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Drug War Nightmare: How We Created a Massive Racial Caste System in America

The drug war has created a new Jim Crow system.

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Facing Facts

But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn’t the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found?  The answer is yes... in made-for-TV movies.  In real life, the answer is no. 

The drug war has never been focused on rooting out drug kingpins or violent offenders.  Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses.  What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests.  To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80% of the cash, cars, and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.

The results have been predictable: people of color rounded up en masse for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses.  In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five for sales.  Most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity.  In fact, during the 1990s -- the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war -- nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities as in the inner city. 

In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time -- a new Jim Crow system.  Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.

Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality.  Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers -- not to mention president of the United States -- causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come.  

Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries. And that’s with affirmative action!

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colorblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure: the structure of racial caste.  The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.

This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.  This is not the promised land.  The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.

Michelle Alexander is the author of the bestselling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness  (The New Press, 2010). The former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU in Northern California, she also served as a law clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court.  Currently, she holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.  To listen to a TomCast audio interview in which Alexander explains how she came to realize that this country was bringing Jim Crow into the Age of Obama, click  here.

 
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