Interview with Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness answers some questions from TalkingDrugs.
Q1. Outside the US mass incarceration appears to be a monumental social injustice, why do you think the problem has existed for such a long period of time and received so little media exposure both inside and outside the country?
The answer boils down to race. If the drug war was being waged in middle-class white communities or on college campuses, there would be a media frenzy and a fierce political backlash. Our nation would likely be teetering on the verge of revolution if police sweeps of middle class, white neighborhoods were occurring on a regular basis, and white youth were routinely stopped, frisked, and brutalized by the police while walking to school, standing on the street corner, or driving to the store. If the majority of young white men were under the control of the criminal justice system in major areas, we would be asking ourselves: “What is wrong with our country, our courts, our laws to have criminalized such an enormous percentage of our youth? Why are we forcing so many young people into a permanent second-class status simply because they were once caught with drugs?” We would be asking those questions if the primary targets of the drug war were white. But because they’re not, an eerie silence exists, even in communities of color. As a nation, it feels comfortable and familiar to have a racially defined group of people ostracized and excluded from the mainstream economic, social and political structure. It seems normal. Even in the age of Obama.
Q2 The use of the phrase ‘Jim Crow’ and your quoting of H.R. Haldeman, (“The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”) creates the impression that your belief is that the situation is a result of deliberate action by some politicians rather than an ‘unintended consequence’ of the war of drugs. Would you comment on this?
The historical record is clear. Former segregationists and conservative politicians embraced “get tough” rhetoric on crime and welfare in their effort to appeal to poor and working class whites voters, particularly in the South, who were threatened by, anxious about, and resentful of many of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement - particularly busing, desegregation, and affirmative action. Pollsters and political strategists found that “get tough” appeals on crime and welfare were extremely successful in providing an outlet for conscious and unconscious racial biases. Although the rhetoric was colorblind on the surface, voters understood that politicians who used “get tough” rhetoric were aiming to crack down on African Americans. The politicians who led the “get tough” movement in the early years were the same politicians who had been rabid defenders of Jim Crow. After the Civil Rights Acts were passed, it was no longer acceptable to employ explicitly racist rhetoric, but some political advisors, like Haldeman, admitted openly that they were searching for a means to devise a system to deal with the “black problem” following the collapse of Jim Crow. There can be little doubt that the War on Drugs was an effort to make good on political promises to crack down on a group of people who had been not-so-subtly defined in the political discourse as black and brown.
Now, does that mean I think the conservatives of the 1970s and early 1980s aimed to create precisely the system that we have today? No, the War on Drugs has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. And do I think everyone working within law enforcement today has consciously biased motives? No. In fact, most people who work in law enforcement believe that they are unbiased. The targeting of poor communities of color for drug law enforcement, harsh mandatory minimum sentences, and perpetual, life-long discrimination against those branded felons has been rationalized. These laws, policies and practices are defended by politicians and media pundits without the use of explicitly racist language, making it easy for people to convince themselves and others that the policies have nothing to do with race. The problem lies with “those people,” it is said, not the laws or the system itself.
By the way, I am mystified why people refer to all of the laws authorizing discrimination against drug offenders in employment, housing, and public benefits as “unintended collateral consequences” of the drug war. Those laws were passed by the same legislatures that passed harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. If you pass laws barring drug offenders from public benefits and food stamps, and barring them from public housing, and suspending their drivers licenses, and barring them from hundreds of categories of jobs, the predictable results cannot be described as “collateral” and “unintended.” If you legalize discrimination in housing, don’t act surprised that people can’t find a place to live. If you deny people food stamps and authorize discrimination against them in employment, don’t feign shock when they can’t feed themselves. The fact academics and policymakers describe so many forms of discrimination against drug felons as accidental by-products of the drug war is a revealing indicator of how deep our denial has become. We have a hard time acknowledging what is hidden in plain sight. We’ve created a new caste system, but we can’t - or won’t - admit it.
Q3 Do you think that the US Government has reneged on its commitment to its citizens as a signatory to the core conventions on human rights with respect to the mass incarceration of African Americans and do you think that it would be right to seek readdress through international mechanisms?
The mass incarceration of people of color in the United States can be counted among the most astounding, large scale human rights violations of the past century. It is my deep hope that the issue will attract more attention internationally. Many scholars believe that Jim Crow collapsed in large part because the U.S. government was concerned about the ways in which Jim Crow was tarnishing our nation’s image as leader of the “free world.” Today, it seems most people around the globe have bought into the idea that Obama’s election represents our nation’s “triumph over race.” Little do they know that the majority of black men in large urban areas are under the control of the criminal justice system or branded felons for life, largely due to a drug war that has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color. Perhaps if more people around the world knew that our nation has effectively re-created a racial caste system by waging a racist drug war, our government would be forced, once again, to reckon with deeply disturbing racial realities. International mechanisms will be useful, though, only to the extent they result in public debate and dialogue around the world. The U.S. government typically doesn’t care what international courts have to say about domestic human rights issues, and neither does the U.S. media.
Q4 How well do you think the wider drug policy reform movement has tackled the issue of mass incarceration?
The leadership of the drug policy reform movement has been overwhelmingly white and reluctant to acknowledge that the drug war, at its core, is about race. I am most encouraged by the work of the Drug Policy Alliance, but they, too, have their limitations. The reality is that the drug war, and mass incarceration as we know it, would not exist but for the racial divisions that inspired the “get tough” movement. We will not end the drug war, and we will not put an end to our nation’s habit of using drug laws to scapegoat racially defined groups, until we acknowledge and heal those racial divisions. There’s no way around it. Nevertheless, I’m frequently told that “ending racism” is too lofty a goal, and that it’s more pragmatic to talk about the virtues of drug treatment over incarceration. That argument might make more sense if the goal of the drug war was ending drug abuse. But that’s never been the primary goal of the war. This war was not declared to deal with drug crime; it was declared to deal with black people. So if you want to end the drug war, and if you want a more compassionate approach to drug use, you’re going to have to deal with our nation’s attitudes toward black people who aren’t Barack Obama.
Q5 What role do you think the stigma of drug use has played in preventing African –American communities from mobilising politically to fight mass incarceration?
It’s the stigma of drug crime - not drug use - that poses a major barrier to effective political action to defeat the New Jim Crow. Imprisonment is considered so shameful that many people avoid talking about it, even within their own families. Even in poor black neighborhoods where nearly every home has a family member currently behind bars or recently released from prison, there’s a reluctance to talk openly about one’s criminal history or that of loved ones. Although there is widespread acknowledgment in ghetto communities that the drug war is racist, there remains a lingering feeling that “criminals” are ultimately to blame; they have done wrong and so it’s their fault they can’t find employment or housing. It’s their fault they are cycling in and out of prison. The pervasive sense that drug offenders have done wrong and have brought shame and trouble upon themselves and their families, sometimes leads family members to turn against each other and frequently leads to political paralysis in the very communities hardest hit. The mother of one incarcerated teenager put it this way: “All of your life you been taught that you’re not a worthy person, or something is wrong with you. So you don’t have no respect for yourself. See, people of color have - not all of them, but a lot of them - have poor self-esteem because we’ve been branded. We hate ourselves, you know. We have been programmed that it’s something that’s wrong with us. . . . It’s hard, because, we’ve been labeled all our lives that we are the bad people.”
The belief that “we are the bad people” creates a profound silence about this system of control, and makes collective political action next to impossible. This book was an effort to break that silence.
Q6 How do you interpret the contrast between the widespread access to medical marijuana and prescription drugs for those that can pay and the harsh punishments for those who cannot access drugs via private medicine?
I think it’s fairly obvious that this drug war has little or nothing to do with ending the problems associated with the abuse of dangerous drugs. One commentator observed the war should be entitled the “War on Some Drugs.” I would argue that the war would be better described as the “War on Some People.” If you are relatively privileged, and have good access to health coverage , you may be prescribed a wide range of prescription drugs that will relieve anxiety, depression, insomnia, and nearly every other problematic emotional condition. And if you become addicted to any of those drugs, you will have access to drug treatment. The odds of you being subjected to stops, frisks, or sweeps of your home for suspected drug abuse are nil. Even if you begin selling those prescription drugs illegally to your friends and neighbors, it is highly unlikely that you will have any contact with law enforcement. But if you are poor and addicted to drugs, you will likely be subjected to police surveillance, put in a cage, and then relegated to a lifetime of discrimination, scorn and social exclusion. If we actually cared about the harms caused to people who are addicted to dangerous drugs, we would provide treatment, not cages, and support - not discrimination and scorn. Because we don’t actually care much what happens to “those people” -- people living in ghettos -- we put them in cages for extremely minor drug offenses and we imagine they need harsh treatment, not care, compassion and concern.