In 2008, shortly after I got my master’s degree, I took a month-long train trip around the United States, visiting many major cities I’d never been to. What struck me most, during my travels, was how segregated by race most American cities still are. Chicago, New Orleans, Washington D.C., and definitely Birmingham are still divided (unofficially, of course) along color lines. What I witnessed flew in the face of all I’d learned in my long American education. How is this possible, I thought? Fast forward a few years, and I began to notice the increasing number stories of African American young men killed (with impunity) by police. Living in a relatively affluent suburb of Orange County, I’d been largely shielded from the real and systemic civil rights problems faced by African Americans today, even in the age of Obama. Fast forward a bit more, and this semester I’m using as part of my curriculum the television program The Wire, which dives deeply into the social, economic, and political problems plaguing African American housing projects in west Baltimore. Watching the lives of these characters, one could easily get the impression that the Civil Rights Movement never happened.
Being a generally curious person who enjoys the process of figuring out complex problems, I have started to pay more attention, at least academically, to the enduring problems of racial injustice in America. I want to understand why segregation still exists in America. I want to understand why so many young African American men are regularly harassed, brutalized, and incarcerated by police. I want to understand why, in a supposedly colorblind society, African Americans still face enormous injustices. To that end, I’ve just finished reading a book called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by scholar Michelle Alexander. Reading this book has been a kind of “Paul on the Road to Damascus” experience for me, a process of revealing the reality, and destroying the myth that I’d been taught in school, namely that we figured out and fixed our racial problems in 1960s, during the Civil Rights movement. We, as a nation, most certainly did not.
Alexander argues that, from its founding, American government and society has used various forms of social control to curtail the lives and aspirations of African Americans. The first form was slavery. “Under the terms of our country’s founding document [the U.S. Constitution],” Alexander writes, “slaves were defined as three fifths of a man, not a real, whole human being. Upon this racist fiction rests the entire structure of American democracy…Denying African Americans citizenship was deemed essential to the formation of the original union.” Enslavement of African Americans was the first from of social control, with all its horror and injustice.
With the abolishment of slavery following the Civil War, there was a brief moment of hope that African Americans could improve their lives and enter “mainstream” society. While some advances were made, particularly the 13th-15th amendments, a new system of social control emerged—Jim Crow laws. Alexander writes, “ a Jim Crow system of segregation emerged—a system that put black people nearly back where they began, in a subordinate racial caste.” These “Jim Crow” laws severely restricted the rights and aspirations of African Americans, who experienced legal discrimination in housing, employment, and education. The system of segregation we see today in American cities is the legacy of Jim Crow. My mom, who was born in the early 1950s, remembers, as a little girl, driving through the South with her family and seeing signs that said “White Only” on bathrooms, drinking fountains, and other facilities. The Jim Crow system, which ultimately led to the Civil Rights movement, was the second major form of social control of African Americans.
With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow laws began to be challenged and defeated. It is important to note that each of these advances for African Americans was the result of great social movement and struggle. It is undeniable that great movements forward were made as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and major legal decisions like Brown v. Board of Education began the process of dismantling the Jim Crow system in the United States. For most Americans, the Civil Rights Movement is the final chapter in the story of injustice against African Americans. The popular narrative is that we defeated the problem, and now we are good. We have an African American president, after all!
Most Americans, especially people of my generation who grew up after the Civil Rights movement, are unaware of the intense political backlash to the Civil Rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s, when new systems of social control for minorities were being put into place. I first learned about this largely unknown history when I read a book called Racial Propositions, which is about California’s history of discriminatory ballot measures, many of which explicitly undid many of the gains of the Civil Rights movement. You can read my book report on that HERE.
What happened was that, after the Civil Rights movement, former proponents of racist policies did not simply vanish, they changed their rhetoric. Rather than calling for “segregation forever,” the new race-neutral rhetoric became “law and order.” Even during the Civil Rights movement, “conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther Ling Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime. Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political in nature.” Those who were most opposed to civil rights legislation became early proponents of the new “law and order” and “tough on crime” mentality.
The election of Richard Nixon in 1968 signaled a new wave of conservative backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. H.R. Haldeman, one of Nixon’s key advisors, recalls that Nixon himself deliberately pursued a Southern, racial strategy: “He [President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.’ Similarly, John Ehrlichman special counsel to the president , explained the Nixon administration’s campaign strategy of 1968 in this way: ‘We’ll go after the racists.’ In Ehrlichman’s view, ‘that subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.’”
It was Richard Nixon who began the so-called “War on Drugs,” a bold political move that gave law enforcement increased powers to arrest and incarcerate huge numbers of poor minorities. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan continued and expanded Nixon’s strategy of appealing to racist sentiments without being explicitly racist. Alexander explains: “when Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign at the annual Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi—the town where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964—he assured the crowd ‘I believe in state’s rights’…suggesting allegiance with those who resisted desegregation.”
A main focus of Alexander’s book is the so-called “War on Drugs.” Like the “War on Terror,” this vague, nebulous, and unwinnable war has wrought absolute devastation upon poor, urban African American communities, incarcerating African American men by the millions for non-violent drug offenses, despite the fact that drug use rates are virtually the same for blacks and whites. In 1991, the Sentencing Project reported that the number of people behind bars in the United States was unprecedented in world history, and that one fourth of young African American men were now under the control of the criminal justice system.”
Enormous amounts of money and resources have been thrown at the war on drugs, because it has been politically advantageous to appear “tough on drugs” and “tough on crime.” Between 1980 and 1984, FBI anti drug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million. Department of Defense anti drug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA anti drug spending grew from $86 to $1,026 million and FBI anti drug allocations grew from $38 to $181 million.
Ironically, however, the War on Drugs has not succeeded in decreasing the amount of drug use. That was, arguably, never its real intention. What it has succeeded in doing is giving police enormous power, resources, military equipment, and virtual immunity to violate people’s civil rights. The War on Drugs has also been a boon to private prison contractors. The best documentary I've seen about the failure of the War on Drugs is called The House I Live In. It's available on Netflix.
But most of all, the War on Drugs has succeeded in incarcerating huge numbers of people of color. And, once you have a criminal record, even a non-violent drug offense, you enter a parallel universe in which your housing, employment, and voting rights can be legally taken away, because you are now a “convict.”
Alexander gives some sobering numbers and facts: “More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the 21st century, and millions more were relegated to the margins of mainstream society, banished to a political and social space not unlike Jim Crow, where discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education was perfectly legal and where they could be denied the right to vote…Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born.”
Alexander’s book is a dense, and exhaustively argued (and annotated) tome. Obviously, she gives lots more evidence than I have the space to do in this little book report. Put succinctly, the main insights of the book are: The War on Drugs was never about drugs, it was about race. The proof is in the results: It has failed to reduce drug use, but has succeeded in imprisoning huge numbers of poor, young, African American men, relagating them to a legal status that is virtually identical to Jim Crow.