Michelle Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, worked in and around the criminal justice system for years–clerking for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackman, and leading the ACLU of Northern California’s Racial Justice Project. Last year, she published The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which has become the Bible of a social movement devoted to reducing the nation’s reliance on prisons, jails, and the criminal justice system in general. Alexander will be in the Bay Area next week, and in advance of her trip, phoned the Informant to talk about how the War on Drugs has devastated Black communities.
What was your impetus for writing the book?
You know, the inspiration of the book really came from my years of working as a civil rights lawyer and advocate. Through those experiences, I had what I call my “awakening. “ I began to awaken to a racial reality that is so obvious to me know. What seems odd in retrospect is that I have been blind to it for so long. It became very clear to me, abundantly clear, that our criminal justice system, though it appears on the surface to be color blind, is actually working to effectively recreate a caste-like system in America. Young folks of color are shuttled from decrepit, underfunded schools, to brand new high-tech prisons. And once they’re released from prison, having been branded a criminal or felon, they’re ushered into a parallel social universe in which they’re stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement. Like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of discrimination in housing, employment, access to education and public benefits.
When I first joined the ACLU and started litigating these cases in this area, I believed many of the myths. I thought the explosion of our prison system and our prison population was due to crime rates. Not true. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last 30 years, gone up, gone down. Today, they’re at historical lows. Yet the incarceration rate, especially the Black incarceration rates, have consistently soared. So what caused the quintupling of our prison population in less than 30 years? And astronomical rates of Black imprisonment in the United States? Well, it’s because of a war. The War on Drugs and a get-tough movement. A war that has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color.
Today, there are more African Americans under correctional control, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. In some large urban areas, more than half of working age African American men have criminal records and are subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. The rate of incarceration we have in the United States in unparalleled in the world.
Let’s talk a little more about what the controlling factors were in this rise in incarceration. Crime rates did rise in the late 1960s and 70s, so victimization must have been somewhat in play.
Many people believe that the war on drugs and the get-tough movement was launched in response to the emergence of crack cocaine in neighborhoods and the corresponding violence. They say, wasn’t the drug war declared to deal with crack and crack babies and the related violence. And it’s just not true. The War on Drugs was officially declared in 1982, at a time when drug crime was actually on the decline. It was actually before crack first hit the streets and began to ravage inner city communities. Why would President Reagan declare a drug war when drugs were actually not on the rise? Because from the outset, the war on drugs had very little to do with drugs and everything to do with racial politics. Numerous historians and political scientists have now documented that the war on drugs was part of a grand strategy, known as the “Southern strategy” of using racially coded, racially charged get-tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working class whites, particularly in the South, who were anxious about, resentful of many of the gains made by African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement.
Poor and working class whites really had their world rocked by the civil rights movement. Wealthy Whites could give their kids all of the advantages that wealth has to offer—send them to private schools, etcetera—but poor and working class Whites were really faced with a social demotion. It was their kids who would be bussed across town to a school that was considered inferior and would compete on equal terms for the first time with this group of people that they had been taught their whole lives were inferior to them. And this anxiety and concern created an enormous political opportunity. Pollsters and political strategists found that you know, thinly veiled promises to “get tough on them,” a group subtly defined as Black and Brown, was enormously successful in persuading working class Whites in the South to defect from the Democratic party and join the Republican party in droves. It was part of the strategy to get the South from blue to red. And it worked like a charm. It was President Richard Nixon who first coined the term, a “war on drugs.” And in fact, his chief of staff, described the strategy as “the whole problem in really the Blacks, the key is to devise a system that recognizes this without appearing to.” Well, when President Ronald Reagan declared his war on drugs, he was making good on campaign promises to get tough on a group of people defined not so subtly on the basis of race. But they got lucky, because a couple of years after the drug war was declared, crack hit the streets, and the Reagan administration seized on the development with glee and hired people to publicize inner city crack and crack babies and crack-related violence in hopes of turning crack into a media sensation which they believed would bolster public support for a drug war they had already declared and would persuade Congress to devote millions of more dollars to waging it. And indeed, the plan worked like a charm.
We hear a lot about the “social costs” of mass incarceration. What are those costs and how much is prison a factor in the erosion of minority communities?
Well, the impact of mass incarceration, particularly in the African American community has been absolutely devastating. A Black child born today has less of a chance of being raised by both parents than a Black child born during slavery. And this is due largely to the mass incarceration of Black men. It takes men out of the dating pool at the ages they’d be most likely to commit to a partner and start a family. But what’s worse, by branding them criminals and felons, they’re rendered permanently unemployable in the legal job market for the most part, virtually guaranteeing that many will cycle in and out of prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives. So in this way, mass incarceration has devastated Black families to a degree comparable to slavery. It has also decimated Black political power. In 2004, for example, more Black men were disenfranchised than in 1870, the year the 15th Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that deny the right to vote on the basis of race. Of course, during the Jim Crow era, poll access and literacy tests operated to keep Black folks from the polls. Well, today, felon disenfranchisement laws accomplish in many states what poll taxes and literacy tests ultimately could not. And to make matters worse, prisoners are counted in the US Census where they are incarcerated. Which means that predominately White, rural counties, where prisons have predominantly been constructed, those counties and those areas get to count prisoners as part of their population for the purpose of redistricting. Which grants them increased representation in their state legislature and in Congress. But the poor communities of color from where the prisoners came lose representatives because their population seems to have shrunk because their community members are being housed in prisons in rural White communities. And then of course, there’s the economic devastation. When you have the majority of Black men in an urban area saddled with criminal records and finding it difficult, if not impossible, to find legal employment, it is going to take an enormous toll on the local economy and create conditions that are conducive to crime. That hardly makes communities safer. This system of rules, policies, and practices is not just creating a caste-like system in these communities, it’s creating a situation in which mere survival is very difficult for millions of folks.
What kinds of solutions are you advocating?
I argue in the final chapter of the book that nothing short of a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in America. If we were to return to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, before the war on drugs and the get-tough movement kicked off, we’d have to release four out of five people who are behind bars today. A million people employed by the prison system would lose their jobs. Private prison companies would be forced to watch their profits vanish. This system is not going to just fade away. It’s not going away without a major shift in public consciousness. A real upheaval. And that can sound overwhelming to people. People say if it’s that deeply rooted in our economic and political structure, then perhaps there’s nothing we can do. The best we can do is tinker with the system and try our best to make a few reforms. But I don’t think we should be so easily deterred. There was a time when Jim Crow in the South would never, ever crumble. Jim Crow was so deeply rooted in the economic political and social structure there that many people thought it wouldn’t fade away and many people were determined to ensure that it would never fade away. But it was possible to bring Jim Crow to its knees as the result of a major social movement. And I believe we can end mass incarceration as well. And yes, it will mean ending the drug war entirely. It’s time for us to rethink drug prohibition, especially for marijuana. The harms associated with spending time in prison and the criminal record that will follow you for the rest of your life are so much greater than any harm a marijuana cigarette could cause anyone. There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done but I don’t think we should be deterred. I think we have to recommit ourselves to the movement that was begun in the 1950s and 60s and left unfinished. And that begins by having dialogue in our communities, in our churches or mosques, in our schools, beginning to talk about this system that’s been created and the work that must be undertaken.