Book Recap: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (p1)


I am reviewing/recapping some of the books that I read in my last Doctoral of Ministry class. If you are someone who is concerned about issues revolving around race, poverty, reconciliaiton and justice, then these books are all worth reading.

Up next is “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander.  Dr. Alexander is an associate professor of law at Ohio State and a civil rights advocate.  I highlighted more in this book than any other I read, so this will probably turn into 2 posts.  It had a lot of data that was both disturbing and stirring.

Some of the quotes:

In fact, the War on Drugs began at a time when illegal drug use was on the decline. During this same time period, however, a war was declared, causing arrests and convictions for drug offenses to skyrocket, especially among people of color. The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than thirty years, the U.S penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran.

The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities

The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.

These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color. That is not what one would guess, however, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.

And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.

The only country in the world that even comes close to the American rate of incarceration is Russia, and no other country in the world incarcerates such an astonishing percentage of its racial or ethnic minorities.

The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.

It may be helpful, in attempting to understand the basic nature of the new caste system, to think of the criminal justice system—the entire collection of institutions and practices that comprise it—not as an independent system but rather as a gateway into a much larger system of racial stigmatization and permanent marginalization. This larger system, referred to here as mass incarceration, is a system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls—walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws once did at locking people of color into a permanent second-class citizenship.

What this book is intended to do—the only thing it is intended to do—is to stimulate a much-needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States. The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society. The fact that more than half of the young black men in any large American city are currently under the control of the criminal justice system (or saddled with criminal records) is not—as many argue—just a symptom of poverty or poor choices, but rather evidence of a new racial caste system at work.

The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world’s people been classified along racial lines.

Here, in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery—as well as the extermination of American Indians—with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the new colonies.

It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society.

The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system—slavery—while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially propertied whites.

The history of racial caste in the United States would end with the Civil War if the idea of race and racial difference had died when the institution of slavery was put to rest. But during the four centuries in which slavery flourished, the idea of race flourished as well. Indeed, the notion of racial difference—specifically the notion of white supremacy—proved far more durable than the institution that gave birth to it.

Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders made it clear that they viewed the eradication of economic inequality as the next front in the “human rights movement” and made great efforts to build multiracial coalitions that sought economic justice for all. Genuine equality for black people, King reasoned, demanded a radical restructuring of society, one that would address the needs of the black and white poor throughout the country. Shortly before his assassination, he envisioned bringing to Washington, D.C., thousands of the nation’s disadvantaged in an interracial alliance that embraced rural and ghetto blacks, Appalachian whites, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans to demand jobs and income—the right to live.

Before we begin our tour of the drug war, it is worthwhile to get a couple of myths out of the way. The first is that the war is aimed at ridding the nation of drug “kingpins” or big-time dealers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of those arrested are not charged with serious offenses. In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five was for sales. Moreover, most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity.

The second myth is that the drug war is principally concerned with dangerous drugs. Quite to the contrary, arrests for marijuana possession—a drug less harmful than tobacco or alcohol—accounted for nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s.5 Despite the fact that most drug arrests are for nonviolent minor offenses, the War on Drugs has ushered in an era of unprecedented punitiveness.

The percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences (rather than dismissal, community service, or probation) has quadrupled, resulting in a prison-building boom the likes of which the world has never seen. In two short decades, between 1980 and 2000, the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans—or one in every 31 adults—were behind bars, on probation, or on parole.

The program’s success requires police to stop “staggering” numbers of people in shotgun fashion. This “volume” approach to drug enforcement sweeps up extraordinary numbers of innocent people. As one California Highway Patrol Officer said, “It’s sheer numbers…. You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.” Accordingly, every year, tens of thousands of motorists find themselves stopped on the side of the road, fielding questions about imaginary drug activity, and then succumbing to a request for their vehicle to be searched—sometimes torn apart—in the search for drugs. Most of these stops and searches are futile. It has been estimated that 95 percent of Pipeline stops yield no illegal drugs.

Clearly, the rules of the game are designed to allow for the roundup of an unprecedented number of Americans for minor, nonviolent drug offenses. The number of annual drug arrests more than tripled between 1980 and 2005, as drug sweeps and suspicionless stops and searches proceeded in record numbers.

At the time the drug war was declared, illegal drug use and abuse was not a pressing concern in most communities. The announcement of a War on Drugs was therefore met with some confusion and resistance within law enforcement, as well as among some conservative commentators… the drug war created something of a dilemma for the Reagan administration. In order for the war to actually work—that is, in order for it to succeed in achieving its political goals—it was necessary to build a consensus among state and local law enforcement agencies that the drug war should be a top priority in their hometowns. The solution: cash. Huge cash grants were made to those law enforcement agencies that were willing to make drug-law enforcement a top priority. The new system of control is traceable, to a significant degree, to a massive bribe offered to state and local law enforcement by the federal government.

The incentives program worked. Drug arrests skyrocketed, as SWAT teams swept through urban housing projects, highway patrol agencies organized drug interdiction units on the freeways, and stop-and-frisk programs were set loose on the streets.

As if the free military equipment, training, and cash grants were not enough, the Reagan administration provided law enforcement with yet another financial incentive to devote extraordinary resources to drug law enforcement, rather than more serious crimes: state and local law enforcement agencies were granted the authority to keep, for their own use, the vast majority of cash and assets they seize when waging the drug war. This dramatic change in policy gave state and local police an enormous stake in the War on Drugs—not in its success, but in its perpetual existence. Law enforcement gained a pecuniary interest not only in the forfeited property, but in the profitability of the drug market itself.

Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of drug use or sales. At the time the new rules were adopted, the law governing civil forfeiture was so heavily weighted in favor of the government that fully 80 percent of forfeitures went uncontested. Property or cash could be seized based on mere suspicion of illegal drug activity, and the seizure could occur without notice or hearing, upon an ex parte showing of mere probable cause to believe that the property had somehow been “involved” in a crime. The probable cause showing could be based on nothing more than hearsay, innuendo, or even the paid, self-serving testimony of someone with interests clearly adverse to the property owner. Neither the owner of the property nor anyone else need be charged with a crime, much less found guilty of one. Indeed, a person could be found innocent of any criminal conduct and the property could still be subject to forfeiture. Once the property was seized, the owner had no right of counsel, and the burden was placed on him to prove the property’s “innocence.”

Not surprisingly, this drug forfeiture regime proved highly lucrative for law enforcement, offering more than enough incentive to wage the War on Drugs. According to a report commissioned by the Department of Justice, between 1988 and 1992 alone, Byrne-funded drug task forces seized over $1 billion in assets.47 Remarkably, this figure does not include drug task forces funded by the DEA or other federal agencies.

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2 thoughts on “Book Recap: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (p1)

  1. That is powerful. As I go around seeking to minister in the urban parts of Seattle, I meet lots of black women interested in God. But I’m often forced to ask, “Where are the black men?” A sad state of affairs in America.

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