Just finished reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I was originally going to write that this book is a must-read for everyone interested in civil rights works or social justice activism, but in reality, this book is a must-read for everyone, period.
Michelle Alexander argues that America’s so-called “War on Drugs” – which officially began in the 1970s – was created and implemented by the federal government in order to create a new “system of racialized social control.”
By disproportionately targeting African-Americans – who use illegal drugs at a lower rate than their white counterparts – the War on Drugs has caused an unprecedented explosion in the nation’s prison population. According to the NAACP, “the US is 5% of the world population and has 25% of world prisoners.” Over 60% of prisoners are people of color, and 3/4 of all prisoners were convicted because of a drug-related offense.
The following is an excerpt from Alexander’s book, which basically summarizes how the New Jim Crow works:
The first stage is the roundup. Vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color. They are rewarded in cash–through drug forfeiture laws and federal grant programs–for rounding up as many people as possible, and they operate unconstrained by constitutional rules of procedure that were once considered inviolate. Police can stop, interrogate, and search anyone they choose for drug investigations, provided they get “consent.” Because there is no meaningful check on the exercise of police discretion, racial biases are granted free reign. In fact, police are allowed to rely on race as a factor in selecting who to stop and search (even though people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites)–effectively guaranteeing that those who are swept into the system are primarily black and brown.
The conviction marks the beginning of the second phase: the period of formal control. Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty whether they are or not. Prosecutors are free to “load up” defendants with extra charges, and their decisions cannot be challenged for racial bias. Once convicted, due to the drug war’s harsh sentencing laws, drug offenders in the United States spend more time under the criminal justice system’s formal control–in jail or prison, on probation or parole–than drug offenders anywhere else in the world. While under formal control, virtually every aspect of one’s life is regulated and monitored by the system, and any form of resistance or disobedience is subject to swift sanction. This period of control may last a lifetime, even for those convicted of extremely minor, nonviolent offenses, but the vast majority of those swept into the system are eventually released. They are transferred from their prison cells to a much larger, invisible cage.
The final stage has been dubbed by some advocates as the period of invisible punishment. This term, first coined by Jeremy Travis, is meant to describe the unique set of criminal sanctions that are imposed on individuals after they step outside the prison gates, a form of punishment that operates largely outside of public view and takes effect outside the traditional sentencing framework…These laws operate collectively to ensure that the vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives–denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Unable to surmount these obstacles, most will eventually return to prison and then be released again, caught in a closed circuit of perpetual marginality.
According to Alexander, there are more black men in prison today than were enslaved in 1850.
What We Can Do
Let’s start with weed.
In 2011, marijuana made up nearly half of all drug-related arrests.
It needs to be legalized, nationwide. For real.
That would be a great start.
And here’s a link to the book’s website; it has links to organizations that are mobilizing to fight mass incarceration.