In the wake of the verdict on the Trayvon Martin verdict there is a lot of discussion about how Black males are treated in our society. The Elephant in the room most peole seem to be overlooking is America's "War on Drugs". George Zimmerman told the 911 operator he thought Trayvon Martin was "on drugs". Zimmerman took it on himself to become an armed vigilante in the "War on Drugs".
When I heard Dr. Michelle Alexander's Incarceration Nation on Alternative Radio it was probably the best analysis of the American Criminal Justice system in regards to the War on Drugs and its devastating effects on the Black community that I have ever come across. Here are some excerpts:
Santa Fe, New Mexico 12 September 2012
What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than the by language we use to justify it. In the era of color blindness it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color criminals and then engage in all the practices that we supposedly left behind. Today, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of
discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it.
Here are some of the facts that I learned in the course of my work and research. More African American adults are 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 black men were disenfranchised than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race. Of course, during the Jim Crow era, the era of legalize discrimination and segregation in this country, black folks were kept from the voting booth, from the polls through poll taxes and literacy tests. Well, today felon disenfranchisement laws have accomplished in many states what poll taxes and literacy tests ultimately could not.
A black child born today has less than a chance of being raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. This is due in large part to the mass incarceration of black men. There was an interesting article published about this phenomenon in The Economist magazine, of all places, entitled “How the Mass Incarceration of Black Men Harms Black Women.” The article explained that the majority of black women in the U.S. are unmarried, including 70% of black professional women, and that is due largely to the mass incarceration of black men, which takes them out of the dating pool at the years they would be most likely to commit to a partner, to a family.
But what’s worse is that by branding them criminals and felons at very young ages, often before they’re even old enough to vote, they are rendered permanently unemployable in the legal job market for the most part, virtually guaranteeing that most will cycle in and out of prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Eighty percent
of all African American children can now expect to spend at least a significant part of their childhood years living apart from their fathers. And contrary to the image presented in the media of black men being a bunch of deadbeat dads that don’t care enough about their childrento be involved or to support them, the research actually shows that black men who are separated from their children due to divorce, incarceration, or any other factor are actually more likely to make an effort to maintain meaningful contact and relationships with their children following separation than men of any other racial or ethnic group. But no other racial or ethnic group faces as much separation, and forced separation, as African Americans.
This phenomenon does not affect some small segment of the African American community. To the contrary, in some major urban areas more than half of
working-age African American men have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. In fact, in some cities, like Baltimore,
Chicago, Philadelphia—take Chicago for example. In Chicago, if you take into account prisoners, if you actually count them as people—and, of course, prisoners are excluded from poverty statistics and unemployment data, thus masking the severity of racial inequality in the U.S.— but if you actually count prisoners as people, in the Chicago area nearly 80% of working-age African American men have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These men are part of a growing undercaste—not class, caste—a group of people defined largely by race relegated to a permanent second-class status by law.
I find that when I tell people that I now believe that mass incarceration is like a new Jim Crow, a new caste system, people react with shocked disbelief. They say, “What are you talking about? Our criminal justice system isn’t a system of racial control, it’s a system of crime control. And if black folks would just stop running around committing so many crimes, they wouldn’t have to worry about being locked up and then stripped of their basic civil and human rights.” But therein lies the greatest myth about mass incarceration, namely, that it’s been driven by crime and crime rates. It’s not true. It’s just not true.
During a 30-year period of time our prison population quintupled, not doubled or tripled but quintupled. Our nation now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of even highly oppressive regimes like Russia or China or Iran. But this is not due to crime rates. During that 30-year period of time crime rates fluctuated—went up, went down, went back up again, went back down again. Today, as bad as crime rates are in many parts of the country, crime rates are nationally at historical lows. But incarceration rates have consistently soared. Most criminologists and sociologists today will acknowledge that crime rates and incarceration rates in the U.S. have moved independently of one another. Incarceration rates, especially black incarceration rates, have soared, regardless of whether crime is going up or down in any given community or the nation as a whole.
So what explains this sudden explosion in incarceration, black incarceration, if not crime or crime rates? There was a drastic shift in attitudes. There was a wave of punitiveness that washed over the United States. We declared a war on drugs, and a get-tough movement was born on the heels of the civil rights movement. The war on drugs and the get-tough movement are responsible for the quintupling of our prison population in a few short decades. What has changed dramatically is not crime but what counts as crime and how we respond to it. And nothing has contributed more to the emergence of this new caste system than the war on drugs. Drug convictions alone, just drug convictions, accounted for about two thirds of the increase in the Federal prison system and more than half of the increase in the state system between 1985 and 2000, the period of our prison system’s most dramatic expansion. Drug convictions have increased more than 1000% since the drug war began.
To get a sense of how large a contribution the drug war has made to mass incarceration, consider this. There are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980. Most Americans violate drug laws in their lifetime. Most do. That’s a fact. But the drug war, not by accident, has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies have consistently shown now for decades that, contrary to popular belief, people of color are not any more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites. That defies our basic racial stereotypes about who a drug dealer is.
So why declare a national drug war at a time when drug crime is declining, not rising, and the American population doesn’t seem much concerned about it? From the outset the war on drugs had little to do with genuine concern about drug addiction or drug abuse and nearly everything to do with politics, racial politics. Numerous historians and political scientists have now documented that the war on drugs was part of a grand Republican Party strategy, known as the Southern strategy, of using racially coded get-tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were anxious about, fearful of, resentful of many of the gains of African Americans in the civil rights movement.
In 1968 Richard Nixon ran on a Law and Order platform. As naive 15 year old living in a predominantly white suburb this struck me as the equivalent of being for Mom and Apple Pie.
During the summer of the previous year Black frustration at the slow pace of progress on Civil Rights had become intolerable for many in America's ghettos, boiling over in a wave of racial riots that swept across the US in the summer of 1967. Many White Americans were shocked and frightened by the resulting violence and destruction that left a number of America's inner cities smoldering, patrolled by the National Guard like an occupying army.
The Nixon Campaign fanned those white fears with its message of "Law and Order" implying that any continued civil disorders would be ruthlessly put down. What I didn't understand at the time about the Nixon campaign's emphasis on "Law and Order" was a Dog Whistle sending a message to Whites that Nixon would crack down on those scary Black people and put them back in their place.
That is what set the stage for the launch of Reagan' s "War on Drugs" that took advantage of a wave of media driven hysteria following the death of Len Bias from crack cocaine to pass a new set of draconian drug laws.
A couple years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with some glee, actually hiring staff whose job it was to publicize inner-city crack babies, crack dealers, the socalled crack whores, and crack-related violence. The wave of media coverage that ensued when crack hit the streets was not the product of just good investigative journalism. It was the result of a media campaign launched by the Reagan administration to bolster public support for a drug war they had already been declared and to persuade Congress to devote millions more dollars to waging it.
The plan worked like a charm. Almost overnight millions more dollars were devoted to the drug war. And once the enemy in this war was racially defined, a wave of punitiveness swept the United States. Congress and state legislatures nationwide began to compete with one other to pass ever harsher drug laws, harsh mandatory minimum sentences. You would have small-time drug offenders receiving sentences harsher than murderers received in other Western democracies.
Almost immediately Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove they could be even tougher on “them” than their Republican counterparts. So it was President Bill Clinton who escalated the drug war far beyond what his Republican predecessors even dreamed possible. It was the Clinton administration that championed the laws denying drug offenders even federal financial aid for schooling upon release. It was the Clinton
administration that championed laws banning drug offenders from public housing. And it was the Clinton administration that championed the federal law banning drug offenders even from food stamps for the rest of their lives. Many of the laws that now constitute the basic architecture of this new caste system were championed by a Democratic administration desperate to win back those so-called white swing voters, the Reagan Democrats, the folks who had defected from the Democratic Party in the wake of the civil rights movement.
But what many people don’t realize is that this drug war has never been focused on rooting out the violent offenders or the drug kingpins. Federal funding has flowed to those state and local law enforcement agencies that boost the sheer numbers of drug arrests. It’s been a numbers game. What has been rewarded in this war is the sheer volume of drug arrests. Millions of dollars in federal grant money is provided to state and local law enforcement agencies based on the number of people swept into the system for drug offenses, virtually guaranteeing that law enforcement will go out looking for the so-called low-hanging fruit, stopping, frisking, searching as many people as possible in an effort to boost their numbers and continue to qualify for that financial aid. And to make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use up to 80% of the cars, cash, homes seized from suspected drug offenders. You don’t have to be convicted. If you are just suspected of a drug offence, law enforcement can take your car, your cash, seize your property.
The results are predictable. People of color have been rounded up en masse for relatively minor, nonviolent drug offences. In 2005, for example, four out of five drugarrests were for simple possession, only one out of five for sales. Most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or even significant selling activity. In fact, in the 1990s, the Clinton years, 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 that has now been shown to be less harmful, less addictive than alcohol or tobacco and at least, if not more, prevalent in middle-class white communities and on college campuses as it is in the ‘hood. But by waging this drug war almost exclusively in the ‘hood, we’ve managed to create this vast new racial undercaste in an astonishingly short period of time.
But, of course, being swept into the system is only the beginning. Because once you’ve been swept in andbranded a criminal felon, even if you get just felony probation, like the young man in my office, for the rest of your life you will be punished. You will have to check the box on employment applications for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter if the crime you committed happened four weeks ago, four years ago, or forty-five years ago. For the rest of your life you’ve got to check that box asking the dreaded question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Hundreds of professional licenses are off limits to people convicted of felonies. In fact, in my state, Ohio, you can’t even get a license to be a barber if you’ve been convicted of a felony.
People often say to me, “Oh, come on. They could get a job if they try. If they really try, if they really apply themselves. So many of those people don’t even want to work. They could get a job if they try.” I say, “Really? Try getting a job at McDonald’s with a felony record.” Employment discrimination is legal. Housing discrimination is perfectly legal. Public housing projects, private landlords are free to discriminate against you for the rest of your life. You could be denied access to public housing for a crime you committed 30 years ago, in your youth. Where are you supposed to sleep? Food stamps, public benefits can be off limits to you. Financial aid for schooling. If you want to improve yourself, get an education. Off limits.
What are folks expected to do? Imagine you’re just released from prison. You can’t get a job, you’re barred from housing, even food stamps are off limits to you. What are you expected to do? Apparently, what we expect them to do is to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs, accumulated back child support, which continues to accrue while you’re in prison. And in a growing number of states, you’re actually expected to pay back the costs of your imprisonment. All of this can be a condition of your probation or parole. And then get this. If you’re one of the lucky few who actually manages to get a job out of prison, you actually get that job, up to 100 percent of your wages can be garnished—up to 100 percent—to pay back all those fees, fines, court costs accumulated back child support. What are folks expected to do? What does this system seem designed to do? It seems designed to send folks right back to prison. Which in fact is what happens the vast majority of the time. About 75% of people released from prison return within three years, and the majority of those who return in some states do so in a matter of months, because the challenges associated with mere survival on the outside are so immense.
I know that there’s many people who say there is really no hope of ending mass incarceration in America. Just as many people were resigned to Jim Crow in the
South and would shake their heads and say, “Yes, it’s a shame, but that’s just the way that it is.” Today many people view the millions cycling in and out of your nation’s prisons and jails as just an unfortunate but inalterable fact of American life.
So rather than imagining that the criminals are them, not us, I think we’ve got to be willing to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” After all, President Barack Obama himself has admitted to using more than a little bit of drugs in his lifetime. In his youth he used marijuana, he used cocaine. And if he had not been raised by a white mother in Kansas or white grandparents in Hawaii, if he had been raised in the ‘hood, the odds are great that he would have been stopped, he would have been searched, he would have been frisked, he would have been caught. And far from being president of the United States today, he might not even have the right to vote. So this is about all of us. It’s about recognizing and honoring the dignity of all of us.
For the complete program: Alternative Radio Incarceration Nation
Alexander goes on in her conclusion to say what we need is a Underground Railroad for people coming out of our prisons to bring them back into society, instead of permanently stigmatizing and marginalizing a whole underclass numbering in the millions.
In college I started out majoring in Sociology. The thing that most interested me was criminology. My classes included visits to the State's Reformatory and its maximum security Penitentiary. My favorite professor Jerry Olson thought our prison system was an abomination and should be abolished. Now I think he was years ahead of his time.
This monstrous injustice called a War on Drugs must stop. This is in fact a war on the powerless and the vulnerable, two categories Black and Brown Americans disproportionately find themselves in. This is a debate the nation desperately needs to have. This may be a good time to begin.
Doctor Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness