Sunday, March 14, 2010

The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste

By Michelle Alexander

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of
office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president,
ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been
celebrating our nation's "triumph over race." Obama's election has
been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend
placed on the history of racial caste in America.

Obama's mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that
"the land of the free" has finally made good on its promise of
equality. There's an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his
appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this
is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or
relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust
us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to
the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can
be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.

Most people don't like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In
the "era of colorblindness" there's a nearly fanatical desire to
cling to the myth that we as a nation have "moved beyond" race. Here
are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:

*There are more African Americans under correctional control today --
in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than were enslaved in
1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to
felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth
Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the
right to vote on the basis of race.

* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both
parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent
disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to
the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African
American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for
life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are
part of a growing undercaste -- not class, caste -- permanently
relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the
right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally
discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education,
and public benefits, much as their grandparents and
great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

Excuses for the Lockdown

There is, of course, a colorblind explanation for all this: crime
rates. Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more
than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant
crime. We're told that the reason so many black and brown men find
themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class
status is because they happen to be the bad guys.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain
the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans
during the past 30 years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last
few decades -- they are currently at historical lows -- but
imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in
fact. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the War on
Drugs. Drug offenses alone account for about two-thirds of the
increase in the federal inmate population, and more than half of the
increase in the state prison population.

The drug war has been brutal -- complete with SWAT teams, tanks,
bazookas, grenade launchers, and sweeps of entire neighborhoods --
but those who live in white communities have little clue to the
devastation wrought. This war has been waged almost exclusively in
poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that
people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar
rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are
significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than
black youth. Any notion that drug use among African Americans is
more severe or dangerous is belied by the data. White youth, for
example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to
the emergency room as their African American counterparts.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation's
prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug
offenders. In some states, African Americans comprise 80%-90% of all
drug offenders sent to prison.

This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded
that black men have higher rates of violent crime. That's why the
drug war is waged in poor communities of color and not middle-class
suburbs. Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins
and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell. It
has nothing to do with race; it's all about violent crime.

Again, not so. President Ronald Reagan officially declared the
current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not
rising. From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime
and nearly everything to do with racial politics. The drug war was
part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of
using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare
to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of,
and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action. In
the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon's White House
Chief of Staff: "[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key
is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to."

A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the
streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized
on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be
responsible for publicizing inner-city crack babies, crack mothers,
crack whores, and drug-related violence. The goal was to make
inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering
public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead
Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.

The plan worked like a charm. For more than a decade, black drug
dealers and users would be regulars in newspaper stories and would
saturate the evening TV news. Congress and state legislatures
nationwide would devote billions of dollars to the drug war and pass
harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes -- sentences longer
than murderers receive in many countries.

Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could
be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs. In President Bill
Clinton's boastful words, "I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say
I'm soft on crime." The facts bear him out. Clinton's "tough on
crime" policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state
prison inmates of any president in American history. But Clinton was
not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the "New
Democrats" championed legislation banning drug felons from public
housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic
public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in
virtually every aspect of political, economic, and social life is now
perfectly legal, if you've been labeled a felon.

Facing Facts

But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn't
the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that's where the
violent offenders can be found? The answer is yes... in made-for-TV
movies. In real life, the answer is no.

The drug war has never been focused on rooting out drug kingpins or
violent offenders. Federal funding flows to those agencies that
increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies
most successful in bringing down the bosses. What gets rewarded in
this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests. To make matters worse,
federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement
agencies to keep for their own use 80% of the cash, cars, and homes
seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct
monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.

The results have been predictable: people of color rounded up en
masse for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses. In 2005, four
out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five
for sales. Most people in state prison have no history of violence
or even of significant selling activity. In fact, during the 1990s
-- the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war --
nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana
possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or
tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities
as in the inner city.

In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an
astonishingly short period of time -- a new Jim Crow
system. Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal
records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and
grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.

Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial
reality. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and
become CEOs or corporate lawyers -- not to mention president of the
United States -- causes us all to marvel at what a long way we've come.

Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In
many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were
when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and uprisings swept
inner cities across America. Nearly a quarter of African Americans
live below the poverty line today, approximately the same percentage
as in 1968. The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than
it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in
Third World countries. And that's with affirmative action!

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our
"colorblind" society creates without affirmative action, we see a
familiar social, political, and economic structure -- the structure
of racial caste. The entrance into this new caste system can be
found at the prison gate.

This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream. This is not the
promised land. The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a
recurring racial nightmare.

Michelle Alexander is the author of
New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The
New Press, 2010). The former director of the Racial Justice Project
of the ACLU in Northern California, she also served as a law clerk to
Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court. Currently, she
holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of
Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State
University. To listen to a TomCast audio interview in which
Alexander explains how she came to realize that this country was
bringing Jim Crow into the Age of Obama, click

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