Is Drug War Driven Mass Incarceration the New Jim Crow?

Is Drug War Driven Mass Incarceration the New Jim Crow?

February 28, 2012
Originally published in Forbes

Once in a great while a writer at the opposite end of the political spectrum gets you to look at a familiar set of facts in a new way. Disconcerting as it is, you can feel your foundation shift as your mind struggles to reconcile this new point of view with long held beliefs. Michelle Alexander has done just that in her book, The New Jim Crow.

A liberal ideologue with impeccable leftist credentials, Alexander was Director of the Racial Justice Project at the American Civil Liberties Union before moving on to an appointment in Race and Ethnicity studies at Ohio State University. Her thesis pushes disparate-impact logic to an extreme, ascribing deeply racist motives to a society that has traveled a very long way since the system of legal and cultural discrimination known as Jim Crow stained the land.

Yet there is no denying that if your goal were to consign African Americans to a permanent underclass—one which the rest of us would be culturally and legally permitted to discriminate against in employment, housing, voting rights, and government benefits—the war on drugs would be a great way to do it.

Alexander spouts statistics with which we are all familiar. Approximately half a million people are in prison or in jail for a drug offense today, compared to around 41,000 in 1980. Four out of five drug arrests are for simple possession, 80% for marijuana. Most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence.

At the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans were behind bars, on probation, or on parole, many whose initial violation of the drug laws spiraled into a life of crime. This is a level of mass incarceration unprecedented in history. And despite the fact that surveys show that whites are just as likely to use illegal drugs as blacks, one out of every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared to one in 106 white men.

It is that last bit that deserves attention. Through a series of anecdotes accompanied by a steady drumbeat of statistics, Alexander makes a compelling case that one of the key pillars of the fruitless war on drugs is selective enforcement coupled with plea bargain-driven judicial railroading.

Police patrols of inner-city African-American neighborhoods are characterized by a degree of hyper-aggressive vigilance, constitutionally dubious intrusiveness, and occasional brutality that would absolutely not be tolerated in the white suburbs. The vast majority of the people I went to college with smoked marijuana. Were law enforcement evenhanded, instead of growing up to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and entrepreneurs, we would all be unemployable former felons.

It is this mark of Cain, the brand of the former felon, which Alexander claims is the tool that a racist society uses to turn young black men foolish enough to get involved in drugs into permanent members of the underclass. Unable to re-integrate into society because of the legal and cultural barriers that permit former felons to be treated the way Jim Crow treated African Americans, the 650,000 people released from prison every year are virtually driven into a life of crime through the systematic elimination of other options.

Yes, the book gives short shrift to the role that personal responsibility plays in all this. If you lived in a police state with half your friends in jail, knowing you might be pulled over on a pretext at any moment, why in the world would you drive around with marijuana in your car? Despite that caveat, it’s hard to lay claim to rationality and still support drug prohibition, the results of which mirror the horrors of our country’s ill-fated experiment with alcohol prohibition.

Opinion leaders, on both the right and left, have spoken out against the insane war on drugs for as long as politicians have been hiding their heads in the sand while they compete to see who is the toughest law and order advocate. An enormous police and prison industrial complex has grown up that is completely dependent on keeping the mass incarceration movement alive. Our country cannot seem to find a way to stop the madness, as we did when we repealed the 18th Amendment, which had imposed nationwide alcohol prohibition. Of the leading presidential candidates, only Ron Paul has stepped up to address the issue, with a snowball’s chance in hell of anyone else picking up the call for drug decriminalization.

It’s as chilling to believe that drug warriors are perpetrating non-racial means to marginalize African Americans as it is to believe that Planned Parenthood is practicing genocide by playing a leading role in terminating 40% of black pregnancies, making abortion the leading cause of death among African Americans. But the logic of disparate impact analysis inevitably leads you to both those conclusions.

Whether you agree with her thesis or not, Michelle Alexander makes you think about mass incarceration in a new way. The pro-life movement could take a lesson from her if they hope to inject some fresh thinking into their advocacy.