You might think last month's presidential election proved one thing: That there are no longer any racial barriers to success in America.
But last weekend, author Michelle Alexander came to Detroit and told a spellbound audience that while she once shared that illusion, this happy image is anything but true. Instead, in a powerful speech and a best-selling book, she argues that America has created a new "racial caste system that is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow."
Now a law professor at Ohio State University, she told a posh banquet in Detroit's Renaissance Center that we've created a military-industrial-prison system "based on the mass incarceration of poor people of color, particularly black men."
Her theory — which she said she herself rejected a decade ago — is that "we haven't ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it." Today, as she sees it, "poor folks of color are shuttled from rundown and underfunded schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons — and then out to life as a permanent undercaste."
Permanent, because in many states felons can be forever denied the right to vote. They can also be "automatically excluded from juries and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits." Even if legal barriers don't exist, the chance of a poorly educated black man with a criminal record succeeding in life is abysmally low. Nor are we talking about a small number of people.
"In many large cities, including Detroit, the majority of working age African-American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives," she said.
"This is reality," she added, "and nobody, not in Congress, not President Barack Obama, is talking about this."
But she is. Last year, Alexander started a ferocious debate with her book: "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." Edition after edition sold out. On Dec. 2, the author was the keynote speaker at the annual Peace and Justice banquet sponsored by Detroit's Central United Methodist Church.
Most big cities have a church whose religion is mainly social activism, and in Detroit, Central United, led by the Rev. Ed Rowe, has long been that place.
Visitors to the church are more likely to stumble over a welfare rights demonstration than choir practice.
The crowd, heavy on activists and labor leaders, can sometimes be boisterous. But this year, when the tiny, delicately attractive law professor spoke, you could have heard a pin drop.
Among those listening raptly was a black middle-aged woman dressed in blue. "I am here for my son," Sybrina Fulton told me. "His name was Trayvon Martin." Trayvon became a national figure after the unarmed black teen was shot to death in Florida last February.
Though she herself is black, Michelle Alexander has spent her life far removed from the world of the permanent underclass.
She grew up middle class, the daughter of an Oregon marketing executive. Alexander has degrees from Vanderbilt and Stanford Universities, and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun before becoming a plaintiff's attorney and then a law professor. Tiny and elegant, she looks far younger than her 45 years.
Originally, she thought that while there were certainly built-in racial biases in the system, it was possible for anyone to succeed. But gradually, while working with an ACLU racial justice project, she came to believe that the "war on drugs" really was a successful attempt to impose a new system of "well-disguised, racialized social control" to keep people oppressed.
Her theory is not without controversy, even in the black community. Among those who disagree is Carter Stewart, the U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. He also happens to be Michelle Alexander's husband, and best friend.
But there were few dissenters Sunday in Detroit.
When she finished, U.S. Rep. John Conyers just said "wow."
"You know, many authors can't speak, but she blew me away," said Conyers, who has represented Detroit in Congress since 1965. When asked if he thought what she said was true, he said, "of course it is. How do you think things got this way?"
"What do you think has been going on all these years?"