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Prison Racism and the Myth of a Colorblind Justice System

A conversation with author Michelle Alexander on media manipulations and the mass injustice incarcerated minorities face across the United States.

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Another fact was that as of 2004 there were more Blacks disenfranchised than in 1870—the year the 15th amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws discriminating against the right to vote based on Race. And the Felony Disenfranchisement laws today have decimated the potential Black electorate.

And I read one study by the Urban League in Chicago—that was another study that completely blew my mind—showing that in Chicago nearly 80% of working-age African-American men have criminal records that legalize discrimination for the rest of their lives. Nearly 80%! Just the scope and scale of this system…

The book mostly details this new Jim Crow that marginalizes poor males of color. But is it not true that women, especially Black women, are fast becoming prime target, as well, even swelling up ranks just as swiftly as Black men did 20 years ago?

Oh, yes. It is true. And while my book focuses specifically on Black men, that is in no way to diminish the significance of women in the Criminal Justice System. In fact, one could argue that the harm caused by high rates of incarceration of Black women is greater than that of the incarceration of Black men, because our communities are so fragile. To remove mothers, who are just barely holding these families together, and put them in cages, relegates children to foster care—for relatively minor drug offences. And this threatens to unravel what’s left of the Black family.

Can you talk a bit about Ronald Reagan, the pater familias of this enterprise? Right as he announced the War on Drugs three decades back, only 2% of Americans considered drugs the most pressing national crisis. Soon enough, as you write, through legalized and sanitized bribery of local officials, this War became established as a serious threat worth endless resources.

Yes. Most people think the War on Drugs was launched absolutely in response to a rise in drug crimes. But that’s a big myth. Drug crime was actually on the decline when the War was declared. The War was part of a grand Republican strategy to issue racially coded political appeals—on crime and welfare: get-tough language—to poor White voters, especially in the South were many were disaffected from civil rights gains.

Richard Nixon was the first to coin the term—War on Drugs. But Ronald Reagan was able to turn that rhetorical war into a literal one. This was before crack actually hit the streets. And the Reagan administration seized the [subsequent] rise of crack, and actually hired staff to publicize inner-city crack-babies, crack-whores, crack-abuse, and crack-violence, in hopes of persuading Congress to devote millions more dollars to the Drug War. And the plan worked like a charm.

The Reagan administration was giving out cash to districts and agencies that were willing to boost the volume—the number of drug arrests—which gave them an incentive to just go out and round up, shake down, frisk, toss as many people as possible in order to boost their arrest numbers. And these stop-and-frisk practices are most prevalent in communities of color, because of a Drug War that has almost nothing to do with drugs and everything to do with racial politics.

You detail a number of studies, amongst which was one published in 2000 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, revealing some startling stats: White students used cocaine seven times the rate of Black students, used crack eight times the rate of Black students, used heroin seven times the rate of Black students. Another 2000 study, this time by the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, discovered White youth aged 12-17 fell over a third more likely to have peddled drugs than Black youth. But in a 1995 survey published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, wherein respondents were asked to shut their eyes and picture drug users, 95% envisioned Blacks, only 5% envisioned other racial groups—notwithstanding contrasting reports suggesting Blacks constituted only 15% of drug users at that period. So, why the disparity of reality?

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