Has the War on Drugs replaced Jim Crow laws as the way to control blacks and other minorities in America?
Civil rights scholar Michelle Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor, argues this point The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. In the book, she shows how the War on Drugs has replaced blatantly racist policies of the past but had a similar effect in keeping large portions of the black community as second-class citizens.
I had the opportunity to hear Alexander discuss her insightful new book at an Open Society Institute criminal justice conference in Austin this week.* Alexander’s critique of the history of the drug war should concern any equality-loving American.
In the 1980s, images of the crack epidemic in black communities flooded TV — a propaganda tactic, Alexander argues, designed by the Reagan administration to bolster support for the newly-escalated War on Drugs. Those images “forever changed who drug dealers and users are and what should be done with them,” she said. “And a tidal wave of punitiveness washed over America,” forever transforming law enforcement in our country.
While the American public was sold on the drug war as a way to fight violent crime, Alexander noted that the vast majority of anti-drug funding and law enforcement effort has instead gone toward busting non-violent drug users.
Today, the majority of young urban black men are either behind bars or have a felony record, according to her book. And the prison population in the United States has skyrocketed. Hispanics have also disproportionately been impacted by the drug war: “Although this drug war was born with black folks in mind, it is a hungry beast that has begun to demand all people of color,” Alexander said. (See Alexander discussing her book on “Democracy Now.” Read a recent article here.)
Civil rights organizations have been reluctant to take on the drug war and incarceration policies as primary issues. As one OSI staffer noted at the conference, drug users and felons aren’t quite the wholesome image that Rosa Parks was to build a movement around.
The California State Conference of the NAACP bucked this trend earlier this month by passing a resolution in support of Proposition 19, which would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in the state of California. California NAACP President Alice Huffman writes:
“As leaders of the California NAACP, it is our mission to eradicate injustice and continue the fight for civil rights and social justice wherever and whenever we can. We are therefore compelled to speak out against another war, the so called ‘war on drugs.’ To be clear, this is not a war on the drug lords and violent cartels, this is a war that disproportionately affects young men and women and the latest tool for imposing Jim Crow justice on poor African-Americans.”
The NAACP’s resolution coincided with the release of a report by the Drug Policy Alliance which documented major disparities in marijuana arrests between African Americans and Caucasians in California. In the 25 counties examined, blacks were arrested at double, triple or quadruple the rate of whites — a rate inconsistent with their percent of the population. This also occurs despite the fact that government studies show that young whites actually consume marijuana at rates higher than young blacks.
“The findings in this report are a chilling reminder of the day-to-day realities of marijuana prohibition and the large-scale racist enforcement at its core,” said Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Racial justice demands ending this policy disaster and replacing it with a sensible regulatory system that redirects law enforcement to matters of genuine public safety. Proposition 19 is California’s exit strategy from its failed war on marijuana.”
The African-American community is certainly not in lockstep with the NAACP on this issue. In fact, some black pastors came out loudly against the California NAACP. According to the AP, Ron Allen, president of International Faith-Based Coalition, which represents 3,600 congregations, said he opposed the resolution because of the negative impact “illicit drugs” have had on the black community.
There is no doubt that what Pastor Allen says is true. But do we really think pot is what we’re talking about here? Lumping marijuana in with lethal drugs like heroine and crack is like punishing graffiti taggers the same as armed robbers.
Is it time to examine drug policy, mass incarceration and police practices that have put a disproportionate number of minorities behind bars?
*Note: Alexander was a 2005 Soros Justice Fellow with OSI. I am a 2010 Soros Media Fellow with OSI, which helps to support CrawfordOnDrugs.com.