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Kathleen Wells, J.D.

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Author and Legal Scholar, Michelle Alexander, Talks about the War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration (Part 1)

Posted: 05/04/2012 10:09 am

Kathleen Wells: Author and legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, has written a powerful and highly acclaimed, well-researched book titled, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." In that book, she writes that a war has been declared on young black men and they have been rounded-up for engaging in precisely the same crimes that go largely ignored in middle and upper class white communities -- that crime being possession and sale of illegal drugs.

Michelle, talk to me about this war that has been waged.

Michelle Alexander:Well, you know, the term war on drugs was first coined by President Richard Nixon. But President Ronald Reagan turned that rhetorical war into a literal one. And he officially declared his drug war in 1982, at a time when drug crime was actually on the decline, not on the rise.

Most people assume that the war on drugs was launched in response to the emergence of crack cocaine in inner city communities, but that's not true. President Reagan declared his drug war at the time when drug crime was actually on the decline -- it was a couple of years before, not after, crack hit the streets and became a media sensation. So, the drug war, really, has its origins in racial politics not drug crimes.

If you trace the origins of the drug war and the "get tough" movement and rhetoric, it can be traced back to the segregationist, and former segregationist, who were looking for formally colorblind rhetoric that could be used to appeal to poor and working class whites particularly in the South, who were resentful of, anxious about, threatened by, many of the gains of African-Americans in the civil rights movement -- particularly busing, desegregation and affirmative action.

And pollsters and political strategists found that by using "get tough" rhetoric on issues of crime and welfare that they could persuade poor and working class whites to defect from the Democratic Party and join the Republican Party in droves. It was part of what was known as the southern strategy; attempting to flip the South from blue to red.

And, so, the war on drugs was Ronald Reagan's effort to make good on campaign promises, to "get tough" on a group of people who had not so subtly been defined as Black and Brown in the media and political discourse. And he got lucky, because a couple of years after he officially announced his drug war, crack hit the streets. And, the Reagan administration really seized on this development with glee hiring staff whose job it was to publicize inner city crack babies, crack dealers, crack users and so called crack whores, in the hopes of turning crack into a media sensation and bolstering public support for a drug war that had already been declared.

And the plan worked like a charm, almost overnight, our television sets were saturated with images of black and brown drug users, dealers and crack babies and a wave of punitiveness swept over the Unites States. And soon Democrats begin competing with the Republicans to prove who could be tougher on crime.

It was President Clinton in his effort to woo those so-called white swing voters -- win them back, the Reagan Democrats -- win them back to the Democratic Party-- that he embraced the "get tough" rhetoric and escalated the drug war far beyond what his Republican predecessors even dreamed possible.

And so today, we now have this vast new racial under caste; millions of people, primarily poor people of color, who have been swept into the criminal justice system primarily for non-violent drug offenses. Swept in, branded criminals and felons and then released into this permanent second class status in which they can be stripped of many of the rights supposedly won during the Civil Rights Movement -- like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free from discrimination, in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.

So many of the old forms of discrimination, suddenly are legal again; once you've been branded a felon. That's why I say we haven't ended racial caste in America, we merely redesigned it.

Kathleen Wells: So essentially, just to summarize what you just said, the war on drugs was really a tool or mechanism used by politicians, including President Clinton, to garner votes. It was politically expedient and/or efficient.

Michelle Alexander: Absolutely. They found that the "get tough" rhetoric and the war on drug extremely successful in appealing to a particular group of voters -- poor and working class white voters.

In fact, in the words of H. R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon's former Chief of Staff, he summarized the strategy this way, "The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to." And they did.

Now, there were and have been African-American politicians, community folks, who have supported aspects of this drug war and "get tough" policies and this shouldn't be surprising to anyone given that in African American communities, there have been serious problems of crime, including violence associated with this drug trade. And folks in these communities don't get good schools, when they ask for them -- they don't get jobs when they ask for them. However, the only thing that poor folks of color seem to ever ask for and get, are police and prisons. And faced with real problems of violent crime, there have been black politicians who have gone along with this "get tough" rhetoric and jumped on that bandwagon, apparently oblivious to the fact that the drug war is facilitating the emergence of a caste system that rivals those we supposedly left behind.

Kathleen Wells: And you write that the drug war really isn't about crime control.

Michelle Alexander: Well, it certainly does not work effectively as a crime control system. And I think, if I you take a look at the way the drug war operates, what you see is a system that's far more likely to create crime and destroy families and communities than prevent crime and help to ensure safe and stable communities -- by arresting in mass, particularly, young black men for extremely minor drug offenses. And again, all the studies show that contrary to popular belief, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites.

But this drug war has been concentrated on poor folks of color, particularly black men. And by targeting black men for minor drug offenses, sweeping them into the system, branding them criminals and felons and then making it virtually impossible for them to find housing, get a job, they may be barred even from food stamps, you're creating a situation in which folks have little choice --they're barred from the legal economy. And given their lack of choices, they find themselves returning right back to prison.

A lot of folks don't realize -- people have a sense that if you're a felon or you've been to prison, it can be hard to get a job; it can be tough out there. But many people have no idea that the legal system that's in place really does operate to lock folks into a permanent second class status for life and lock them out of the mainstream society and economy.

For example, housing, when you're released from prison, the first thing on your mind is, "Where am I going to sleep tonight?" And people who are released from prison are barred from public housing for a minimum of five years. And if your family lives in public housing, they risk eviction if they allow you to just come home and stay with them -- discrimination is legal in both private and public housing markets. Private landlords as well as public landlords are free to discriminate against people with criminal records for the rest of their lives. You come out of prison and where are you expected to go?

And then discrimination in employment is perfectly legal. For the rest of your life, you've got to check that box on employment applications asking, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" It doesn't matter if that felony happened three weeks ago or thirty-five years ago -- for the rest of your life, you've got to check that box, knowing full well the odds are sky-high your application is going straight to the trash.

Apparently, what we expect people to do is pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs and accumulated back child support. And a growing number of states expect you to pay back the cost of your imprisonment.

So, what is the system designed to do? It seems designed to send people right back to prison, which is what, in fact, happens about 70% of the time. About 70% of released prisoners are re-arrested within three years and the majority of those who return to prison do so in a matter of months, because the challenges associated with mere survival on the outside are so immense.

This is what we've created and we call it a system of crime control.

Kathleen Wells: So as I mentioned, your book is well-researched. So let's look at some of the stats. Give me some of the statistics on this issue.

Michelle Alexander: Well, 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. That's the scale of this thing.

In 2004, there were more black men disenfranchised than in 1870 -- the year the 15th Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that deny the right to vote exclusively on the basis of race.

During the Jim Crow era, poll taxes and literacy tests kept the African-Americans from polls. But today, felon disenfranchisement laws accomplished what poll taxes and literacy tests ultimately could not, because those laws were struck down. But, felony disenfranchisement laws had been allowed to stand. And in some major American cities, more than half of working-age African-American men have criminal records and are thus, subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.

In fact in some cities, like Chicago for example, if you take into account prisoners who are excluded from poverty statistics and unemployment statistics - thus, masking the severity of racial inequality in the United States -- but if you count prisoners, nearly 80% of working-age African-American men in the Chicago, as of 2004, have criminal records. These men are part of the growing under caste -- not class, caste -- a group of people defined largely by race who are relegated to a permanent second class status by law.

Kathleen Wells: In less than 30 years, our prison population has exploded from 300,000 to more than two million, with the majority of that increase being due to drug convictions.

Michelle Alexander: Yes, that's exactly right. Our prison population has quintupled in less than 30 years. And if you take a look at years between 1985 and 2000, a period of the most rapid expansion of our prison system, more than half of the increase in the state system and more than two-thirds of the increase in the federal system were for drug convictions alone.

To get a sense of the extent to which the war on drugs has driven mass incarceration, consider this: there are more people in prison today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated in 1980 for all reasons.

This drug war has exploded our prison population. Now, some people would say, "Well, if you look in my state, half of the prisoners are violent offenders. So how can you say the drug war is driving this thing?" And I think that statistics can be very misleading and here's why: if you take a snapshot of any prison, you could have a third or even as much as half of the prisoners being violent offenders. And the reason is that violent offenders tend to get longer prison sentences than non-violent offenders. But the overwhelming majority of people who are cycling through the prison system are non-violent offenders and drug offenders. And if you take into account, if you consider the system of mass incarceration as being not just those who are behind bars, but also all those who have probation and parole, the overwhelming majority of folks who are under the control of the penal system today are people who have been convicted of non-violent and drug-related offenses.

In fact, by the year 2000 there were more people being returned to prison for just probation and parole violations, then were incarcerated in 1980 for all reasons. So you have millions of people now cycling in and out of the prison system as a result of the overwhelming punitiveness in the drug war and it's "get tough" movement which has resulted in this vast new under caste of folks.

Many people say to me, "Well, the reason the drug war is being waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, is because that's where the violent offenders are -- that's where the drug kingpins are. That's a myth. The drug war has never been focused primarily on rooting out violent offenders or drug kingpins. Federal funding flows to those state and local law enforcement agencies that boost dramatically the volume, the sheer numbers of drug arrests -- it's a numbers game. That's why in 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for mere possession, only one out of five was for sales. Most people in state prison for drug offences have no history of violence or significant selling activity.

And in the 1990's, the period of the greatest escalation of the drug war, nearly 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests were for marijuana possession, a drug less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least if not more prevalent in middle class white communities and on college campuses and universities as it is in the 'hood. But the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in the 'hood. In fact, in some states, 80% to 90 % of all drug offenders sent to prison have been African-Americans.

Kathleen Wells: So what do you say to critics who say that black men choose to be criminals? That you reap what you sow -- what do you say to those critics?

Michelle Alexander: Well, a couple of things. First, we're talking about a drug war that has punished one race of people, for a crime that all races commit. People of all races use and sell illegal drugs in the United States, at roughly equal rates. But it's been African-American, and increasingly Latinos, who have been arrested, targeted, sent to prison and then ushered into a permanent second class status for life.

Barack Obama has admitted to using illegal drugs. Now if he had not been raised by white grandparents and living in Hawaii, if he had been a black kid living in the 'hood, the odds are, he would have been arrested, more than once -- spent some time in prison and he may have been stripped of the right to vote, much less be president of the United States today. And he could well be cycling in and out of the prison system unable to find a job or housing.

So, this notion that if people don't want to do the time they should just avoid the crime, well, sure, that argument can be made for all Americans who use and sell drugs. But the reality is, all American people of all races do use -- experiment with drugs, sell drugs, but only some of us are going to jail.
And this system is based on awareness that all people, people of all colors, make mistakes, experiment with drugs, but only some of us are going to wind up being swept into the system and ushered into a second class status for life.

 

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