03/16/2012 03:10 pm ET Updated May 16, 2012

Institutionalized Racism and the War on Drugs

Is our Criminal Justice system really just a way to keep large numbers of African-Americans out of mainstream society, like we did under Jim Crow?

This debate has been raging for decades, but is only recently reaching the ears of White America, thanks in part to Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Professor Alexander's numbers are impressive, convincing, and depressing: In many states, blacks make up 80 percent or even more of the prison population of drug offenders. Is that because blacks do more drugs than whites? If that's the theory, how do you explain white kids being hospitalized for drugs at three times the rate of black kids? Prison rates are five times higher than they were 30 years ago. Is this because crime has gone up? Numbers have fluctuated, but within a range that is relatively narrow. It certainly hasn't quintupled. And right now crime rates are at all-time lows. About a quarter of black people are below the poverty rate today, which is about the same as it was in 1968.

The effect of imprisonment doesn't end when a person gets out of jail. A felon can be legally discriminated against when looking for work, housing, public benefits, and even education. Did you know that the 1998 amendments to the Higher Education Act disallow financial aid, loans, and even work-study to drug convicts? A person can reverse it by completing rehab and having random drug tests, but there is no parallel for people convicted of robbery or rape. And of course, felons can't vote.

Now hold all of this in your mind while you consider some statistics from the Department of Education. Black students, who made up 18 percent of students in the study, accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once, and 39 percent of expulsions. Teachers in high-minority schools are paid $2,251 less on average. In New York high schools, the difference is over $8,000. It's over $14,000 in Philadelphia.

So we start punishing African-American kids when they're in school. We continue it throughout adulthood. And we wonder why there are still race issues in this country.

One of many racial dividing lines in the U.S. is over the question of how intentional all of this is. It's pretty clear to anyone who looks that one of the effects of our out-of-control penal system is that African-Americans, men in particular, are locked up disproportionately, and then discriminated against legally for the rest of their lives -- not because they are black, but because they are felons. But many African-Americans hold the idea that this is at least in part not an accident. While most liberal whites think it's oh so unfortunate, but certainly could not have been designed this way intentionally.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I'm really not. But I can't seem to get around the fact that the War on Drugs was started by Nixon. He whipped up support with fearsome speeches, he called drugs "public enemy No. 1," he created the DEA from scratch. It all started with Nixon, whose Chief of Staff later told us in his diary that the president "emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this without appearing to."

I'm not saying that a cabal of racists gathered in a smoke-filled back room to devise our prison system. I'm just saying that if they had, it wouldn't look all that different.