This blog is the first in a four-part series with information extracted from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Daily Kos calls the book “a timely and stunning guide to the labyrinth of propaganda, discrimination, and racist policies masquerading under other names that comprises what we call justice in America.” The Miami Herald calls it “a troubling and profoundly necessary book.”
War on Drugs: Racism Beneath the Veil
In his 1963 March on Washington speech (“I have a dream”), the Rev. Martin Luther King said, …”we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt…” in this nation.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander—a civil rights lawyer and advocate, and a legal scholar—turns a critical eye on our system of justice and pinpoints the root causes and continuation of the staggering bias against African Americans, in particular black men.
In this well-researched book, Alexander first startles with the statistic that “in less than 30 years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase…” and that “one in three young African American men will serve time in prison if current trends continue.” She says further that “mass incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue as opposed to a racial justice or civil rights issue (or crisis).”
In a chapter entitled “The Rebirth of Caste” and a section called “The Birth of Mass Incarceration,” Alexander says that the “rhetoric of ‘law and order’ was first mobilized in the late 1950s as Southern governors and law enforcement officials attempted to generate and mobilize white opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.”
She says that “For more than a decade—from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s—conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition for civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime. Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political lawlessness, thereby contributing to the spread of crime.”
Alexander says that after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the public debate shifted focus from segregation to crime. Pres. Ronald Reagan took advantage of disadvantaged white voters who felt betrayed by the Democratic Party’s acceptance of the act, she says. He did this by “condemning ‘welfare queens’ and criminal ‘predators’” with the inference that these were all black people, but without ever making any explicit reference to race.
One of Reagan’s campaign promises was to boost the federal government’s role in fighting crime. “After a period of initial confusion and controversy regarding whether the FBI and the federal government should be involved in street crime, the Justice Department announced its intention to cut in half the number of specialists assigned to identify and prosecute white-collar criminals and to shift its attention to street crime, especially drug-law enforcement,” Alexander cites.
Interestingly enough, she says, at that time fewer than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as a top priority for law enforcement officials to tackle. But law enforcement budgets soared on every level starting in 1981. According to the stats Alexander amassed, three years later the FBI’s antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million, the Department of Defense’s drug allocations from $33 million to $1,045 million in 10 years, etc., while antidrug funds for the Department of Education were cut to a fourth of what they had been.
The war on drugs hit at the same time that inner cities were collapsing due to the outsourcing of factory jobs to foreign countries and technology was replacing many skilled workers’ jobs. “The decline in legitimate employment opportunities among inner-city residents increased incentives to sell drugs—most notably crack cocaine,” Alexander says. She says that, while “no one should ever attempt to minimize the harm caused by crack cocaine and the related violence,” other countries faced with similar problems chose to set up drug treatment and prevention programs and enhanced education and economic opportunities. But Alexander says that for reasons “traceable largely to racial politics and fear mongering we chose war.”
In 1986, the House passed legislation that allocated $2 billion toward the anti-drug campaign and Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. “Among other harsh penalties, the legislation included mandatory minimum sentences for the distribution of cocaine, including far more severe punishment for distribution of crack—associated with blacks—than powder cocaine, associated with whites.”
Alexander notes earlier in the book that crack is “pharmacologically almost identical to powder cocaine, but it has been converted into a form that can be vaporized and inhaled for a faster, more intense (though shorter) high using less of the drug—making it possible to sell small doses at more affordable prices.”
Until recently, federal law has overseen the punishment of crack offenses one hundred times more severely than powder cocaine offenses. “A conviction for the sale of five hundred grams of powder cocaine triggers a five-year mandatory sentence, while only five gram of crack triggers the same sentence,” the author details.
Courts from the lowest to the highest in the land have upheld the hundred-to-one ratio, along with other thinly veiled racially-based decisions made by police arresting people who appear to be on drugs or whom they think might be drug offenders. The War on Drugs has its own set of legal allowances, it seems, and very little of it has to do with adherence to the U.S. Constitution.
When the War on Drugs was instituted, Alexander says, “The results were immediate. As law enforcement budgets exploded, so did prison and jail populations. In 1991, the Sentencing Project reported that the number of people behind bars in the United Sates was unprecedented in world history, and that one fourth of young African American men were now under the control of the criminal justice system.”
In her introduction, Alexander says that “the racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities.
“These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crimes. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates…That is not what one would guess, however, when entering our nation’s prison and jails.
“In major cities wracked by the drug war as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.”
Next blogs during Black History Month: Further review of issues that Michelle Alexander brings to light in The New Jim Crow, including “the astonishing percentage of the American public” arrested for minor, non-violent drug crimes; the legal ways in which police are allowed to invade a citizen’s house, search it and arrest the occupants; the court cases and appeals that have denied any racial bias as the basis for decisions; the effect arrests, convictions for misdemeanors and felonies, and prison terms have on a person’s life; the deleterious effect pleading guilty in return for a reduced sentence can have on a person’s life; and Alexander’s examination of all-too-common debtor’s prison situations.