Newsflash:
Issues ERA 3 State Strategy Featured News Drug War Nightmare: How We Created a Massive Racial Caste System in America
Tuesday, 27 March 2012 19:15

Drug War Nightmare: How We Created a Massive Racial Caste System in America

Written by  Michelle Alexander | TomGram

The drug war has created a new Jim Crow system. Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.”  Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America. 

Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality.  There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you.  If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you.  Trust us.  Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars.  You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand.  Racial caste is alive and well in America.

Most people don’t like it when I say this.  It makes them angry.  In the “era of colorblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race.  Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:

*There are more African American adults under correctional control today -- in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.  The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life.  (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste -- not class, caste -- permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status.  They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

Excuses for the Lockdown

There is, of course, a colorblind explanation for all this: crime rates.  Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime.  We’re told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys.   

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years.  Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades -- they are currently at historical lows -- but imprisonment rates have consistently soared.  Quintupled, in fact.  The main driver has been the War on Drugs. Drug offenses alone accounted for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population between 1985 and 2000, the period of our prison system’s most dramatic expansion.

The drug war has been brutal -- complete with SWAT teams, tanks, bazookas, grenade launchers, and sweeps of entire neighborhoods -- but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought.  This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.  In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth.  Any notion that drug use among African Americans is more severe or dangerous is belied by the data.  White youth, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders.  In some states, African Americans comprise 80%-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.

This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded that black men have higher rates of violent crime.  That’s why the drug war is waged in poor communities of color and not middle-class suburbs.  Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell.  It has nothing to do with race; it’s all about violent crime.

Again, not so. President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising. President Richard Nixon was the first to coin the term “a war on drugs,” but it was President Reagan who turned the rhetorical war into a literal one. From the outset, the war had relatively little to do with drug crime and much to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action. In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities.  The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicizing inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores, and drug-related violence.  The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it. 

The plan worked like a charm.  For more than a decade, black drug dealers and users would be regulars in newspaper stories and would saturate the evening TV news.  Congress and state legislatures nationwide would devote billions of dollars to the drug war and pass harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes -- sentences longer than murderers receive in many countries. 

Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs.  In President Bill Clinton’s boastful words, “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.”  The facts bear him out.  Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.  But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations.  He and the “New Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life.  Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic, and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labeled a felon. 

Facing Facts

But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn’t the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found?  The answer is yes... in made-for-TV movies.  In real life, the answer is no. 

The drug war has never been focused on rooting out drug kingpins or violent offenders.  Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses.  What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests.  To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80% of the cash, cars, and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.

The results have been predictable: people of color rounded up en masse for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses.  In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five for sales.  Most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity.  In fact, during the 1990s -- the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war -- nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities as in the inner city. 

In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time -- a new Jim Crow system.  Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.

Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality.  Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers -- not to mention president of the United States -- causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come.  

Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries. And that’s with affirmative action!

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colorblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure: the structure of racial caste.  The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.

This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.  This is not the promised land.  The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.

Michelle Alexander is the author of the bestselling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness  (The New Press, 2010). The former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU in Northern California, she also served as a law clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court.  Currently, she holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.  To listen to a TomCast audio interview in which Alexander explains how she came to realize that this country was bringing Jim Crow into the Age of Obama, click here.

Link to the original article on TomDispatch

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Michelle Alexander

Read 1580 times

ERA Articles

  • Congresswoman Speier: The Deadline for Ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment Should be Removed
    Congresswoman Speier: The Deadline for Ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment Should be Removed

    Congresswomen Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo/Redwood City) issued the following statement today after offering a joint resolution to remove the deadline for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA was introduced into every Congress between 1923 and 1972, when it finally passed and was sent to the states for ratification upon three/fourths approval. Congresswoman Speier’s joint resolution has 109 original co-sponsors.

    Written on Friday, 28 March 2014 02:59 Read more...
  • Group wants ERA ratified
    Group wants ERA ratified

    State Sen. Nina Turner said Saturday that she supports efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment but noted that more work is ahead in reaching equality. The Cleveland-based Democrat was one of several political candidates in attendance during an event hosted by the Progressive Democrats of America at the Adena Mansion & Gardens Visitors Center, where Turner gave a fiery speech to a full crowd about the need to support such a change.

    Written on Monday, 24 March 2014 22:03 Read more...
  • Progressive Democrats to kick off ERA ratification push in Chillicothe
    Progressive Democrats to kick off ERA ratification push in Chillicothe

    A group of Progressive Democrats plans to push for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment with an event here later this month. State Sen. Nina Turner, D-Cleveland, will be the keynote speaker. Turner is the minority whip in the Ohio Senate.

    The group, which also is conducting the event to defend voter rights, also will honor a local woman with an award at the event.

    Written on Wednesday, 12 March 2014 13:35 Read more...
  • Lehigh Valley feminists waged campaign in schools, prison
    Lehigh Valley feminists waged campaign in schools, prison

    One of Mary Larkin's prized possessions is a beat-up, old, wooden cutting board in the shape of a mushroom, but you can't tell by looking at it that it is the product of a revolution.

    It was made by Larkin's daughter Debbie, who was one of the first girls to take shop in Parkland schools after the district relented in the mid-1970s to allow them to forgo home economics and do woodworking instead.

    Written on Tuesday, 11 March 2014 02:52 Read more...
  • Will Virginia be the First State to Ratify Equal Rights Amendment in the 21st Century?
    Will Virginia be the First State to Ratify Equal Rights Amendment in the 21st Century?

    Today SJ 78, a bill to ratify the stalled Equal Rights Amendment, was placed on the docket of the Elections subcommittee in the Virginia House. Could this signal GOP support for Constitutional pay equity? Even in the 21st century corporations continue to pay women less because they are women. Last week we learned that General Motors offered their first female CEO a salary 50% less than her male predecessors (the usual female pay discount is only 8%).

    Written on Tuesday, 25 February 2014 01:00 Read more...
  • Deadline Looms: ERA Ratification Assigned to Judiciary Committee in AZ Legislature
    Deadline Looms: ERA Ratification Assigned to Judiciary Committee in AZ Legislature

    Rep. Victoria Steele’s (D-9) bill to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (HCR2016) was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee late last week. (You’ll remember that mid-week, I reported it was languishing on the desk of House Speaker Andy Tobin.)

    Written on Tuesday, 18 February 2014 01:56 Read more...
  • Uphill Battle: Rep. Victoria Steele Introduces Bill to Extend ERA Ratification Deadline
    Uphill Battle: Rep. Victoria Steele Introduces Bill to Extend ERA Ratification Deadline

    There is an ideological perfect storm brewing in the Arizona Legislature. A memorandum supporting extension of the ratification deadline for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has been assigned to a committee where five out of seven members have pledged to protect and fight for the rights of fetuses over the rights of women.

    Written on Thursday, 13 February 2014 14:37 Read more...
  • America the Beautiful is Not a Movie
    America the Beautiful is Not a Movie

    What I know about sports, I learned watching movies, but what I know about fair play and equality, I learned watching my parents.  Although movies Based on a true story, have evolved closer to reality since William Bendix played Babe Ruth, the brain damage of inequality requires more than A Hail Mary Pass at equal economic opportunity and Justice for All to tackle an Equal Rights Amendment fumbled by a deadline for ratification.

    Written on Monday, 10 February 2014 20:51 Read more...
  • Alice Paul: Honoring The Birthday Of An American Heroine
    Alice Paul: Honoring The Birthday Of An American Heroine

    In November 2014, Americans will be heading to the polls to vote in the midterm elections.

    Women will be voting.

    If Alice Paul had not been alive to fight for that right, women still might not have the opportunity to make their voices heard in the United States of America.

    January 11, 1885 was the day this great American woman was born and it is on this day that everyone should take a moment to recognize and celebrate her brave and progressive life.

    Written on Sunday, 12 January 2014 00:11 Read more...
  • Signature gathering drive underway for state equal-rights amendment
    Signature gathering drive underway for state equal-rights amendment

    People are out collecting signatures to get the Oregon’s Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for women on the November 2014 ballot. This could mean a change to the state constitution to include language that specifically protects women.

    Oregon’s ERA for women has been out there several times before now, most recently before the legislative session in 2013, but it didn't pass.

    Written on Wednesday, 01 January 2014 22:30 Read more...
  • ERA December Update
    ERA December Update

    Congratulations Rhode Island!
    Rhode Island is the first state to have 100% of their Federal delegation supporting our legislation. A special thanks to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Senator Jack Reed, Rep. David Cicilline and Rep. James Langevin. We appreciate your support.

    Written on Thursday, 12 December 2013 01:19 Read more...
  • JFK'S Contribution to Women's Rights -- and What He Might Want Us to Do Next
    JFK'S Contribution to Women's Rights -- and What He Might Want Us to Do Next

    Just a few weeks before his death, on October 11, 1963, President Kennedy received the final report of the President's Commission on the Status of Women. A direct line runs between the work of this commission and the establishment of the National Organization for Women.

    Written on Saturday, 23 November 2013 21:02 Read more...
  • Debate over Equal Rights Amendment

    If an Equal Rights Amendment were to pass, women would have the written support of the Constitution. Instead of women having to prove that they were being discriminated against, violators of the amendment would face a harsher reality, having to prove their innocence.

    The benefits of ratifying the amendment are fairly simple. By passing the Equal Rights Amendment, the government would not only open doors of opportunity for women in the country, but also open them all around the world.

    Written on Wednesday, 20 November 2013 02:58 Read more...
  • Progressive Push - First Stop California
    Progressive Push - First Stop California

    UPDATE: Linda Sanchez and Louise Roybal-Allard are now cosponsors of HJ Res 43. As Progressives we should all be outraged that of the 15 members of the Progressive Caucus from California, there are 5 (3) who have not co-sponsored Representative Rob Andrews legislation, HJ Res 43, removing the deadline for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Unacceptable. They are well aware of the legislation and we must alert them to this fact.

    Written on Thursday, 07 November 2013 00:00 Read more...
  • The ERA and the NCGA 2013
    The ERA and the NCGA 2013

    Targeting women’s right to vote may be the undoing of extreme governance and an opportunity to take care of constitutionally unfinished business for women – an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The newly declared war on the right of women in NC to vote looks to be the match to the fuse in the renewed push for passing an ERA.

    Written on Tuesday, 05 November 2013 00:00 Read more...
  • Senator Elizabeth Warren Signs On to SJ Res 15
    Senator Elizabeth Warren Signs On to SJ Res 15

    A Major Victory for ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) advocates happened today as Senator Elizabeth Warren becomes the 32nd co-sponsor on Senator Ben Cardin’s bi-partisan bill, SJRES15 to remove the deadline to ratify the ERA.

    Written on Thursday, 31 October 2013 16:47 Read more...
  • Monday Vintage Demonstrations on Equal Rights Amendment
    Monday Vintage Demonstrations on Equal Rights Amendment

    In the spirit of Moral Mondays the Onslow County Democratic Party announced that this Monday’s demonstration on  October 28th  will focus on pushing back against the wave of legislation negatively impacting  women’s rights to include the targeting of their voting rights. Demonstrators are civilly rallying from 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm outside the Jacksonville City Hall at 815 New Bridge Street to support the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) checking state laws that are eroding women’s rights.

    Written on Thursday, 24 October 2013 17:46 Read more...
  • “Welcome to Ohio: Set Your Clocks Back 50 Years!”
    “Welcome to Ohio:  Set Your Clocks Back 50 Years!”

    “Seems like old times,” was former ODP chair, David Leland’s comment when we exchanged greetings at the Statehouse, October 2nd. Indeed it did. About 1000 enthusiastic women and men showed up for a rally entitled, “We Won’t Go Back: Stand Strong with Ohio’s Women!”

    Written on Thursday, 03 October 2013 13:49 Read more...
  • Poverty, Hunger, Inequality, Violence: American Women Are Being Screwed
    Poverty, Hunger, Inequality, Violence: American Women Are Being Screwed

    Women earn less than men. Compared to white men, Latinas earn 59 cents for every dollar earned by a white man, black women earn 68 cents on the dollar, white women earn 81 cents on the dollar, and Asian women earn 88 cents on the dollar

    Written on Thursday, 29 August 2013 00:43 Read more...
  • ERA 2013 Action Campaign Gains Momentum - White House Petition Passes 20,000 Signature Mark
    ERA 2013 Action Campaign Gains Momentum - White House Petition Passes 20,000 Signature Mark

    The new push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) continues to grow as word spreads about the effort to get the Obama Administration to take a stand on the issue of equal rights for women. The ERA 2013 Action Campaign and its partner, ERA NOW, seek to gather 25,000 signatures on an official White House petition to trigger an official response from the Obama Administration, now needs only 4600 signatures by February 9th.

    Written on Tuesday, 05 February 2013 17:58 Read more...

ERA Legislation in your State

Unratified states Gold - Ratified States Purple

Sign the Petition - Sen. Sanders Run as a Democrat in 2016

Button-SandersPetition

ERA - January 15th Round Table

Find Your Elected Officials

Enter your zip+4 and find your elected officials. This link provides name, address and phone number

ButtonFindElectedOfficials

Click on your state in the list to find out if your Senators and Representative are cosponsors of the Equal Rights Amendment. Then call and either Thank Them or ask them to support the legislation.

Sample scripts are below.

ERA Call Scripts

Thank You Script
I am a voter in your district and the Equal Rights Amendment is very important to me and all my friends. Thank you for supporting equal rights.

Request Support
I am a voter in your district and the Equal Rights Amendment is very important to me and all my friends. Equality is a human rights issue. The Equal Rights Amendment has been stalled and we believe removing the ratification deadline will most the process forward. Please cosponsor SJ Res 15 (for Senators) HJ Res 43 (for your Representative)

Writer a Letter to the Editor about the ERA

We need to add the Equal Rights Amendment to the National conversation. Use our tool to send a letter to the editor of your local paper.

  1. Enter your zip code to select a list of local papers
  2. Select the paper
  3. Use our talking points and/or write your own letter

button-LettertoEditor

Hand Deliver a Letter to your Senators or Representative

If your Senator(s) and/or Representative is not currently a supporter, they may not be aware that the legislation exists. Nothing sends a stronger message to a Congressional member than a personal visit to a district office by a voter with a written request for support. Phone calls and emails are incredibly important but nothing gets attention like a personal visit. Our Educate Congress page has information and a sample letter. Print the letter, sign it, deliver it.

Button-HandDeliver

Email Your Senators and Representatives

There is no faster way to send a message to your Congress members than using our Email Advocacy Tool.

  1. Enter your Zip +4
  2. Use our letter or feel free to edit and create your own

button-emailyourrep

Like ERA Action on Facebook!

ERA Videos

VA State Legislature

Marena Groll
Moral Monday - Fayetteville

January 15th Progressive Round Table

Tea with Friends of Alice - Chillicothe, Ohio

  • Sen. Nina Turner and Cathy White
    Sen. Nina Turner and Cathy White
  • Queen Nester and Sen. Nina Turner
    Queen Nester and Sen. Nina Turner
  • Awardees
    Dr. Jean Kerney, Senator Nina Turner and Portia A. Boulger Awardees
  • Sen. Nina Turner and Cathy White
  • Queen Nester and Sen. Nina Turner
  • Awardees