“Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.” President Jimmy Carter 1977.
The facts are overwhelming. The trends are clearly evident. And, the destruction of the African American family and thusly the African American community is existent throughout the country.
Ohio State University Law Professor Michelle Alexander, a one-time clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court writes about the so-called “War on Drugs” in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The book examines what the author refers to as, “The cyclical rebirth of caste in America.” It is a treatise long overdue and one every American should closely examine.
In our lifetime the United States has become the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.3 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails — a 500% increase over the past 30 years. These trends have resulted in prison overcrowding and state governments being overwhelmed by the burden of funding an ever-expanding penal system. According to Alexander and other experts the catalyst behind the numbers is our nation’s “War on Drugs.”
According to Alexander, “The War on Drugs is a war on African-American people and we countenance it because we implicitly accept certain assumptions sold to us by news and entertainment media, chief among them that drug use is rampant in the black community.”
But. The. Assumption. Is. WRONG.
“According to federal figures, blacks and whites use drugs at a roughly equal rate in percentage terms. In terms of raw numbers, WHITES are far and away the biggest users — and dealers — of illegal drugs.”
The Sentencing Project, which has an established reputation in the fight for real justice in this country has some rather disturbing facts regarding the trend to incarcerate black males. “More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For black males in their 20s, one in every eight is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.”
In fact, Alexander warns us that, “One of three black males born today can expect to go to prison if current trends continue.”
The debate has been prevalent in many communities for nearly three-decades. However, until now it has not truly been thrust in front of the American mainstream as President Carter and now Alexander has done.
Today many states are spending more tax revenues warehousing non-violent drug abusers in state and local lock-ups than in educating their children. In 2001 the average annual operating cost per State inmate was $22,650 while the Federal Bureau of Prisons spent $22,632 per inmate.
In July 2006, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the average per-student expenditure in public schools was $8,310 in 2003-04.
Professor Alexander takes us on a historical journey from the days of slavery when African Americans, especially men, were depicted as inhuman and potential menaces to law-abiding society.
Her book is extremely informative as well as disturbing. Alexander expertly exposes the war against black men executed by our elected officials, our courts, our law enforcement and the media both historically and in contemporary America. She is not a hysterical purveyor of a lame conspiracy theory. She is a scholar who utilizes historical facts and empirical data to provide convincing evidence of what so many of us have known for a generation: Our government is systematically criminalizing our children and, as a result a great number of them effectively become second class citizens in their native land.
Professor Alexander states that our so-called “colorblind” laws and “blind” legal system are a travesty. Utilizing court decisions and academic research she proves to the reader the fabric covering Lady Justice’s blinded eyes is actually translucent. She explains in horrific detail that as a result of targeted law enforcement, prosecution and sentencing, African Americans in the 21st Century are being thrown into a caste system with the results being nearly exactly what our forefathers faced during the nearly 100-years of Jim Crow, second-class citizenship.
She illustrates to us that the massive incarceration of black men for nonviolent drug offenses, combined with sentencing disparities and laws making it legal to discriminate against felons in housing, employment, education and voting, constitute nothing less than a new racial caste system. A new segregation based once again in the law of the land.
Alexander’s premise is that the Jim Crow Laws of our segregated past actually morphed from laws which were written to disenfranchise women and the poor into laws which limited the citizenship rights of African Americans.
The growing racial divide in the U.S. is one which includes the formation of a new undercaste in America (African Americans and Hispanics) that loses its normal rights at the prison gates and often never recovers them.
Here are a few facts that run counter to the myth that our nation has grown beyond utilizing race to define an individual:
• 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.
Here is a short exerpt from the book:
“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.”
If you at all curious about the criminal justice system and the “War on Drugs” in our country The New Jim Crow is a must read.
If after you read this book you are not called to action you have obviously lost the ability to recognize the truth and you have lost every ounce of compassion you ever thought you possessed.
I cannot recommend this book enough. If you care, read it. If you have children, read it.
Once you do you will never look at our criminal justice system the same.Powered by Sidelines