First day on her job as the director of the Racial Justice Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California, Michelle Alexander saw a bright yellow poster declaring: “The drug war is the new Jim Crow.” Skeptical, she went on to work. But within ten years she would accept the declaration on that poster as she saw repeated instances, too many to ignore, of young black men arrested and sentenced to long prison time for fairly petty drug practices – use and sale – that are prevalent on college campuses and, indeed, throughout American culture.
Alexander begins her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, with that personal awakening, which she also shared at a recent discussion of her book at a church on the South Side of Chicago. Some 500 people packed the church pews, many of them representatives of groups that advocate on behalf of reform of the “prison industrial complex.”
They heard stories of young black men routinely rounded up and arrested for sale and possession of marijuana or several ounces of crack cocaine, sentenced to ten years or more in prison, while drug kingpins and suburban drug sellers and users go free. Worst yet, after having paid their debt to society, these men are punished the rest of their lives, legally denied the right to vote, legally discriminated against in employment and housing, a situation uncomfortably similar to Jim Crow laws.
Alexander traces historical parallels from convict leasing after slavery to Jim Crow laws to the modern war on drugs, drawing on research and statistics to present an alarming picture of crime and race, beyond just the kind of numbers that have most of us shaking our heads but at a loss to really appreciate or explain why. She doesn’t just give the knee-jerk response of racism; she makes the case, citing lawsuits and court rulings(including the Supreme Court’s hefty weight behind the police and prosecutors), and anecdotes from her own work as a civil rights advocate and legal scholar.
Triggered by the “war on drugs,” incarcerations for drug offenses have increased 1,000 percent since 1980, fueled by incentives to law enforcement agencies from large cash grants to confiscation of ceased property and a frenzied law-and-order political environment, not to mention the jobs brought to rural communities when a new prison is built. But on the flip side are minority communities that are devastated – young black men who know to assume the position when a police cruiser stops, communities subject to racial profiling, illegal searches, and shakedowns. Despite studies showing similar levels of drug use among people of all races, some 80 to 90 percent of those serving sentences for drug offenses are African American.
Alexander chastises civil rights groups that have remained silent, reluctant to come to the defense of “criminals.” But she argues that the widespread erosion of civil liberties of a clearly defined group of Americans – felons who are almost universally black and brown – threatens the core of American democracy. She forcefully argues that what is needed is a social movement to challenge a system that sanctions the stripping of a citizen’s rights and to address the social ills that have lead to a subcaste of Americans. Can a book spark a social movement? It wouldn’t be the first time.