I recently read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It takes head-on the “elephant in the room” concerning race in America. I feel it is a must read for anyone interested in equality and social justice.
According to Alexander, more black men are behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system in the US than there were enslaved in 1850…and more African-American men are disenfranchised now because of felon disenfranchisement laws than in 1870. She constructs a formidable argument that the “war on drugs,” declared in 1982, had every intention of creating a new form of discrimination largely against black men.
Alexander’s book establishes that the war on drugs is truly meant to reinstate legalized discrimination that marked this country’s history during slavery and Jim Crow. The outcome and intention of the war on drugs has been and continues to be the increased policing of black communities which leads to significantly more arrests of African Americans than any other group in society. And if an African American is branded a felon, their rights return to the Jim Crow South.
Do more African-Americans go to jail more often because they commit more crimes? People of all races, use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. Yet the arrest and conviction of African-Americans is far greater than that of whites. An example of discriminatory policy can be seen with the conviction rate and sentence length that is far greater for crack (a form of cocaine), used largely in black communities, than for pure cocaine, that is used largely in white communities.
Do we not believe in a second chance for someone who has been imprisoned? Are we forcing ex-offenders to return to crime or to live their life as a second-class citizen? Is the goal not for someone to become a productive citizen? Alexander establishes that ex-felons, who have done time and are off parole, are discriminated against in employment, housing, voting and other areas for life.
The war on drugs was declared in 1982 at a time when drug use in America was declining. The crack epidemic did not start until later in the 1980s. The war on drugs was not a response to the crack epidemic. Alexander proves that the war on drugs was part of a historic reoccurring pattern. The growth of black political power from the 1960s and 70s was pushed back with the policies of the war on drugs. Laws were changed to perpetuate white power in a new environment.
Slavery becomes reconstruction becomes Jim Crow becomes the civil rights movement becomes the era of mass incarceration – masked in the age of colorblindness.
When we see equal rates of drug use and distribution in black and white areas, while black communities are policed at higher rates than white communities, resulting in higher rates of arrests and incarceration for African Americans men it becomes racialized social control which maintains the historic status quo.
The outcome, as expressed by the essayist and novelist Toure, is that African Americans remain America’s stigmatized class, which is used to separate African-Americans from poor and working-class whites, who will never see their interests as aligned and thus merge as a potentially unstoppable united force for demanding reform in economics in the legal system and the distribution of power and wealth. Instead, we have two America’s, separate and unequal.