The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste

I work this issue every day and am well aware of the racist nature of the War on (Certain American Citizens Using Non-Pharmaceutical, Non-Alcoholic, Tobacco-Free) Drugs.  But even I wasn’t aware of the outrageous statistics comparing the Drug War to Jim Crow era.  Michelle Alexander lays it all out in her new book, The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste:

  • There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
  • As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
  • A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.  The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.
  • If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life.  (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status.  They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years.  Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades — they are currently are at historical lows — but imprisonment rates have consistently soared.  Quintupled, in fact.  And the vast majority of that increase is due to the War on Drugs.  Drug offenses alone account for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population.

The drug war has been brutal — complete with SWAT teams, tanks, bazookas, grenade launchers, and sweeps of entire neighborhoods — but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought.  This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.  In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth.  Any notion that drug use among African Americans is more severe or dangerous is belied by the data.  White youth, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders.  In some states, African Americans comprise 80%-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.

The only thing more shocking to me than the new Jim Crow of the drug war is how few African-Americans are involved in ending it.

Medical Marijuana march in Madison, Wisconsin (I know Madison, Seattle, and Albuquerque aren't exactly Atlanta, Detroit, and Chicago, but there has to be SOME black people there, right?)

This sort of racial homogeneity is also found at the grassroots activist level as well.  I coordinate NORML’s 95 active state, local, and college chapters and off the top of my head I can think of only one chapter not run by a white person (Oregon NORML‘s Madeline Martinez, who, coincidentally, is that sole Latina on the National NORML Board).

When I speak at conferences and festivals to crowds ranging from 50 to 50,000, it is always a nearly unbroken sea of white faces looking back at me.  When I participate in the marches and protests against the drug war, I rarely see black or Latino people carrying a sign.

My view from the stage before speaking at last year's Seattle Hempfest, the largest marijuana reform rally in the world.

The War on Drugs is primarily a War on Marijuana, which makes up 49.8% of all drug war arrests, 89% of those arrests for simple possession.  In New York City, a black man is nine times more likely to be busted for pot than a white man and three times more likely to get a custodial sentence out of that arrest.  Yet when we look at the cannabis community, the only place we find many African-American faces is in rap videos extolling the virtues of “the chronic”.

Where is the Martin Luther King Jr. of the movement to end the War on Drugs?  Why is he or she not responding to the efforts to end the single greatest cause of racial inequality in this nation?

Is he or she dissuaded by the culture of the black church, which demonizes drugs and drug use to the point where those who support sensible drug policies are shamed into silence?

Drug Policy Alliance's Int'l Reform Conference in Albuquerque, 2009

Is he or she turned away by looking at the leadership of drug law reform and seeing no faces like theirs?

Is he or she already feeling like they wear a target for law enforcement on their back already based on skin color and don’t feel like exacerbating that by publicly standing for drug law reform?

Whatever it is, this white man who’s used cannabis for twenty years and never once had an interaction with police is urgently calling out to my black and Latino brothers and sisters to get involved with your own liberation!

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