For anyone who missed Michelle Alexander’s appearance on Fresh Air on Martin Luther King Day, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Read the transcript, or better yet, buy her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
In the interview, and in the book, Michelle Alexander makes the argument, clearly, cogently, and with an abundance of supporting evidence, that the War on Drugs in the United States has been carried out as a de facto war against black people.
A war against freedom
I have argued before on this blog that the War on Drugs is economically unsustainable and Constitutionally illogical; but my focus on the pragmatic “big picture” largely omitted the personal specifics of the effects of these policies on the millions of individuals who get sent to jail every year for nonviolent drug offenses, often simple possession. My coverage of the topic in my book, Principles for a Self-Directed Society, was succinct and to the point:
The war on drugs is a war waged by the government against the freedom and privacy of its own people.
The government breaks up families to imprison nonviolent offenders, often for nothing more than simple possession. Drug laws are often applied more harshly to persons of color.
And so on.
A war to enforce a racial caste system
But Michelle Alexander’s argument is far more specific and detailed than my own. What Alexander makes clear is how the War on Drugs has become the mechanism to enforce a modern-day Jim Crow, with separate and unequal enforcement practices targeted overwhelmingly at the black community, even though the actual rates of drug use are nearly identical in the white community.
She describes systematic and unconstitutional police tactics such as warrantless searches based on no probable cause: just racial profiling, pure and simple.
She describes the effects on the community of millions and millions of these individuals, nonviolent offenders swept up in unconstitutional arrests, as they are incarcerated in for-profit prisons and then branded as felons upon their release. With a criminal felony conviction on their record, they cannot vote, cannot find employment, cannot get credit, cannot even live in low-rent housing, and even if they can find work they often have their wages seized by the state and turned over to the for-profit prisons. What would you do, if you were caught in a situation like that? Well, Jean Valjean, I’ll tell you what you would do: You’d start stealing things, if your only other option was to starve. In this manner, past offenders are effectively forced into recidivism by a system that provides them with no other options.
All of these effects are an absolutely intentional consequence of a racist policy designed to guarantee the political and economic supremacy of the white population in parts of the country that have a sizable black population. The system is designed to keep as many black people as possible locked up in prison for as long as possible, and to force the black community to enrich the coffers of for-profit prisons in the process.
Coded references in politics
It’s no longer permissible for white politicians to openly speak in racist terms when they campaign for public office; so they coach their meaning in coded phrases, and everyone within their target demographic understands precisely what is being said.
“Getting tough on drugs” is code for keeping black people in prison.
“Preventing voter fraud” is code for preventing black people from voting.
The war on Democracy
Of course, all the recent initiatives to require photo ID for voting will not only affect black people: they also affect lower-class whites and Hispanics. Still, the true purpose of these initiatives could not be more clear: the people in power are trying to retain their power by preventing the poorest people from having access to the political system. Who has a photo ID? People who own cars. Who does not own a car? The very poor, the very young, and the very old: demographics that largely tend to support public education, public health care, and progressive tax policies. Prevent these groups from voting, and you can effectively own the system, without the nuisance of having to persuade a majority of the actual population to agree with you.
What, you think I’m being cynical? Well, then you clearly haven’t been following the Republican presidential campaign; which seems unlikely, as no media channel has talked about practically anything else for months. If it could be possible for anyone to doubt that I am correct in my interpretation, then just let the candidates speak for themselves.
First, the racist Southern conservative, Newt Gingrich. Gingrich made it abundantly clear that the purpose of requiring photo ID for voting, is to prevent liberals from voting. He said so quite clearly in a campaign speech in South Carolina on Friday, January 13, 2012:
If the only people who vote in elections are law-abiding, hardworking citizens who are deeply committed to America, the left wing of the Democratic Party will cease to exist.
“Deeply committed to America” of course is once again code for “agree with everything I say.” The purpose of Gingrich’s rhetoric is, obviously, to argue that people who disagree with him should be explicitly excluded from the system. That’s democracy, Southern style!
Racist stereotypes and ultra-nationalists
The Republicans competing for the hardline conservative vote have been doing so by appealing to the anti-black-people sentiments of their base. They are trying to build themselves up by demonizing a racial minority, a disgusting but often successful tactic employed by ultra-nationalists around the world throughout modern history.
Ron Paul, in literature from 1990 made available by The New Republic, argued that:
we are headed for a race war—public insurrections that will make the 1960s look mild, with many Americans injured or killed… the problem is much deeper, and it was created by welfare programs, quota systems, and government interference in just about everything we do, plus the victimization mentality created by the civil rights movement, where every black failure is a white crime.
Confronted with this quote, Ron Paul’s reply was something along the lines of, “I don’t know how you could possibly think I would say something like that.” Then he went and said something else just like that, in a South Carolina campaign speech on Tuesday, January 17, 2012, when he argued that states should have the right to ignore Federal laws that they don’t like: laws such as the Voting Rights Act, for example; or perhaps the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
“Well, Ron Paul is a nutcase,” you say, and quite right you are: not even the extremists of the far right would ever support his bid for the presidency.
But a majority of the right wing did vote for Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucuses (yes, there was a recount, and Romney lost, for you non-political-junkies who fail to keep up with these things). In a campaign appearance in Sioux City, Iowa on Sunday, January 1, 2012, Santorum told the audience that, in his words,
I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.
This type of racial demonizing encourages the listening audience to blame a minority for the entire country’s problems. Yet rather than chastise Santorum for his racism, the other candidates rushed to take up the theme.
If the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.
Again, this is pure racial demonizing, and the stereotype perpetuated by Gingrich is not based on a shred of fact. As many have pointed out in response to Gingrich’s offensive remarks, by far the majority of food stamp recipients are in fact white people. The data is freely available from the United States Census Bureau, and you are welcome to look it up.
Unfortunately, the Census website is set up in such a way that I cannot provide a direct link to the search results for the term “food stamps”; and while the data available on the FactFinder website is exhaustive, the system is quite slow. So, for your convenience, I have downloaded a set of data from the Census Bureau related to food stamp recipients by racial demographic, and posted them here. Again, don’t take my word for it: please feel free to look up this data for yourself, and conduct your own custom search.
The Census Bureau data shows quite clearly that 61.0% of food stamp recipients are white, while just 26.4% of food stamp recipients are black. The myth perpetuated by Santorum, Gingrich, and their ilk is pure racist hate-mongering, designed to win them the support of the lowest common denominator.
The racists will not win
America is better than this.
America, I believe in you. I believe that the American people are deeply devoted to the ideals of freedom, justice, and political equality. I believe that America will not tolerate this kind of racist demonizing from the people who wish to win the Presidency. I believe that America will show them the door. Come on, America! You can do it.