Story and photo by Pete Shaw
Not one person in a Portland crowd of over 1200 dissented when Michelle Alexander recently told them, “We’ve got to admit we’ve allowed a human rights nightmare to occur on our watch.” Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University and the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, was speaking at Emmanuel Temple on January 16, the day after Martin Luther King’s birthday Her talk detailed how the system of mass incarceration – begun when when President Ronald Reagan amped up of the War on Drugs in 1982 – has served the same purpose as slavery and Jim Crow laws. The result has been the creation of a massive and marginalized undercaste that Alexander calls ”The Other America”.
After the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement were codified into law, many believed that the US was on the road to fulfilling its promise of equality and justice for all. Perhaps every generation has had this experience. Certainly the election and reelection of President Barack Obama as our first non-white president; the appointments of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to Secretary of State; the numerous black celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey who populate our televisions; and the many black professionals – all unthinkable not so long ago – would seem to indicate that we are on the right path.
Alexander disagrees. After relishing the 1960s civil rights gains that many risked their lives and died for, Alexander says people went to sleep through a counter-revolution designed to beat back that progress. “It occurred with barely a whimper of protest, even as millions of people have been rounded up, locked in cages, and then stripped of the very civil and human rights that Dr. King and so many others gave their lives for,” Alexander said. “In the years since Dr. King’s death, a vast new system of racial and social control has emerged, one that certainly would have Dr. King turning in his grave today.”
Instead of being on the right path, Alexander believes we have “taken a dramatic U-turn”. She argues that the current system of mass incarceration “locks poor people – overwhelming poor people of color – into permanent second class status, nearly as effectively as earlier systems of racial and social control.”
Alexander used to balk when people made equivalencies between mass incarceration, slavery, and Jim Crow, seeing the comparisons as harming efforts to reform the criminal justice system and achieve greater racial equality. “After years of representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to assist people who had been released from prison re enter into a society that had never shown much use for them in the first place, I began to awaken to a racial reality that is just so obvious to me now, that what seems nearly embarrassing in retrospect is that I had managed to be blind to it for so long.”
The primary difference between Jim Crow and mass incarceration, according to Alexander, lies “less in the structure of our society than in the language used to justify it.” We now live in a country where it is not legal to explicitly use race to deny people their basic rights and instead have crafted a new language for that purpose rebranding yesterday’s “people of color” as today’s “criminals”. Though the term criminal has no literal connection to race, we have used our justice system and corporate media as dutiful scribes to effectively label people of color as criminals, and then gone on to sin against them in ways we putatively left behind. It is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow.
“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,” Alexander said, noting that once a person is 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.”
From the late 1970s to the mid-80s, about 300,000 people were incarcerated in the US. Now there are over 2 million people in jail, a figure many wrongly believe is driven by crime rates. Though crime rates are now at historic lows, the number of incarcerated people continues to increase. Whether viewed from the local or national level, the number of people, particularly black people, going to jail has soared proving, said Alexander, that crime rates and incarceration rates move independently of each other.
Alexander credits this tremendous surge to the Reagan Administration’s War on Drugs and its conjoined twin, the “Get Tough” movement. Drug convictions have accounted for two-thirds of the increase in federal prisoners and one-half state prisoner increases between 1985 and 2000. There are more people in jail today for drug offenses than for all other combined reasons in 1980. Ironically, in 1982, the year drug policies came on strong, drug crime actually was on the decline and polls indicated that less than 3% of the country found it a major cause for concern.
Alexander said the War on Drugs was a product of racial politics – an extension of the Southern Strategy that helped propel Richard Nixon to the presidency. Racially coded language was key. For example, in 1976, Reagan made his infamous and exaggerated “welfare queen” comment and later chose to make his first public address after receiving the 1980 Republican presidential nomination in Philadelphia, Mississippi – a town where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. In that speech, Reagan referred to “states’ rights,” a race-baiting term drawing a line between black and white people, and between the pre-Civil Rights era and the present.
The goal of the New Southern Strategy was to peel away a large portion of the poor and working class whites from the Democratic Party by appealing to their fears and anxieties. Reagan painted a world where white people, in playing by the rules, were being faced with social demotion from people they once viewed as their inferiors – people now getting a leg up through Civil Rights laws, affirmative action, and other New Deal/Democrat legislation. By proposing to get tough on crime, the Reagan Administration found a solution to a problem it specifically created.
It was not until after Reagan declared his War on Drugs that crack cocaine began flooding into inner cities. Because of all the propaganda pushed by the Reagan Administration and dutifully regurgitated by a lapdog corporate media, crack became a national terror, and the public image of the crack baby, the crack whore, and the crack anything, became an African American image. Soon legislators began passing harsh sentences for minor drug offenses – some harsher than those received by murderers in other western democracies.
The post-Reagan years, particularly the Clinton presidency rang in further drug war escalations. Even many black politicians, desperate to solve real problems in their communities, fed the lie. Instead of good schools and jobs – for which funding was rarely available to the black population – communities found themselves getting more police and more prisons.
Numerous studies have shown that people of color are no more likely to use or sell drugs than anybody else, but the stereotypical drug dealer is a young black man. Though drug usage and drug dealing occurs across all populations, in some states up to to 90% incarcerated drug felons are African American. “The enemy in this war has been racially defined,” Alexander said. “Not by accident the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color.”
The success of the War on Drugs depends upon how you look at it. Drug use rates have not changed over the past 30 years and drug prices have become cheaper. Though not as harmful as alcohol or tobacco, four-fifths of all drug arrests are for marijuana. Despite the main claim that the drug war exists to combat violence, only one-fifth of arrests are for drug sales.
But if the goal of the drug war has been to perpetuate the social and political disenfranchisement and oppression that accompanied slavery and Jim Crow, then it has been a smashing success. Waging this war predominantly in neighborhoods of color has kept the US power structure intact and created a vast new racial undercaste in an astonishingly short period of time.
In this “parallel social universe” Alexander said the criminal class is de-humanized and denied fundamental human rights, often “banned for life from the political system.” Felons can be denied employment, public housing, financial aid for college, even food stamps. Each time they must check an application box asking them, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” they may be denied their very humanity. Imagine the outcry if that box followed the question: “Are you black?”, But it is in effect the same question.
With federal dollars flowing into law enforcement based upon drug arrests – not necessarily convictions – police have had little incentive to win the war on drugs. In fact, said Alexander, many police forces began planting drugs on people – as well as stopping and frisking them – as if led by an invisible hand. She claims they were further incentivized by federal drug forfeiture laws allowing state and local law enforcement to keep up to 80% of the cash and cars seized from suspected drug offenders. As Alexander noted, it seems we never have enough money for teachers and jobs programs for our youth and our community, but the wallet is always open for building prisons and funding police and parole officers.
Alexander believes that, “nothing short of a major social movement has any hope of getting rid of mass incarceration.” It is not going to be easy. To get back to the 1980 prison population figures, we would need to release 80% of those currently incarcerated. Jails must be shuttered and private prison companies bankrupted. Both measures will mean a loss of over 1 million jobs for those directly employed by prisons, as well as those with ancillary jobs such as construction. “This system is so deeply rooted in our social, political, and economic structure that it isn’t just going to fade away,” Alexander said.
Realizing that the enormity of abolishing mass incarceration might seem daunting, if not impossible, Alexander reminded the audience of the great social leaders of our history. “Would Dr. King, Sojourner Truth, and others who risked their lives fighting systems of social control, be so deterred?” What is needed, Alexander said, is a “multi-racial, multi-ethnic human rights movement…one that takes seriously the dignity of all people. It has got to be multi-racial and multi-ethnic because, although this drug war may have been born with black folks in mind, it is a war that has destroyed the lives of people in communities of all colors.”
To create this movement, Alexander said, people must admit that “we as a nation have rebirthed a caste-like system. We have to be willing to tell this truth so that a great awakening can begin.” For many people, she said, prisons are out of sight and out of mind, as is the system of injustice and exclusion that is occurring. “As long as it remains hidden, as long as the myths prevail, this system will continue to operate well for a very, very long time.”
Alexander implored the audience to start “building an underground railroad for people returning from prison,” so that these people will have a safe place where they will be “welcomed with open hearts and open arms,” a place where they can find employment, food, shelter, and most importantly, love so they can feel human again. These underground railroads must also support the families of those who have loved ones in jail.
If we are to build these safe spaces, Alexander said, we must all admit our own criminality. “We all make mistakes. We’re all sinners. We’re all criminals.” To underscore the point, she noted that driving ten miles per hour over the speed limit – surely something anyone who drives has done – is more dangerous than smoking marijuana. But which lawbreaking act can result in a felony conviction? “There is no path to racial justice that does not include those we view as guilty. Let us build a movement about all of us – the restoration of all of us.”
We must also acknowledge that race is still an issue. “We have got to awaken from this colorblind slumber that we’ve been in, and we’ve got to awaken to the realities of race in America. And we’ve got to be willing to embrace those labeled criminals–not necessarily their behavior, but them, their humanness. The failure to recognize the dignity and humanity of all people that has been the sturdy foundation of every caste system that has ever existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world. Our task, I firmly believe, is to end not just mass incarceration, not just the war on drugs, but to end this history and cycle of caste in America.”
Alexander is confident that with enough push we will succeed. “If you really believe that it’s not possible, consider this: all these rules, laws, policies, and practices that comprise the system of mass incarceration, they all rest on one core belief, and it is the same core belief that sustained Jim Crow. It’s the belief that some of us are not worthy of genuine care and compassion and concern. And when we effectively challenge that core belief, this whole system begins to fall like dominoes.”
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