JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama’s election a year and a half ago continues to be lauded for ushering in a new era of colorblindness. The very fact of his presidency is regarded by some as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow. Yet, today there are more African Americans under correctional control, whether in prison or jail, on probation or on parole, than there were enslaved in 1850. And more African American men are disenfranchised now because of felon disenfranchisement laws than in 1870.
A new book by legal scholar and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander argues that although Jim Crow laws have been eliminated, the racial caste system it set up was not eradicated. It’s simply been redesigned, and now racial control functions through the criminal justice system.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now from Columbus, Ohio by Michelle Alexander, author of the new book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Her latest article exploring how the war on drugs gave birth to what she calls a permanent American undercaste is available at tomdispatch.com. She’s a former director of the Racial Justice
Project at the ACLU of Northern California. She now holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.
Michelle Alexander, welcome to Democracy Now! Nearly half of America’s young black men are behind bars or have been labeled felons for life? That’s an astounding figure. Also, what does it mean in terms of their rights for the rest of their lives?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, thanks largely to the war on drugs, a war that has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies have consistently shown that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites. The war on drugs waged in these ghetto communities has managed to brand as felons millions of people of color for relatively minor, nonviolent drug offenses. And once branded a felon, they’re ushered into a permanent second-class status, not unlike the one we supposedly left behind. Those labeled felons may be denied the right to vote, are automatically excluded from juries, and my be legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, public benefits, much like their grandparents or great grandparents may have been discriminated against during the Jim Crow era.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you mention that the—in the war on drugs, four out of five people arrested have actually been arrested for use of drugs, not for—or possession or use of drugs, not for the sale of drugs. Could you talk about how the—both political parties joined in this increasing incarceration around drug use?
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: That’s right. The war on drugs, contrary to popular belief, was not declared in response to rising drug crime. Actually, the war on drugs, the current drug war, was declared in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan at a time when drug crime was actually on the decline. A few years later, crack cocaine hit the streets in poor communities of color across America, and the Reagan administration hired staff to publicize crack babies, crack mothers, crack dealers in inner-city communities, in an effort to build public support and more funding, and ensure more funding, for the new war that had been declared. But the drug war had relatively little to do with drug crime, even from the outset.
The drug war was launched in response to racial politics, not drug crime. The drug war was part of the Republican Party’s grand strategy, often referred to as the Southern strategy, an effort to appear—appeal to poor and working-class white voters who were threatened by, felt vulnerable, threatened by the gains of the civil rights movement, particularly desegregation, busing and affirmative action. And the Republican Party found that it could get Democrats—white, you know, working-class poor Democrats—to defect from the Democratic New Deal coalition and join the Republican Party through racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare.
And the strategy worked like a charm. You know, within weeks of the Reagan administration’s publicity campaign around crack cocaine, you know, images of black crack users and crack dealers flooded, you know, our nation’s television sets and forever changed our nation’s conception of who drug users and dealers are. And law enforcement efforts became targeted on poor communities of color in the drug war. And drug law enforcement agencies, state and local law enforcement task forces committed to drug law enforcement, have been rewarded for drastically increasing the volume of drug arrests. Federal funding flows to state and local law enforcement that boost the volume of drug arrests, the sheer numbers.
Many people think the drug war, you know, has been targeted at violent offenders or aimed at rooting out drug kingpins, but nothing could be further from the truth. Local and state law enforcement agencies get rewarded for the sheer numbers of drug arrests. And federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement officials to keep 80 percent of the cash, cars, homes that they seize from suspected drug offenders, granting to law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability and longevity in the drug war.
And the results have been predictable. Millions of poor people of color have been rounded up for relatively minor nonviolent drug offenses. In fact, in 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession. Only one out of five were for sales. Most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity. And during the 1990s, the period of the greatest expansion of the drug war, nearly 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests were for marijuana possession, a drug now widely believed to be less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class and suburban white communities as it is in the ghetto.
AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Alexander—
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: President Clinton—
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, I just wanted to bring it up to President Obama, because this piece you wrote, very interesting, at tomdispatch.com called “The Age of Obama as Racial Nightmare.” Explain.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, well, you know, today, people around the globe, people of color in particular, have been celebrating the election of Barack Obama as kind of our nation’s triumph over race and the history of racial caste in America. Yet, the appearance of racial equality, the superficial appearance of racial equality that Barack Obama’s election has afforded, serves to mask a deeply disturbing underlying racial reality, which is that large segments, you know, a majority, of African American men in some urban areas, are either under the control of the criminal justice system or branded felons for life, locked in a permanent second-class status.
This vast new racial undercaste—and I say “caste”, not “class,” because this is a population which is locked into an inferior status by law and by policy—this vast population has been rendered largely invisible through affirmative action and the appearance of success with, you know, a handful of African Americans doing well in universities and corporations. The sprinkling of people of color through elite institutions in the United States, due to affirmative action policies and the limited progress of middle-class and upper-middle-class African Americans, creates the illusion of great progress. It helps to mask the underlying racial reality, which is that a racial caste system has been reborn in the United States. Young men of color, in particular, are labeled as felons, labeled as criminals, at very young ages, often before they even reach voting age, before they turn eighteen. Their backpacks are searched. They’re frisked on the way to school, while standing waiting for the school bus to arrive. Once they learn to drive, their cars are searched, often dismantled in a search for drugs. The drug war waged in these poor communities of color has created generations of black and brown people who have been branded felons and relegated to a permanent second-class status for life.
And the reason for their excommunication from our society, our mainstream society, is for engaging in precisely the same kind of drug activity that is largely ignored in middle-class and upper-middle-class white communities. People often say to me, “Well, if people—if, you know, black and brown men don’t want to be labeled felons, well, then they just shouldn’t commit drug crimes.” But, you know, we have known, as a nation, for a long time now that simply prohibiting drug activity does not lead people to stop using illegal drugs. We learned that lesson with alcohol prohibition. Banning the use of alcohol didn’t discourage many people from using or selling alcohol. And people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites. Our stereotype of a drug dealer in the United States is of an African American kid standing on a street corner with his pants hanging down. But the reality is that drug dealing happens everywhere in America. Drug markets in the United States, much like our society generally, is relatively segregated by race. Blacks tend to sell to blacks. Whites tend to sell to whites.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there for the part one of this interview, Michelle Alexander, but we’re going to ask you to stay after for part two, which we’ll play on Democracy Now! Michelle Alexander, her new book is called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.