The Drug War and America's “New Racial Caste System”


Photo via Library of Congress

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, legal scholar Michelle Alexander, a former Supreme Court clerk and former director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California argues that the war on drugs has led to mass incarceration and a new racial caste system. Alexander, now an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, spoke to Lisa Riordan Seville of The Crime Report this month about her controversial new book.

The Crime Report: The Jim Crow laws that enforced laws that kept black and white worlds “separate but equal,” were repealed nearly sixty years ago, but you resurrect the term to describe patterns of mass incarceration. That's a bold statement, so tell us, what is the “new Jim Crow”?

Michelle Alexander: I'm referring to a set of laws and practices and customs that operated to lock a group defined largely by race into permanent second-class status by law. In some major American cities the majority of African-American men are locked behind bars or labeled felons for life. Once you're labeled a felon you're trapped in a permanent second-class status in which you may be denied the right to vote, (and are) automatically excluded from juries, legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.

We haven't ended racial caste in America, we've merely redesigned it by waging a drug war almost exclusively in poor communities of color even though studies have shown consistently that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites. We have managed to criminalize generations of African Americans and effectively relegate them to a second-class status that is analogous in many respects to the one they occupied in the Jim Crow era.

TCR: You say we have redesigned racial caste through drug laws based largely on myth. How have we misread the cause and effect of the war on drugs?

Alexander: The War on Drugs had relatively little to do at the outset with drug crime but instead was motivated primarily by racial politics. Drug crime was actually on the decline?not on the rise?when (then) President Ronald Regan officially declared the current drug war in 1982. (This was) not out of concern about drug crime, but instead because pollsters and political strategists had found that using “get tough” appeals on issues of crime and welfare would be successful in appealing to poor and working class whites who were resentful of, or disaffected by, many of the gains of the civil rights movement especially desegregation, busing and affirmative action.

The plan worked like a charm.

The consequence is that millions of people suspected of primarily non-violent and drug related offenses in poor communities of color have been criminalized, branded felons, for engaging in precisely the same activities that are typically ignored on college campuses and universities and white middle-class communities. They're ushered into a permanent second-class status, one that looks and feels like one that we supposedly left behind.

TCR: The discrimination during Jim Crow laws was based on the color of one's skin, but the “new Jim Crow” concerns criminal records. How do you reconcile that difference?

Alexander: It's not entirely true that…all Jim Crow laws were explicitly based on race. In fact, some of the most damaging Jim Crow laws were colorblind on their face, for example, poll taxes and literacy tests. They were enforced in a discriminatory manner, effectively barring African Americans from the vote. Much the same is true of drug laws today.

Now, it's true that there is far less overt bias displayed by law enforcement officials displayed today than there was during the Jim Crow era. But Martin Luther King, Jr. himself repeatedly reminded his audiences that racial caste systems do not depend on racial hostility. They depend on racial indifference. Mass incarceration, much like earlier systems of racial control, is rooted in racial indifference and the failure to care about the plight and suffering of people of other races.

TCR: You describe mass incarceration as a system of racial control rather than crime control, but crime has dropped sharply over the past two decades as prison populations have grown. Still you reject the idea that imprisonment helps curb crime–why?

Alexander: There have been some studies related by the Justice Policy Institute and others that have shown that the states that have had the greatest reductions in crime are the ones that have imposed the least harsh penalties. The notion that the tougher you are the more likely that crime is to go down appears to be faulty.

We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars locking poor people in cages even though most of that effort is purely wasted. I think our decision as a nation to choose prisons instead of schools, to choose jails instead of jobs, suggests a lack of care and concern about a population that, quite frankly, is now viewed as largely disposable.

TCR: Many in law enforcement would take exception to that, saying they police in poor communities of color because that is the population most often the victim of crime. Are you saying that's not true?

Alexander: There's no doubt that violent crime is a serious problem in poor communities of color today, absolutely. But this system is not designed to control or prevent violent crime. Here's another huge myth: that the explosion in our prison population has been driven by violent crime rates. It's just not true.

The explosion in our prison population has been due to arrests and convictions for non-violent and drug related offenses. In fact, between 1985 and 2000 the majority of the increase in the state prison population was due just to drug offenses alone and nearly two-thirds of the increase in the federal system was due to drug convictions and sentences [find drug and crime statistics here].

TCR: A recent article in the New York Times covered the controversial “stop-and-frisk” tactics in one New York neighborhood, which advocates believe unfairly targets poor minority neighborhoods. The local deputy inspector who defended the practice is an African-American woman. Doesn't that raise questions about your description of a racial caste system?

Alexander: The question here I think is whether this system operates to lock a group defined largely by race into an inferior second class status by law, police and custom. Whether some of the people playing critical roles in it are black, or brown or white or any other color matters relatively little. What matters is that for a young kid of color their chances of winding up locked in this caste-like system are extremely high the moment they are born. I think it's a sad and paradoxical fact in the age of Obama.

TCR: You talk about how “black exceptionalism,” like the election of Obama as president, obscures the larger population of African-American men born into a life that offers them few chances. But does that mean there is no personal accountability? Isn't that disempowering?

Alexander: We should hold ourselves accountable, each one of us, for our mistakes. But when it comes to minor drug crimes in the United States, we don't hold white youth accountable for those crimes the most part. It's black and brown youth that we insist on holding severely accountable.

I think more attention should to be paid to our own responsibility for the conditions that have been created, us collectively, as a society. I think youth of color today are paying a far greater price for their mistakes than most of us who have college degrees or live in middle-class communities have ever been paid to ask for the mistakes we've made.

TCR: Speaking of “we,” in the introduction to The New Jim Crow, you say you wrote this book for “the person I was ten years ago.” What does that mean? Who is your audience?

Alexander: I'm writing the book for people like me, people who do not fully appreciate the magnitude of the harm caused in communities of color by mass incarceration. I believed many of the myths about mass incarceration and the drug war. I believed that racial caste was part of our nation's history, not our present. It's not true.

I (wrote) this book in the hopes that others will have the same awakening that I finally did. It's my aim to provide the data, evidence and analysis to back up their claims and to prove their intuition right.

TCR: The data you cite paints a picture of a problem with seemingly few solutions. What do you think should be done to address the “new Jim Crow”?

Alexander: We have got to change profoundly the public consciousness that gave rise to this system of control if we have any hope of ending it and preventing the reemergence of a new system someday down the road–perhaps a system we can't even imagine today just as mass incarceration was utterly unimaginable just 30 years ago.

The war on drugs was declared with black folks in mind, but it now harms people of all colors. I think that awareness should serve as a foundation for truly multi-cultural and multi-racial organizing work and development of meaningful coalitions to end mass incarceration in the United States.

This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. Use The Crime Report to find out more about race and the corrections system in the United States.

Lisa Riordan Seville is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn, New York.

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