I recently finished reading Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, in which she convincingly argues that the “War on Drugs” and mass incarceration makes possible a new and, possibly more vicious, version of Jim Crow.
The New Jim Crow is, unquestionably, one of the most important books for modern America.
Here’s a bit of what I learned:
While white people use drugs at the same rate as black people (and some studies show that in certain conditions whites use them at a higher rate), black men and women are disproportionately targeted. African Americans and Hispanics make up a quarter of the US population, yet in 2008 they made up 58 percent of the incarcerated population.
Alexander reports that, “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.”
Ronald Reagan signed into law the “Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986,” which made the charges for crack cocaine 100 times harsher than for powder cocaine. Since that time the prison population has quadrupled. The only significant difference between the two forms is that crack was more popular in black neighborhoods while the powder form was more popular among whites. This begs the question that no one wants to ask: Why? Is it just an unfortunate coincidence that the War on Drugs is almost entirely focused on the black population?
African Americans routinely spend years in prison for nonviolent drug crimes while white, corporate thugs get off with a slap on the wrist for laundering $850 million for drug cartels.
Despite the fact that the war on drugs has utterly failed in combating drug use, almost every president since Nixon has thrown more and more money into it. Although, Obama did reduce the 100:1 sentencing ratio of powder cocaine to crack down to 8:1 (which is still unjust). Annually, the government spends more than $51,000,000,000 (some of which was taken from housing programs for the poor) on the catastrophic failure known as the “War on Drugs.”
Perhaps we should also take into account that Nixon, who first declared drugs to be “public enemy number one,” was notoriously racist and reportedly remarked, “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks…The key is to devise a system that recognizes this all while not appearing to.”
Nixon’s plan worked.
The Supreme Court, at almost every single turn, has made it impossible to hold the system accountable for racial disparity. Since nobody is overtly racist (i.e., they don’t openly use the “N” word or promote lynching), no alleged criminal is allowed to claim racial discrimination. Thus, the system is immune to any claim that the outrageous and blatant racial disparity is, indeed, racist.
Alexander proves that the New Jim Crow (AKA the “Criminal Justice System”) relies on “colorblindness” in order to function. In a society where overt racism is not tolerated, the system needs to have the appearance of being “fair and balanced.” The system would not work if 100% of drug sentences were against blacks. The relatively small amount of whites who are imprisoned and the small amount of blacks who are extremely successful, such as Oprah and Obama, distract people from the fact that, young black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by police and 1 in 3 black men and 1 in 18 black women are likely to be labeled a “felon,” which provides the opportunity to treat them the same as (or worse than) black people at the height of Jim Crow.
This is the most horrifying part: After being labeled a “felon” for nothing more than possession, people often end up homeless due to the fact that their right to government assistance has been stripped, they will likely have their children taken, and usually end up back in prison within a matter of months because they have no other conceivable option but to sell or use drugs to survive. The old conservative, capitalist work ethic that claims, “If you work hard enough, you can make it!” doesn’t apply to these people who have been permanently relegated to a separate caste for crimes that go largely unnoticed when committed by whites.
In short, the racial disparity in incarceration rates is only a fraction of the problem. The “felon” label keeps people “imprisoned” even after they finish serving their harsh, discriminatory sentences. What’s more, they are leveled with fees and fines so that the lucky few that find jobs will have to send most of it back to the government. Sometimes, they cannot vote until they have paid those fines—a practice not so different from the way poll taxes prevented poor blacks from voting several decades ago.
Alexander rightly states, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” She later discusses that the New Jim Crow is more terrifying and malicious than its predecessors. Before, black people were exploited; meaning, they were viewed as “beneficial” tools for their owners’ quest for wealth. Now, many are not considered a benefit at all. Instead, they are locked away, relegated to ghettoes, or killed—as in the cases of Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, Michael Brown, Yvette Smith, John Crawford, Tanisha Anderson, Eric Garner, and countless more.
So what does all of this have to do with #BlackLivesMatter?
According to Alexander, removing harsh mandatory sentencing laws, ending mass incarceration, and dropping the “felon” label would be a wonderful start (though, enormously difficult since privately owned prisons are massively profitable for whites, even during economic downturn; see the documentary, “The House I Live In”). She suggests, however, that the only way to prevent a new form of racial discrimination later on is for a grassroots, multi-ethnic movement that embraces and celebrates race rather than ignores it—a movement that focuses on educating and uniting the public around racial awareness.
Social media has helped to propel racial issues into public view. The killing of unarmed teenager, Michael Brown in Ferguson and the subsequent Ferguson Grand Jury decision not to indict the police officer that killed him made the top two most tweeted subjects of 2014. Regardless of whether you agreed with the outcome of the Grand Jury, there is no question that it led to exposing the very real problem of racial discrimination and police brutality.
#BlackLivesMatter (which originated after the murder of Trayvon Martin) is now a nationwide, multi-ethnic, grassroots movement that is specifically fighting to expose and end systemic racism. Ordinary citizens have become the new media as they record, Tweet, organize the movement, and inform. (Folks like @Deray, @Nettaaaaaaaa, @PrisonCulture, @ShaunKing, @Bassem_Masri, @AliciaGarza, and many more.) All over the nation, people are exposing the systemic injustice upon which this nation is built.
As many have noted already, the revolution will not be televised…it will be Tweeted.
Just as the abolitionists fought against slavery and just as Civil Rights activists fought against Jim Crow, this may very well be the single most important movement for our generation.
It could lead to public education about racial discrimination and mass incarceration.
It could lead to accountability for police departments and court systems.
It could lead to the first time in American history when black lives actually matter.
Whether or not the present movement will succeed depends entirely on us.
Listen, learn, change, speak out.