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The Failed Drug War Has Created a Human Rights Nightmare -- How Can This Happen in Our Country and Go Virtually Undiscussed?

If we fail to commit ourselves to ending mass incarceration, future generations will judge us harshly.
 
 
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So much about our racial reality today is little more than a mirage. The promised land of racial equality quivers just out of our reach in the barren desert of our new, "colorblind" political landscape. It looks so good from a distance: Barack Obama, our nation’s first black president, standing behind a podium in the Rose Garden looking handsome, dignified, and in charge. Flip the channel and there’s the whole Obama family exiting Air Force One, waving to the crowd -- a gorgeous black family living in the White House, cheered by the world.

Drive a few blocks from the White House and you find the other America. You find you're still in the desert, dying of thirst, wondering what wrong turn was made and how you managed to miss the promised land, though you reached for it with all your might.

A vast new racial undercaste now exists in America, though their plight is rarely mentioned. Obama won't mention it; the Tea Party won't mention it; media pundits would rather talk about anything else. The members of the undercaste are largely invisible to those of us who have jobs, live in decent neighborhoods, and zoom around on freeways, passing by the virtual and literal prisons in which they live.

But here are the facts: There are more African-American adults under correctional control today -- in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. In major urban areas such as Chicago, Obama’s hometown, the majority of working-age African-American men have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. Millions of people in the United States, primarily poor people of color, are denied the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement: the right to vote, to serve on juries, and to be free from discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits. Branded "criminals" and "felons," such people now find themselves relegated to a permanent second-class status. They live in a parallel social universe: the other America, where they will stay for the rest of their lives.

We, as a nation, are in deep denial about how this came to pass. On the rare occasions when the existence of "them" -- the others, the ghetto dwellers, those locked up and locked out -- is publicly acknowledged, standard excuses are trotted out. We're told black culture, bad schools, poverty, and broken homes are to blame. Almost no one admits: We declared war. We declared a war on the most vulnerable people in our society and then blamed them for the wreckage.

And yet that is precisely what we did. The so-called War on Drugs has driven the quintupling of our prison population in a few short decades. The vast majority of the startling increase in incarceration in America is traceable to the arrest and imprisonment of poor people of color for nonviolent, drug-related offenses. Families have been torn apart, and young lives shattered, as parents grieve the loss of loved ones to the system, often hiding their grief under a cloak of shame.

Politicians claim that the enemy in this war is a thing -- drugs -- not a group of people. The facts prove otherwise.

Studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates, yet in some states African-American men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate up to 57 times higher than white men. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison have been African Americans. The rate of Latino imprisonment has been staggering as well. Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black and Latino.

 
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