The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste

  • by Russ Belville, NORML Outreach Coordinator March 10, 2010

    I work this issue every day and am well aware of the racist nature of the War on (Certain American Citizens Using Non-Pharmaceutical, Non-Alcoholic, Tobacco-Free) Drugs. But even I wasn’t aware of the outrageous statistics comparing the Drug War to Jim Crow era. Michelle Alexander lays it all out in her new book, The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste:

    • There are more African Americans 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.

    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 are at historical lows — but imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the War on Drugs. Drug offenses alone account for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population.

    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.

    The only thing more shocking to me than the new Jim Crow of the drug war is how few African-Americans are involved in ending it.

    Medical Marijuana march in Madison, Wisconsin (I know Madison, Seattle, and Albuquerque aren't exactly Atlanta, Detroit, and Chicago, but there has to be SOME black people there, right?)

    This sort of racial homogeneity is also found at the grassroots activist level as well. I coordinate NORML’s 95 active state, local, and college chapters and off the top of my head I can think of only one chapter not run by a white person (Oregon NORML‘s Madeline Martinez, who, coincidentally, is that sole Latina on the National NORML Board).

    When I speak at conferences and festivals to crowds ranging from 50 to 50,000, it is always a nearly unbroken sea of white faces looking back at me. When I participate in the marches and protests against the drug war, I rarely see black or Latino people carrying a sign.

    My view from the stage before speaking at last year's Seattle Hempfest, the largest marijuana reform rally in the world.

    The War on Drugs is primarily a War on Marijuana, which makes up 49.8% of all drug war arrests, 89% of those arrests for simple possession. In New York City, a black man is nine times more likely to be busted for pot than a white man and three times more likely to get a custodial sentence out of that arrest. Yet when we look at the cannabis community, the only place we find many African-American faces is in rap videos extolling the virtues of “the chronic”.

    Where is the Martin Luther King Jr. of the movement to end the War on Drugs? Why is he or she not responding to the efforts to end the single greatest cause of racial inequality in this nation?

    Is he or she dissuaded by the culture of the black church, which demonizes drugs and drug use to the point where those who support sensible drug policies are shamed into silence?

    Drug Policy Alliance's Int'l Reform Conference in Albuquerque, 2009

    Is he or she turned away by looking at the leadership of drug law reform and seeing no faces like theirs?

    Is he or she already feeling like they wear a target for law enforcement on their back already based on skin color and don’t feel like exacerbating that by publicly standing for drug law reform?

    Whatever it is, this white man who’s used cannabis for twenty years and never once had an interaction with police is urgently calling out to my black and Latino brothers and sisters to get involved with your own liberation!

    75 Responses to “The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste”

    1. Nick says:

      Wow those are amazing stats. I had no idea that there are more blacks in prison today then were enslaved in 1850. All the United States is a penal colony for the world.

    2. Rhayader says:

      I’m sure the influence of religion has a lot to do with this disparity in the reform movement, yes. The issue of “drugs” also carries deep negative connotations in urban America, where substance use of any sort is typically portrayed as anathema to community cohesion and family unity. Thus there is likely some cultural resistance to reform attitudes which is not found among suburbanites.

      Also though, perhaps it makes sense that the people most harmed by prohibition are the least willing to speak out against it. If you’ve been convicted of a drug crime — or if your father or uncle or friend has — you have first-hand knowledge of the corruption and prejudice involved with drug enforcement. I’d imagine this might push people away from the issue as a whole — that remaining quiet would be seen as “safer” than speaking out.

    3. Anna says:

      It will be interesting to see if Mr. Obama’s attitude toward the War on “Drugs” shifts with this new information.

    4. karen says:

      Right On!

    5. Hal Aderholt says:

      This article showed me an entire side of the drug war that i have never even thought of before. Some of these facts are mind boggling and i completely agree with Russ about how more african Americans and Latinos should become more involved with the movement of reforming marijuana laws. I think it is also the responsibility of NORML to reach out to icons in the urban culture to offer them high ranking positions amongst the NORML ranks. Rapper/Businessman Sean Carter a.k.a. Jay-Z, is the perfect urban icon to represent the African American culture in this struggle. Just last week TMZ had photos all over their website of Jay and his wife visiting President Obama at the White House. He also has long lasting ties with the Mayor of New York. A business mogul of such statue already has the mass public at his fingers willing to do anything he says and with the right people behind Jay, and Jay behind NORML, just imagine the possibilities.

    6. […] link: The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent … Tags: issue, issue-every, racist, the-racist, war Share this […]

    7. Vice Truth Speaker says:

      I usually have your back, however I am not willing to endorse any policy, ideology etc based on race. Yeah, there’s a lot of unfairness out there, I’m not denying that.

      I believe the race argument (in terms of getting marijuana legalized) is a loser. It’s the Obama-Gay conundrum all over again: who are you going to convince with an article like this? Okay, nobody– because everyone reading it already agrees with you– but assume you wanted to take this case to a broader sample of the population. Who cares about race & racial equality? Liberals. Who already supports drug reform? Liberals.

      Moderates, unless they ARE minorities, don’t care. It’s a sad fact, but it’s true: the average American pot smoker is suburban and white. They’re more disturbed by the stiletto stoner argument that their children will have a criminal record if we keep pot illegal than that blacks and mexicans make up most of those arrested for marijuana. Hard truth, I know, but it’s true.

      It’s not your job to change their minds there– there are OTHER groups devoted to racial sensitivity and racial tolerance.

      I want to reiterate that I’m not condoning racial discrimination. I’m merely talking about your use of it (the issue) & the wisdom/folly of that strategy.

      Your own numbers don’t make sense: nothing you’ve said about more blacks suffering mentions the fact that the population as a whole was **MUCH** smaller in 1850. By the same token you could use populations of left handed people and isolate that number to show how left handedness has “exploded” over the last 160 years… it’s the same bad science that we go after our enemies for. Don’t be guilty of it, no matter how much you want to make racial sympathy a factor.

      [Russ responds: Well, then, I guess it was much ado over nothing. You’re right, the population of 1850 in America was 23,191,876 persons, with 3,204,313 of those being slaves. Today the population is over 300 million, with over 3.2 million of those being African-Americans under correctional supervision. Hooray, let’s pat ourselves on the back; in 1850 one in 7.25 people were slaves and in 2010 only one in 100 are black folks under correctional supervision.

      But thank you for confirming my suspicions that conservatives and moderates don’t care about racial injustice. (Unless some of you conservatives and moderates would like to chime in…)]

    8. Andrew says:

      Excellent! I like this angle. We need to keep finding new avenues to get my people pushing for legalization.

      Keep up the good work NORML!

    9. Andrew says:

      … to get “more” people pushing for legalization…

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