced to acknowledge their own criminality,
maybe we, as a nation, would second-guess our apparent zeal for denying
full citizenship to those branded felons.
In this country, we force millions of people — who are largely black
and brown — into a permanent second-class status, simply because they
once committed a crime. Once labeled a felon, you are ushered into a parallel social universe. You can be denied the
right to vote, automatically excluded from juries and legally
discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and
public benefits — forms of discrimination that we supposedly left
This kind of stigma, discrimination and social exclusion may befall you
for no reason other than you were once caught with drugs.
I doubt Barack Obama thinks of himself as a criminal, though he should.
He has admitted to using illegal drugs during his college years — lots, in fact. What if he thought of
himself as a criminal? What if he identified that way? Would it lead him
to feel a bit more compassion for those who are branded drug felons for
life, unable to find work or housing, and deemed ineligible even for
food stamps?
Maybe if Obama thought of himself as a criminal he wouldn’t have just
endorsed spending even more money on prisons at a time when scarce resources would be much better spent on
education or health care, or just about anything else.
I am a criminal. Coming to terms with this aspect of my identity has
helped me to see more clearly — with blinders off — the ways in which I
have been encouraged not to feel any connection to "them," those
labeled criminals. I see now that "they" are me, and I am them.