Illinois has the distinction of being on the right side of history--one of the states that helped win the Civil War and didn't permit slavery. But a new book by author Michelle Alexander flips that distinction on its head and begs the question: Have we turned from a free state to a slave state?
Alexander made headlines this week for proclaiming this fact: More black men are currently incarcerated than slaves were in 1850. It's an ugly fact, but it's true. Looking at Illinois, the difference between the number of black men in chains in 1850 and 2009 is truly astonishing.
Just because Illinois was considered a "free" state doesn't mean we don't have a history of slavery or racial discrimination. According to WTTW, slavery was well established in the area when the French first settled here. But it was abolished in 1787 as part of the Northwest Ordinance, and when Illinois was admitted to the union in 1818, it was declared a free state.
But until 1865, we had some ugly laws. Our "black codes" made it illegal for black residents to vote, testify against or sue a white person, gather in groups, serve in the militia or own a weapon. Any black resident had to have a certificate showing they were free, and if they didn't, they were presumed to be a slave. The repeal of those laws didn't make everything equal. We're still struggling with race today.
So, things weren't ever perfect in Illinois. But both the 1850 and 1860 census showed Illinois slave population as too small to even be registered. Even New Jersey, technically a free state, was shown as having a slave population of 236 in 1850.
But Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness," has drawn a parallel between our history of slavery and our modern astronomical rates of incarceration. Here she is on CSPAN, talking about her book:
If Illinois slave population was close to 0 in 1860, what is our current rate of incarceration for African Americans? According to the 2009 report from the Illinois Department of Corrections, black people make up 60 percent of those in prison and on parole, even though they're only 15 percent of our general population. Currently, we have 45,722 black people in the prison system or on parole. That's 304 African Americans now living in captivity in Illinois for every year since the last time we actually took a census of people as slave vs. free.
What does Alexander propose we do? She says she talks about this a lot with her husband, who's a federal prosecutor.
"He thinks there are changes we can make within the system," she said,
agreeing that there are good people working on the issues, and that
improvements can be made. "But I think there has to be a revolution of
This book has been on my radar for awhile, but now it's become a must-read ASAP. Anyone want to start an impromptu book club? Because if we need to start a revolution to make sure the next generation of young black men doesn't end up as slaves to the system, that means we need to get together and get informed.