Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow

I watched Michelle Alexander's 2010 book The New Jim Crow change the debate about drug policy and racism in the US. This year, on its 10th anniversary, we have a chance for a greater transformation. 

At the time when the book was first published, much of the African-American community and its leaders were lock-step in line with the drug war. But Alexander made her case so well for the role of the War on Drugs in the mass incarceration and marginalization of people of color that today leaders like Rep. Karen Bass (chair of the Congressional Black Caucus) and Sen. Kamala Harris (California's former DA) have joined to advance police reform at the federal level (though some say it doesn't go far enough.)

As Alexander lays it out, "When the gains and goals of the Civil Rights Movement began to require real sacrifices on the part of white Americans, conservative politicians found they could mobilize white racial resentment by vowing to crack down on crime....Beginning in the 1970s, researchers found that racial attitudes—not crime rates of likelihood of victimization—are an important determinant of white support for 'getting tough on crime' and antiwelfare measures. The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism."

Ronald Reagan and his successor George Bush, Sr. helped convince the US population that drugs were the most significant problem in the country through policy pronouncements, rather than facts. "The results were immediate," Alexander writes. "As law enforcement budgets exploded, so did prison and jail populations. In 1991, the Sentencing Project reported that the number of people behind bars in the US was unprecedented in world history, and that one fourth of young African American men were now under the control of the criminal justice system."

Bill Clinton in the 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary 13th.
Soon the Democrats also got "tough on crime" in an attempt to win back swing voters who were defecting to the Republican party. In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton "vowed he would never permit any Republican to be perceived as tougher on crime than he." Clinton signed bills that excluded anyone convicted of a felony offense, including simple possession of marijuana, from social programs like welfare, food stamps, and HUD housing. Funds were shifted from those programs to punitive measures: During Clinton's tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), "effectively making the construction of prisons the nation's main housing program for the urban poor." Both Clintons have now admitted parts of the crime bill were more harmful than helpful, after activists confronted them at Hillary's campaign events.

"More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century, and millions more were relegated to the margins of mainstream society, banished to a political and social space not unlike Jim Crow, where discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education was perfectly legal, and where they could be denied the right to vote," writes Alexander. "Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born."

The Chronicle of Higher Education called The New Jim Crow, “One of the most influential books of the last 20 years.” It has spent nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has won numerous awards, including the 2011 NAACP Image Award for best nonfiction. The book has been cited in judicial decisions and adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads, and has inspired a generation of racial justice activists. The 10th Anniversary edition contains a new preface by the author and an organizing guide inspired by the book is also available.

Alexander speaking at the 2017 DPA Conference in Atlanta. 
At the keynote speech at the 2017 International Drug Policy Alliance conference in Atlanta,  Alexander challenged whites to do more than just publish data about racial disparities in arrests and incarceration that only reinforce stereotypes.

Noting that gains in marijuana reform (like adult legalization in California) happened as Donald Trump was elected by a base of white supremacist voters, and he soon began appointing drug warriors to key government positions, she made the case that we must solve racism before we can end the War on Drugs. "Can we evolve morally and spiritually? Can we learn to care for each other across lines of race and class?" she asked.

Drug policy presents tremendous opportunities for reimagining society, she said, by looking at how our ugly racial history harms us all, stripping away resources for drug treatment for all races, and ushering in private prisons and mass deportation. It's a chance to practice reparations, and talk about capitalism in a way that's long overdue, examining our culture of ruthless competition and individualism that helps make the US the world's leader in addiction as well as incarceration. She envisions a multiracial, multiethnic, multifaith, multigender democracy, not just fighting isolated drug policy battles, but working towards a new way of life for centuries. "The fate of our democracy depends in no small part on what happens in spaces like this," she concluded.

Alexander is one of the key interviews in Ava DuVernay's tremendous Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary 13th. She penned an oped for the New York Times this week titled, "America, This is Your Chance." Let us learn from our past this time and seize that chance. It's Been a Long Time Comin'. 

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