Michelle Alexander is a civil rights lawyer and law professor at The Ohio State University. Alexander first encountered the idea of a racial caste system when she saw a poster stapled to a telephone pole declaring that “The Drug War is the new Jim Crow.” At the time she thought it was hyperbole. After working in the criminal justice system for several years, her thinking had evolved from the system has a problem with racial bias to believing that mass incarceration is a “well-disguised system of racialized social control.”
Alexander makes a strong argument that the War on Drugs effect on people of color looks eerily similar to the Jim Crow era. She reviews how the Jim Crow era evolved as a response to emancipation, and argues that after the civil rights era, incarceration was the new response to keep people of color on the margin of society. The information she shares throughout the book isn’t new, but when all the pieces are put together, it tells a damning story.
The book explains how the system works from the police, through the judicial process, and perhaps worst of all, the post-conviction conditions for people who may be guilty of nothing more than marijuana possession. “When someone is convicted of a crime today their debt to society is never paid.” P.163.
Fueled by President Reagan’s War on Drugs, which began in 1982, the Federal government poured billions of dollars into fighting drugs. Shortly after the program began, the police focused primarily on crack cocaine. The stereotypes of gangsters, drug dealers and crack whores were all people of color. Police targeted minorities in their neighborhoods, schools and vehicles. The Supreme Court sanctioned police activities that were “rationally based” even if they were also racially biased. White people committed drug crimes at the same rate as other groups, but were not targeted. Possession of only 5g of crack cocaine carried the same penalty as 500g of powder cocaine. The fix was in.
Alexander challenges the notion of a “colorblind” society, and in particular a colorblind legal system. The problem with “colorblind” is that it doesn’t recognize implicit biases. Recent studies have shown that we all have implicit biases, it’s part of human nature. A colorblind system ignores those biases and bakes them in throughout the process, from police stop to prosecution. Mandatory sentences, on their face are colorblind, but in practice put disproportionate numbers of people of color in prison for decades. Mandatory sentencing, three strikes laws, and the process of pleading to smaller crimes in order to avoid even longer sentences have put millions of people on the road to nowhere for the rest of their lives.
Alexander recognizes that people convicted of crimes are acting of their own volition. Her point is that other people make the same mistakes and choices and are not punished at all. White people who smoke marijuana, take cocaine and deal drugs hardly ever get caught. I know many people who fall into that category.
As previously stated, doing time isn’t enough. In 48 states conviction of a felony means you are no longer eligible to vote or serve on a jury. (In Germany, prisoners are allowed to vote, and in other countries voting rights are restored upon release). In addition, it is legal to discriminate against criminals. Job applications, housing applications almost all ask for criminal records. No one wants to hire a convicted criminal. Further, a conviction disqualifies a person from Federal housing assistance, food stamps and welfare. These are the major factors, there are many more that make it near impossible to get out from under the stigma of conviction, to get a job and to find a home.
Throughout the book, Alexander refers to Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Her solution to mass incarceration is as large as King’s vision: a social movement in which we fight for human rights, not civil rights, break the barriers of poverty for whites and people of color. Piecemeal reforms are not enough. The book was written before the Obama administration’s commutation of sentences and other reforms. Alexander anticipates such reforms and applauds them, but insists they are insufficient because they do not reach enough people to make enough of a difference.
The presidential election showed us examples of some people who are openly racist. However, Alexander is right that most people believe in good faith that they are not racist and do not want a criminal justice system that supports racism. Our collective thinking of racism goes back to the civil rights era: Gov. George Wallace standing at the school entrance, the scenes in the movie “Selma,” and the burning of crosses. Alexander responds: “ The widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control is the most important reason that we, as a nation, have remained in deep denial.” P.183. As in so many other social issues, when things get tough: deny.
Alexander’s books raised many questions for me. How does the battle against meth fit this narrative? Isn’t it interesting that the current opioid crisis is discussed in terms of a health crisis rather than a criminal one? Is there a connection between the system Alexander describes and the increase in homicides in Chicago? Will Jefferson Beauregard Sessions’ DOJ double down on the War on Drugs. That would be wrong. This book makes a strong argument that mass incarceration is unjust, racist and a misdirection of resources. Sadly not enough policy makers are reading this book.