Tag Archives: Racism in America

The Story of Locke, CA

Homeward_May_June2014This article on the history and impact of the Chinese immigrants on the Sacramento River Delta community of Locke,CA was originally published in the May/June edition of the Homeward Street Journal,  a voice for the Sacramento Homeless Community since 1997.  Download the full edition of Homeward here:  Homeward_May-June_2014

While Chinese Exploitation Appalling, Locke’s Immigrants Fared Better

The list of immigrant groups who have been discriminated against in the U.S. is long, and the conditions people from other countries have endured have been dismal. The Chinese who came to the United States in the late 1900s and early 20th Century endured their own series of setbacks and injustices. The story of the Sacramento River Delta town of Locke is a brighter spot in the Chinese immigrant story, although many of these workers suffered the effects of the same racial biases and ill treatment as their countrymen. Generally speaking, the town which these Chinese founded themselves against overwhelming odds, and which they came to pronounce Lock-ee (“happy living” in their dialect) is a more upbeat tale. In the mid-1800s, Chinese men came to the “Gold Mountain,” as they called America, during the California Gold Rush. At first they were accepted because they proved to be diligent workers and made themselves useful in every type of labor, from mining to farm work. The Transcontinental Railroad linking East with West would never have been accomplished in a timely fashion had it not been for Chinese men’s dogged work in constructing the railway. They toiled for low wages and experienced terrible working conditions. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 preventing any more Chinese from immigrating to America. It was the first time the United States had pinpointed a specific group of people to deny immigration.

Wong Lee with winter melons from his garden in the back of Locke, CA, in the Sacramento River Delta. Wong was a long-time orchard worker and handyman for the Leary Ranch outside Walnut Grove, CA, in the Delta. He was born in China in 1900 and emigrated to America when he was 21 under his workman father’s sponsorship. He lived in labor camps. He saved enough money to go back to China in 1935 and marry and again in 1947 to purchase land. He lost those investments in the Chinese revolution in 1949. It was not until 1968 that he was able to send for his wife and two children, after 33 years of marriage. Photo courtesy James Motlow from the book Bitter Melon: Inside America’s Last Rural Chinese Town.
Wong Lee with winter melons from his garden in the back of Locke, CA, in the Sacramento River Delta. Wong was a long-time orchard worker and handyman for the Leary Ranch outside Walnut Grove, CA, in the Delta. He was born in China in 1900 and emigrated to America when he was 21 under his workman father’s sponsorship. He lived in labor camps. He saved enough money to go back to China in 1935 and marry and again in 1947 to purchase land. He lost those investments in the Chinese revolution in 1949. It was not until 1968 that he was able to send for his wife and two children, after 33 years of marriage. Photo courtesy James Motlow from the book Bitter Melon: Inside America’s Last Rural Chinese Town.

But Chinese workers who came to the Delta were invaluable in reclaiming what was marsh and swamplands and in making it into the profitable farming area it is today. In the last part of the 19th Century, California was given free land from what is now Rio Vista in the south of the Delta to Freeport in the north. The state “sold” it to farmers for minimum down payments with the stipulation that if they reclaimed the land they would not need to repay the loans. Developed land, of course, meant greater tax revenues in the state coffers. The crop most prevalent in California at the time was grain. Farmers wanted to grow and make money from more lucrative fruit and vegetable crops like pears, tomatoes and asparagus. A fertile reclaimed delta area would be ideal. Developers had to build levees. For this they mostly hired Chinese workers who had, opportunely enough, come from the Pearl River Delta area in Guangdong Province where the land had the same features as the Sacramento Delta. These men had the skills to both the build levees and farm the reclaimed land. Due to widespread anti-Chinese laws, they were not able to earn more than about $1 a day. Although they were pushed to work for less, the Chinese seemed to have agreed upon $1 as their minimum. It was double or triple what they might have earned in China, but it was constant hard labor and a solitary life. The Chinese men sent most of their wages back to their families whom they didn’t even know if they would see again. The family structure in China was of great importance and separation from their wives, children and other relatives was a great cause for dismay. Foregoing family life made them feel even more alienated from their culture. In addition to contributing the sweat of their brows, the Chinese in the Delta invented what was called a tule shoe for the horses used in building the levees. This was an oversized horseshoe, not unlike a snowshoe for humans, which disperses the weight. They wired the tule shoes to the horses’ hooves for packing down and leveling the dirt. They employed this method in reclaiming 250,000 acres of land. The Chinese then stayed on as farm laborers or tenant farmers throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, toiling in the orchards, fields and packinghouses. Chinatowns cropped up in various Delta towns. The town of Locke stands out in that it was established by the Chinese themselves, the only Chinese immigrant-built town in the United States that still stands. Speculators and farmers bought the marshland for $1-4 an acre, reclaimed it for $6-12 an acre and resold it for $20-100 an acre. Or they rented it to Chinese farmers for $8 to $10 an acre. Under the California Alien Land Law of 1913, “aliens ineligible for citizenship” prohibited Asians (who could not become citizens) from purchasing land and made land leases of fewer than three years illegal. While this had the effect of driving most of the Chinese who had made up almost 90 percent of the agricultural workforce out of California’s rural areas, the Sacramento Delta Chinese and the founders of Locke were an exception. In 1912, Bing Lee had leased land from Delta farm owner George Locke and built seven buildings in his pear orchard north of the town of Walnut Grove. Two years before, the railroad had built a spur, which led to the pear packing shed. Lee built six stores and a gambling hall. The town on the Sacramento River, originally known as Lockeport, grew to include boarding houses for the workers, a church, church school, post office, theater, restaurant, saloons, grocery stores, hardware, herb store, fish market, dry goods store, dentist, cigar stand, shoe repair, pool room and bakery. By 1915, the town boasted about 400 year-round residents, which swelled to about 1,200 at harvest time. In his book One Day, One Dollar Peter C.Y. Leung explains that “Locke people were the last wave of immigrants from China to California during the period of Oriental restriction and exclusion.” Because they had become the vital backbone to the region’s economy, they skirted some of the discrimination other Chinese in America endured. But they had worked hard for that “privilege.” As Leung recounts, they had built the hundreds of miles of levees that now still hold back 1,500 miles of inland waterways. The reclamation had required working in waist-deep water at a time when malaria was still endemic, cutting drainage ditches and building floodgates and levees. These men laid the foundation for the present Delta agribusiness as well as seeing it through planting, maintenance, harvests and preservation of crops. Most Locke permanent residents worked in the orchards. Leong says that in the winter months they wove baskets for the harvest, repaired ladders, milked cows and performed general orchard maintenance, keeping them busy 11-12 hours a day. Leung quotes one man’s diary as recording 3,414 hours’ work in one year. During the season, bilingual Chinese foremen oversaw crews to prune and cut blight from the trees and pick weeks. Later they harvested the fruit and worked in the packing sheds. In addition, during irrigation periods, the men stayed from dawn to dusk watching over the water flow. In the ‘20s, the manual labor was done by field hands and hauling by horses. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that trucks finally were used in the fields.

In his 70s in 1976, Bing Fei Chow sits in his boardinghouse room in Locke, CA, in the Sacramento River Delta. Chow joined his older brother and uncle in the Delta in 1921 and worked 50 years as a farm laborer. He was part of what was referred to as “the bachelor society,” one of the Chinese immigrants who never saved enough money to marry. He says in the book Bitter Melon: “I wouldn’t say I’ve been happy here, because I had to leave friends and family in China. But I wasn’t unhappy. I don’t regret it either.” Photo courtesy of James Motlow

Throughout the Delta’s history there have been other immigrants workers, principally Japanese, Filipino and Mexican. Chinese workers were at a height during the Depression. Wages rose to $1.50 a day after the Depression. Wages rose after the U.S. entered World War II but were still modest. Out of perhaps $3,000 a year, Chinese men had to pay for board, clothing, furniture, taxes and to send money back to their families in China. Sometimes money saved was used to return for a visit to China or a dowry and wedding. Some Chinese in the Delta invested in tenant farming partnerships with other Chinese. When China became an ally in World War II, the U.S. repealed the exclusion acts in the Magnuson Act of 1943. This seemed a mere gesture however, since it set up a quota of 105 immigrants from China a year. The Immigrant Act of 1965 finally made it possible for Chinese to immigrate to this country and reunite with their families. Today there is a handful of Chinese American families farming in the Sacramento Delta, none of them living in Locke. Some Chinese American farmers did prevail, like Lincoln Chan, a Delta farmer who became known as the “pear king of California,” and farmed thousands of acres of sugar beets, safflower, corn, wheat and tomatoes. The Chinese immigrants who eventually established families in the area encouraged their children to obtain an education and leave the Delta for more promising work and lives. By 1980, the Chinese population of Locke had dwindled to about 90 Chinese Americans. Locke residents now include a few descendants, none of them engaged in farming. However, reminders of the retired Chinese inhabitants of the 1960s-1990s remain in the form of gardens where they grew Chinese vegetables for their own use. Most of the original buildings in the two-block core of the town are standing. The Locke Foundation is preserving the history of these workers. Photos and information about them is available at the Locke Boarding House Museum, a California Department of Parks and Recreation property.

Photos from a Bay Area family’s visit to Locke can be found in this blog post. 

The following sources were used for this article: Lawrence Tom, Brian Tom and the Chinese American Museum of Northern California; One Day, One Dollar: The Chinese Experience in the Sacramento River Delta, California by Peter C.Y. Leung; The Chinese-American Experience: An Introduction  by William Wei; and Bitter Melon by Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow Sally Ooms is a journalist and the author of the book Finding Home: How Americans Prevail. She was a resident of Locke during the 1970s and did her undergraduate thesis on the town for the University of San Francisco.


When the system of mass incarceration collapses …

            The is the final post in a four-part series in honor of Black History Month, drawn from Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

“When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color—people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prison, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination.

            “Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits—and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt—these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families. They were chastised for succumbing to depression and anger, and blamed for landing back in prison. Historians will likely wonder how we could describe the new caste system as a system of crime control, when it is difficult to imagine a system better designed to create—rather than prevent—crime.” – Michelle Alexander  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

People who have been convicted of felonies are hard pressed to re-enter society. What is to become of the thousands of young black men in the country who “are given as little as $10 gate money” after leaving prison? Criminal records will follow them for life. Ex-offenders are banned from employment in many jobs and professional fields by licensing rules.

Funding for education is on the wane. Alexander suggests that this is due to expanding prison budgets and says that what she calls the “new caste system” has created a situation in the U.S. where “young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college.”

She says that while Jim Crow exploited African Americans, the War on Drugs and its attendant mass incarceration of black men marginalizes that segment of our population. Marginalization means that people are no longer of use to society so caging them and making money off prisons is one way to deal with them.

“In the era of colorblindness, it is not longer permissible to hate blacks,” she says. “But we can hate criminals.”

“Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what is means to be black.”

            “…the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.”   –W.E.B. DuBois                          

So what is to be done about this racial caste system, particularly since the collective perception in the U.S. does not allow for the thought that there is racism at work? Alexander says that solutions are beyond the scope of her book, but posits that there are ways to begin.

The first is dealing with “our collective denial” which creates “a major stumbling block to public understanding of the role of race in our society, and it sharply limits the opportunities for truly transformative collective action.”

While she does not disparage the efforts of civil rights advocates in striving for reforms in felon disenfranchisement laws, crack sentencing penalties and racial profiling by law enforcement, not enough strides have been made.

Era-of_Colorblindness            “If we become serious about dismantling the system of mass incarceration, we must end the War on Drugs,” she says. “There is no way around it…there is no path to liberation for communities of color that includes this ongoing war.”

As important, she believes, is that there must be a change within the culture of law enforcement. “Black and brown people in ghetto communities must no longer be viewed as the designated enemy, and ghetto communities must no longer be treated like occupied zones.”

Her list further includes:

  • Rescinding mandatory drug sentencing laws
  • Legalizing marijuana
  • Adopting meaningful re-entry programs
  • Retraining prison workers
  • Investing in drug treatment on demand
  • Reversing laws that cause discrimination against drug offenders for the rest of their lives

“There is a tremendous amount of work to be done,” cautions Alexander, warning that, “All of the needed reforms have less to do with failed policies than a deeply flawed public consensus.”

She quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. when, in 1965 he described why it was more important to spearhead mass mobilization rather than lawsuits. He said, “We are trying to win the right to vote and we have to focus the attention of the world on that. We can’t do that making legal cases.”

Image courtesy of Friends of Justice
Image courtesy of Friends of Justice

Alexander says that, “The idea that we may never reach a state of perfect racial equality—a perfect racial equilibrium—is not cause for alarm. What is concerning is the real possibility that we, as a society, will choose not to care. We will choose to be blind to injustice and the suffering of others.”

And, once again, we must listen to Dr. King’s words. He is still enlightening us: “It is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.”


“Legal Misrepresentation” and Seizures Abound

            The is the third part in a four-part series in honor of Black History Month, drawn from Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander has stated that “few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the War on Drugs.” In fact, she says, “the rules of the game are designed to allow for the roundup of an unprecedented number of Americans for minor nonviolent drug offenses.”

What then transpires once a person is arrested?  Alexander says that defendants are typically pressured by the threat of lengthy sentence into plea bargaining. The most astonishing revelation is that “Tens of thousands of poor people go to jail every year without ever talking to a lawyer, and those who do meet with a lawyer for a drug offense often spend only a few minutes discussing their case and options before making a decision that will profoundly affect the rest of the lives.”

Once again, television and movies seem to be letting us down, portraying the public defender rushing in to represent the wrongfully accused. Everyone gets a lawyer of some ilk, right?


While the Supreme Court ruled 40 years ago that poor people accused of serious crimes were entitled to counsel, it left it up to states and local governments to decide how legal services should be funded, Alexander says. But the War on Drugs brought out the “tough on crime” politicians and public defender offices are usually not on the top of the funding list.

The author’s statistics show that 80 percent of criminal defendants are unable to hire a lawyer because they are indigent. Public defenders have large case loads, sometimes “well over one hundred clients at a time…And some states deny representation to impoverished defendants on the theory that somehow they should be able to pay for a lawyer, even though they are scarcely able to pay for food or rent.”

“…in Wisconsin, more than 11,000 poor people go to court without representation every year because anyone who earns more than $3,000 per year is considered able to afford a lawyer…The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.”

She also says that almost no one goes to trial. Most plea bargain. After the arrest, the prosecutor is in charge, she says. The prosecutor may dismiss charges or pile more on if they can be proven in court—“a practice known as overcharging.”

This is a major factor in defendants pleading guilty to crimes, even if they are innocent, rather than risk the results of a trial.

“The pressure to plead guilty to crimes has increased exponentially since the advent of the War on Drugs. In 1986, Congress passed The Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established extremely long mandatory minimum prison terms for low-level drug dealing and possession of crack cocaine,” she says. “The typical mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense in federal court is five or ten years.”

On top of that, she says that, “The number of snitches in drug cases has soared in recent years, partly because the government has tempted people to ‘cooperate’ with law enforcement by offering cash, putting them ‘on payroll,’ and promising cuts of seized drug assets, but also because ratting out co-defendants, friend, family, or acquaintances is often the only way to avoid a lengthy mandatory minimum sentence.”

Consequently, “thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence.” 

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probably cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized.”  Excerpt from the Fourth Amendment

Meanwhile, in 1984 Congress amended a law that had allowed the confiscation of property that had anything to do with drug manufacturing and storage equipment, along with the drugs and the transportation used to convey it.
The amendment made it possible for law enforcement agencies to keep and use the proceeds from asset forfeitures and to retain up to 80 percent of the assets’ value.

“Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars and homes of people suspected of drug use of sales…on mere suspicion of illegal drug activity.

“Once the property was seized, the owner had no right of counsel, and the burden was placed on him to prove the property’s ‘innocence.’” Because most of the people who had cash or property seized were poor, they couldn’t hire an attorney or pay court costs, so most people did not contest the seizure.

Naturally the system lent itself to enormous abuse, with whole task forces devoted to seizing whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. It wasn’t until 2000 that Congress passed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act which was supposed to address the abuses, but Alexander says the reforms were inadequate. It shifted the burden of proof onto the government but still allows absurdities like one case Alexander cites:

“A woman who knew that her husband occasionally smoked pot could have her car forfeited to the government because she allowed him to use her car. Because the ‘car’ was guilty of transporting someone who had broken a drug law at some time, she could legally lose her only form of transportation, even though she herself committed no crime.”

And, under the new law, drug busts motivated by desire to seize cars, houses and other property are still allowed and local agencies still can keep the seized assets. This ensures that law enforcement, profiting in this manner and from other federal incentives will support the continuance of the War on Drugs.

Coming up: Part  Four

What does the War on Drugs, and subsequent mass incarceration, mean for African Americans in the United States? What is the harm done by stigmas after prison and is there a way to start dismantling the system that promotes, under the guise of controlling crime, such enormous racial injustices?


Arrests: Warrantless and Unwarranted

            The is the second part in a four-part series in honor of Black History Month, drawn from Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

New Jim CrowMichelle Alexander says we may think we are familiar with how the criminal justice system works but she suggests that we have been led astray by television and movie police dramas.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the author says, “These fictional dramas, like the evening news, tend to focus on individual stories of crime, victimization and punishment, and the stories are typically told from the point of view of law enforcement. A charismatic police officer, investigator or prosecutor struggles with his own demons while heroically trying to solve a horrible crime…”

Alexander says that the War on Drugs, as upheld over and over again by the U.S. Supreme Court, and at the same time weakening the Fourth Amendment with its interpretations, has led to sanctioning police stops and searches of U.S. citizens for little or no reason.

Her statistics show that since the War on Drugs was instituted in the 1980s, “convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in the United States…Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41,000 in 1980.”

Furthermore, “The percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences (rather than dismissal, community service or probation) has quadrupled, resulting in a prison-building boom the likes of which the world has never seen…By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans—or one in every 31 adults—were behind bars, on probation or on parole.”

Alexander is out to bust myths.

Among them is the belief that the War on Drugs has been aimed at pulling down the big drug lords. To the contrary, there have been comparatively few arrests and convictions of this nature, she says. The war is directed at smaller drug offenses, many times simply possession of a small amount of marijuana. She cites that since 2005, four out of five arrests are for possession and one out of five for sales, and that “most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity.”

image courtesy of NewJimCrow.com
image courtesy of NewJimCrow.com

It becomes apparent that American citizens aren’t aware of how procedures for arrests have been loosened since the War on Drugs began. Alexander goes so far as to say, “Few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the War on Drugs…With only a few exceptions, the Supreme Court has seized every opportunity to facilitate the drug war, primarily by eviscerating Fourth Amendment protections against reasonable searches and seizures by the police.”

She points out that the Fourth Amendment was originally enacted within memory of English rule when arbitrary searches of colonial people and their property were the rule. This is frighteningly close to what we have come to allow in modern times, says the author.

Once police in the U.S. could not stop and search anyone without a warrant unless there was probable cause that the person was engaging in criminal activity.

Alexander says that in Terry v. Ohio in 1968, the Supreme Court modified the understanding of the Fourth Amendment by ruling that it was allowable for a police officer, upon witnessing unusual conduct, to be able to search a person whom he or she believes is dangerous or engaged in criminal activity.

Justice William O. Douglas was the sole dissenter against warrantless searches. Alexander says that in the years since the ruling, “stops, interrogations and searches of ordinary people driving down the street, walking home from the bus stop, or riding the train, have become commonplace—at least for people of color. As Douglas suspected, the Court in Terry had begun its slide down a very slippery slope. Today it is no longer necessary for the police to have any reason to believe that people are engaged in criminal activity or actually dangerous to stop and search them. As long as you give ‘consent,’ the police can stop, interrogate and search you for any reason or no reason at all.”

And, it is not common knowledge that you are entitled to say no to a search. Even if you do, Alexander points out that it is not likely anyone will say no when they are feeling threatened or vulnerable to a police officer who is speaking in a loud voice and maybe even has one hand on a weapon.

“For good reason, many people—especially poor people of color—fear police harassment, retaliation, and abuse,” particularly “after having your car torn apart by the police in a futile search for drugs, or being forced to lie spread-eagled on the pavement while police search and interrogate you for no reason at all…”

In pretext stops of vehicles, officers often are not motivated to enforce traffic laws but are interested in finding drugs. The Supreme Court has also sanctioned this type of enforcement in its rulings since the War on Drugs. In Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, “the Supreme Court held that the police may arrest motorists for minor traffic violations and throw them in jail…” Alexander relates. Thus “even if motorists, after being detained and interrogated, have the nerve to refuse to consent to a search, the police can arrest them anyway.”

One more technique police may employ if denied a vehicle search, is to bring in drug-sniffing dogs.

Alexander says that complaints are not filed because, even if people have been unduly and unfairly harassed, they are unwilling to get on the bad side of law enforcement officials.

Coming up: Part Three

            Once arrested, the next process is through the criminal justice system. Just as many misconceptions exist about police roles and accountability, so is the way in which people become imprisoned. In “Legal Misrepresentation,” Alexander takes us through the process with a realistic analysis of our trampled rights. She also details how and why private property often is seized and not regainable.

New Jim Crow

War on Drugs: Racism Beneath the Veil

New Jim CrowThis 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.”

MLKShe 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.

Four part series