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The new Jim Crow: How the war on drugs gave birth to a permanent American undercaste

March 25, 2010

Introduction by Andy Kroll

The California State Prison at Lancaster outside Los Angeles is at double capacity, with 150 triple-bunked here in the gym. Michelle Alexander says, “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” and that more Black men were disenfranchised in 2004 than “in 1870, when the 15th Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.” – Photo: by Ann Johansson, New York Times
California is, as the time-worn adage has it, our nation’s bellwether, and nowhere is that truer than in the Golden State’s prison crisis. California’s inmate population is among the highest in the nation. Its complex of prisons spills over with tens of thousands of inmates housed in every available inch of space and sleep-stacked three-high. So overcrowded are California’s prisons that the state penal system has been successfully sued for violating the constitutional rights of inmates – essentially by subjecting them to a public health crisis. That its inmates consistently resort to violence in prison should come as no surprise.

The dire state of California’s prisons can, in part, be traced to its draconian “three-strikes law,” which throws three-time felons behind bars for a mandatory 25 years. Overflowing prison populations have, in turn, contributed to that state’s bleak economic future, helping consign California to a perpetual budget deficit, annual financial crises, and repeated deep cuts in education and social funding. The state currently spends a staggering 10 percent of its annual operating budget, or $10.8 billion, on its prison system and its nearly 170,000 prisoners – more than it spends on the University of California system, once the jewel in the crown of American public higher education.

And which Americans have borne the brunt of California’s prison boom? Mostly minorities, African Americans especially. In 2005, the state was incarcerating, on average, 5,125 for every 100,000 male adult Blacks in the population – nearly four and a half times more than for Latino men and six and a half times more than for white men. California’s prisons are also notorious for separating their prisoners by skin color, a form of segregation that was, one lawyer remarked, “not tolerated in any other aspect of American life and hasn’t been for 50 years. It’s the shame of California.”

As Michelle Alexander, legal expert and author of a startling just-published book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” points out in her first TomDispatch post, California’s racially infused prison quagmire is only a snapshot of a growing racial divide, one which includes the formation of a new undercaste in America that loses its normal rights at the prison gates and often never recovers them. To check out the latest TomCast, Timothy MacBain’s striking audio interview with Alexander in which she explains how she came to realize that this country was bringing Jim Crow into the Age of Obama, click here.

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.

Cover designed by Jamaal Bell
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 percent.) 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 percent to 90 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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.

Federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80 percent 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.

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!

Michelle Alexander
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 “The 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 here. © Copyright 2010 Michelle Alexander. This story first appeared on TomDispatch and, without the introduction, on the Huffington Post. Andy Kroll, who wrote the introduction, is a writer based in San Francisco, an associate editor at TomDispatch and a staffer at Mother Jones magazine.

Part I: Legal Scholar Michelle Alexander on “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”


The transcript is available here.

 

Part II: Legal Scholar Michelle Alexander on “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”


The transcript is available here.

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3 thoughts on “The new Jim Crow: How the war on drugs gave birth to a permanent American undercaste

  1. John Mulligan

    Here’s some facts, black men are more likely to be incarcerated because they commit a disproportionate amount of crime. Just look at black on black crime: http://www.hhscenter.org/bonbstat.html

    43% of all murder victims in 2007 were black. Who’s doing the killing? It isn’t whites, it isn’t Asians and it isn’t middle easterners.

    How about Latinos? Take violent Salinas, CA for example. All 21 murders in 2009 were gang related. http://cbs5.com/crime/salinas.murders.blamed.2.1121089.html

    All the victims were Hispanic. All the shooters were Hispanic.

    I don’t like the drug war, but you can’t use it to explain the problems in the black community. Here’s an article on the recent flash mob trouble in Philly http://www.philly.com/philly/hp/news_update/89250997.html

    That’s your problem right there. Go to Bay View, Oakland, wherever there is a black majority and you’ll find thugs on every corner killing, robbing and doing nothing of value. And here’s what’s really sad, rather than blaming the thugs, you protect them on this website or make excuses for their arrest. It’s not their fault you say, it’s not their fault they dropped out of school, disrespected teachers, didn’t study, didn’t find a job, dressed talked and behaved like a thug. The government should have given them more you say, more free housing, jobs, money. God forbid they do it on their own. It must be racism, because it can’t be us.

    The time is now for you to call out the people who prey upon you, your own.

    Reply
  2. Y. Kendall

    Mr. Mulligan, your counting is a bit off. If you consider that, according to Justice Dept. statistics (even in the Bush era) and other sources, Blacks are more likely to be stopped, arrested, tried, and found guilty for the same crimes as Whites, your point of view must be adjusted, if you are sincerely interested in accuracy.

    Personal anecdote – my brother-in-law, who did not drop out of school (he’s a Columbia graduate), disrespect teachers (he’s also a Med school graduate), refuse to study, lack a job (he’s a psychiatrist), or dress and behave like a thug (he dresses as appropriate for a medical professional), has had his house torched by White neighbors because he didn’t realize that he and his wife (my sister) and their then four-year-old were integrating a neighborhood.

    Additionally, when jogging, he has been stopped in every neighborhood in which he has lived just for existing as a Black man where police thought he shouldn’t be. He has no police record whatsoever, yet that seems irrelevant to neighbors and police.

    While it is true that some Blacks prey on their own, to say that that is the only problem is shortsighted and far too simplistic. Yes, those who do so should take some responsibility, but the despair that results in violence is not solely caused by the people you call “thugs.”

    My mother saw this in elementary school years ago where she was a principal. When faced with any simple incident between two students of different races, teachers (both Black and White) routinely listened to the White child’s story, while refusing to let the Black child speak. They also routinely put misbehaving Black children out of class, while making excuses for misbehaving White children. When my mother stopped these unjust practices, frustration abated and test scores for both reading and math went up significantly every year. Success in school and in life can be thwarted by injustice in society. It’s not the only reason, but it is one important one we cannot afford to ignore.

    Reply
  3. John Mulligan

    Mr. Kendall,

    I’ll start by saying I appreciate your excellently reasoned and well written response. I do however respectfully disagree for the following reasons:

    1) I did quote statistics in my first post. Please refer to http://www.hhscenter.org, a site dedicated to the plague of black on black crime.

    2) In 2004, California, the arrests for homicide were: 20.7% white, 24.1% black and 47.1% Hispanic. However, California’s population in 2004 was 43.9% white, 35.2% Hispanic and 6.7% black. http://ag.ca.gov/cjsc/publications/homicide/hm04/Arrests.pdf. That’s the California Dept. of Justice, page 37 of the article.

    3) The race of victims of homicide in California in 2004 were: 32.1% black, 43.3 Hispanic and 17.7% white. http://ag.ca.gov/cjsc/publications/homicide/hm04/Crimes.pdf. Page 17 of the article.

    Thus, while representing only 6.7% of California’s population, black people represent 32.1% of murder victims and 24.1% of murder suspects. That’s a huge and inescapable fact.

    I appreciate your anecdotes and I am fully aware that racism still exists even here in California. But, quite frankly, racism does not account for these numbers. It is an error of some in the black community to use racism as a cause for these problems, while it appears far more correct to lay it at the doorstep of behavior within the black communities. Having lived in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, I also have a few anecdotes about the young men who stand on corners and the things they do. Believe me when I say that “thug life” has generated significant racism against persons who are not black. This is an ugly truth.

    But that wasn’t the point of the article above. Ms. Alexander argues that the criminal justice system is the new Jim Crow. She goes on to make statements like this:

    “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.”

    Nonsense. The fact is that young black men frequently leave women they impregnate and couldn’t care less about the children they father. The breakdown of the black family has nothing to do with the three strikes law. Three strikes was created because crime and murder were running out of control. The family was already quite destroyed when California passed three strikes in 1994, Prop. 184. Further, three strikes has nothing to do with drugs, it is purely targeted at violent felonies. California is very lax on pure drug offenses, see Prop. 36.

    I could go on at length. Ultimately Ms. Alexander’s proposal seeks to absolve persons convicted of crimes of any responsibility. Ms. Alexander makes excuses so prevalent in this website that the government and the police are always at fault and that racism is the cause of all the woes of the black community. Again, I admit that the government, the police and racism play a part, but these days, the lion’s share of the problem rests with the black community itself.

    People need to pull there head out of the sand. This isn’t the 1960s anymore. Millions of Asians, Middle Easterners and Latinos are here in this country now. Asians alone already far outnumber blacks, and yet, despite significant racism against Asians in the past, they have almost no crime rate and excellent education and job prospects. Black people need to copy that model of hard work and stop looking for people to blame. What do you think will happen when whites are no longer the majority? Do you think Asians, Middle Easterners and Latinos are going to accept these excuses?

    Reply

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