Summary: A work of consciousness-raising with the visceral impact of a gut punch. One of the rare books that will transform the way you understand politics in America.
I’ve always been an advocate of legalizing recreational drug use. The drug war is stupidity, wastefulness and futility on a colossal scale, and the results speak for themselves: prisons crammed with hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug users, prohibitionist policies that ensure drug profits fuel criminal gangs rather than legitimate businesses, and police forces that employ ever more aggressive and draconian tactics in a futile attempt to stem the flow of a product for which there’s enormous demand.
But the missing piece of the puzzle, in my mind, has always been why there’s so much political support for the drug war. Who benefits from criminalizing harmless euphoriants? Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow answers that question definitively, in a monumental work of consciousness-raising. It’s the very rare kind of book that makes you almost feel your brain rewiring itself as you read it.
Alexander’s thesis is that America’s history can be understood as a cyclical struggle between social-justice advocates who want the races to be equal, and those who want to perpetuate a racial caste system that assigns people of color to a permanently inferior status. When the advocates of caste are in power, they create systems of racial control that perpetuate inequality through discriminatory law. Each of these systems reigns for a time, but inevitably the injustice is recognized, and mass movements arise to fight back against them. Finally, advocates of social justice succeed in overthrowing the current system of racial control. But inevitably, the other side regroups and creates a new system to take the place of the old one, using different language and justifications to achieve much the same result.
Alexander’s book makes the case that the War on Drugs is the latest incarnation of this racial caste system. This may seem like conspiratorial thinking, but she backs it up with a wealth of evidence, a consilience of facts that all point to the same conclusion.
She begins by surveying the historical parallels. At the country’s inauguration, racial control was achieved through slavery. It took a civil war to abolish that institution, and when it did, the racists were in retreat for a time. But then they regrouped and reestablished the old racial hierarchy through Jim Crow laws, a comprehensive system of segregation which consigned black people to a separate and lower status in every sphere of life. Again, it took several decades and a mass popular movement, but this system too was eventually overthrown.
The collapse of Jim Crow threw the segregationists back on their heels, but once again they regrouped. The drug war as we now know it began in the second half of the 20th century, as “law and order” arguments that Southern politicians originally used to justify cracking down on civil-rights protesters were put to a new purpose: stirring up racialized fears of mob violence and social breakdown brought about by black men running amok. The drug war proved to be the most convenient way to encapsulate this racial paranoia.
The sinister genius of the drug war is that, unlike the earlier systems, it’s not explicitly race-based. On their face, the laws against drug use and trafficking apply to everyone regardless of color. But in practice, there’s a huge racial disparity. Although surveys have shown that all ethnic groups use drugs at about the same rate, the drug laws are and always have been enforced overwhelmingly against people of color. Alexander argues persuasively that this isn’t an accident; it was intentional on the part of the people who planned and instituted it.
After several decades, the drug war has become part of the fabric of American politics, assented to by both major parties (including President Obama). Alexander marshals abundant evidence to show that drug-war rhetoric has been employed to oppress people of color in the same way as Jim Crow laws once were. I knew a lot of these facts: the erosion of Fourth Amendment rights in the name of drug interdiction; the horrendous abuse of asset-forfeiture laws; the way that police forces have become increasingly militarized, acting like an occupying army in many poor communities of color; the way mass incarceration has become a fact of life in America, how our prison populations have exploded as we lock up millions of men, far more than any other country, mostly for nonviolent offenses like simple possession. But the genius of Alexander’s book is that she throws them up in the air so they all land in a new pattern, emphasizing the connections among them.
She also cites some facts I didn’t know, including a series of court precedents that make it all but impossible for criminal defendants to allege racism on the part of police or prosecutors as a defense. More importantly, Alexander illuminates the way that social control continues even after convicts are out of prison, via a web of laws that bar them from public assistance like housing or food stamps, that take away their voting rights, that make it legal for employers to discriminate, that control their movements and their associations. She argues that the label of “felon” is the new Jim Crow: a legal stamp of inferiority that bars millions of men of color from full participation in society.
There’s much more in this book, more than I can do justice to in this review. But suffice it to say that Alexander’s argument will comprehensively transform your understanding of American politics. There’s just one thing I thought was missing: I want to see an updated edition of the book to get the author’s take on recent events! The voter-driven legalization of cannabis in Washington and Colorado, or the landslide victory of Bill de Blasio on an anti-stop-and-frisk platform, give me reason to hope that the drug war is beginning to totter. Of course, if her thesis is right, even the total collapse of the drug war would inevitably give rise to attempts to establish a new and different system of racial caste – but perhaps, with this book as a guide, forewarned will mean forearmed next time.