"The New Jim Crow"

     With good reason the national Episcopal Church has urged us all to read Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow, which describes the “human rights nightmare” we have created since the 1980's with the War on Drugs and Crime, to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of people of color for possessing small amounts of drugs. Here is a condensed summary of the book's key ideas.


Part 1: Key ideas from Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow 

     According to Michelle Alexander, in her Introduction to The New Jim Crow--the latest book-study at HSP--“a human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch.  The current system of mass incarceration permanently locks a huge percentage of the African-American community out of the mainstream society and economy.”   In a later chapter (pp. 185-186), Alexander summarizes how this punishment system works. 

     “The War on Drugs is the vehicle through which huge numbers of black men are forced into the cage.  The entrapment occurs in three distinct phases...The first stage is the roundup.  Vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color.  They are rewarded in cash —through drug forfeiture laws [where the police seize and keep the cash, cars, homes and other property of those arrested] and federal grant programs [where the government pays police departments for each drug arrest they make] for rounding up as many people as possible.  And they [the police] operate unconstrained by constitutional rules of procedure that once were considered inviolate.  Police can stop, interrogate, and search anyone they choose for drug investigations...Because there is no meaningful check on the exercise of police discretion, racial biases are granted free rein.  In fact, police are allowed to rely on race as a factor in selecting whom to stop and search (even though people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites)--effectively guaranteeing that those who are swept into the system are primarily black and brown.” 

     The conviction marks the beginning of the second phase:  the period of formal control [in prison].  Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty whether they are or not.  Prosecutors are free to “load up” defendants with extra charges, and their decisions cannot be challenged for racial bias.  Once convicted, due to the drug war's harsh sentencing laws, drug offenders in the United States spend more time...in jail or prison, on probation or parole than drug offenders anywhere else in the world...This period of control may last a lifetime, even for those convicted of extremely minor, nonviolent offenses, [like possessing small amounts of marijuana or cocaine], but the vast majority of those swept into the system are eventually released.  They are transferred from their prison cells to a much larger, invisible cage. 

     The final stage has been dubbed by some advocates as the period of invisible punishment...the unique set of criminal sanctions...that operate largely outside of public view...to ensure that the vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society.  They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives—denied [as felons] employment, housing, education, [voting and serving on juries], and public benefits [like food stamps].  Unable to surmount these obstacles, most will eventually return to prison and then be released again, caught in a closed circuit of perpetual marginality.” 

     And why did we create this system in the 1980's and 1990's in the United States?  And why do we keep it going?  Check the Paraclete next month. 

--Carla Mettling, Social Concerns Committee


Part 2 on Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow 

     Given today's outpouring of concern, news coverage, and presidential acknowledgment of the opioid addiction crisis as a medical emergency needing treatment and funding, we may well wonder why this form of drug addiction—not to mention alcohol abuse—elicits compassion, while the crack epidemic among people of color, beginning in the 1980's, got a war declared against it, and mandatory sentencing, for simple possession of small amounts of crack or marijuana, of 5, 10, even 20 years in jail.  Alexander's answer is that the former is white drug use; the latter is social control of people of color, replacing the now illegal system of Jim Crow laws in the South, just as these replaced slavery.  White men are those we respect, trust, and treat for addiction; black men are those we fear, hate, and incarcerate for crime. 

Part 3

     But how did this system arise?  Alexander traces, with precision and scholarly research, Richard Nixon's and the Republican Party's “Southern Strategy,” after the civil rights victories of Brown versus the Board of Education—mandating school desegregation—and the Civil Rights Act of 1964—making segregated public places and employment discrimination illegal—of recruiting white Southern segregationist Democrats, appalled at these attacks on their social system.  This recruitment was done by labeling civil rights protests as crime and the breakdown of law and order and by launching a war against such crime, where “criminal” became code for people of color and their allies, at a time when denigrating them as a lower race was no longer politically acceptable.  But it was acceptable to hate and punish criminals. This War on Crime morphed into a War Against Drugs, when crack cocaine first devastated the black ghetto's men, left jobless and empty handed by the outsourcing of factory jobs to the developing world and to automation. 

     Ronald Reagan then waged a whole media campaign to create fear and support for this drug war that brought him political power and reelection, at a time when few Americans saw drugs as a national emergency and drug crime was declining.  Many people looked forward to shrinking prison populations.  But Reagan made a huge shift of federal funds away from education, prevention, and treatment of drug users toward hunting them down—the black and brown ones--and putting them in jail.  He paid local police departments per drug arrest for drug possession, to convince local police to fight a war that they hadn't even known needed fighting.  And the Pentagon gave any police department that wanted it as much military equipment as they asked for, free of charge. 

     Soon the publicity campaign, the massive news coverage on the “war,” and TV programs, featuring cheating “welfare queens” and black predators, exacerbated the already present prejudice against people of color, so that white Americans thought of criminals as black men, who should be in jail.  And Bill Clinton, not wanting Republicans to get all the political benefit of the War on Crime and Drugs, greatly enlarged it.  So every year, beginning in the mid-80's, the prison population grew enormously, as police targeted ghetto people in random car searches, and SWAT teams kicked down doors in the night, to haul poor people off to jail, plea bargaining, incarceration, and a lifetime of being branded as felons and legally denied work, housing, voting rights, and student loans.  The lives of millions have been hijacked. 

     There is now mounting bipartisan criticism of this massive system of incarceration of drug users, but it persists. And why?  To be continued...

--Carla Mettling, Social Concerns Committee