Alexander: Legalization is Not Enough

Michelle Alexander, author of the incredible book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Revised) [ THE NEW JIM CROW: MASS INCARCERATION IN THE AGE OF COLORBLINDNESS (REVISED) BY Alexander, Michelle ( Author ) Jan-16-2012, makes the important point that ending the war on drugs, if it ever happens, will not be nearly enough to end and overcome the legacy of the racist criminal justice system it has created.

“Black men and boys” have been the target of the war on drugs’ racist policies—stopped, frisked and disturbed—“often before they’re old enough to vote,” she said. Those youths are arrested most often for nonviolent first offenses that would go ignored in middle-class white neighborhoods.

“We arrest these kids at young ages, saddle them with criminal records, throw them in cages, and then release them into a parallel social universe in which the very civil and human rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights movement no longer apply to them for the rest of their lives,” she said. “They can be discriminated against [when it comes to] employment, housing, access to education, public benefits. They’re locked into a permanent second-class status for life. And we’ve done this in precisely the communities that were most in need of our support.”…

“That these communities are poor and have failing schools and have broken rules is not because of their personal failings but because we’ve declared war on them,” she said. “We’ve spent billions of dollars building prisons and allowing schools to fail. We’ve decimated these communities by shuttling young people from their underfunded schools to these brand new, high tech prisons. We’ve begun targeting children in these communities at young ages.”

Alexander cautioned that drug policy activists need to keep this disparity in mind and cultivate a conversation about repairing the damages done by the systemic racism of the war on drugs, before cashing in on legalization.

“After waging a brutal war on poor communities of color, a drug war that has decimated families, spread despair and hopelessness through entire communities, and a war that has fanned the flames of the very violence it was supposedly intended to address and control; after pouring billions of dollars into prisons and allowing schools to fail; we’re gonna simply say, we’re done now?” Alexander said. “I think we have to be willing, as we’re talking about legalization, to also start talking about reparations for the war on drugs, how to repair the harm caused.”…

She cautioned that politicians across the political spectrum are “highly motivated” to downsize prisons because the U.S. can no longer afford to maintain a massive prison state without raising taxes “on the predominantly white middle class.” That shortsighted way of thinking fails to recognize the larger societal patterns that keep the U.S. cycling through various “caste-like” systems.

“If we’re going to downsize these prisons and change marijuana laws and all that, in order to save some cash, but in that process to change these laws, we haven’t woken up to the magnitude of the harm that we have done,” she said. “Ultimately, at least from my perspective, this movement to end mass incarceration and this movement to end the drug war is about breaking our nation’s habit of creating caste-like systems in America,” she said. She added that regardless of whether they’re struggling with addiction and drug abuse or have a felony on their record, people deserve to be treated with basic human rights.

“How were we able to permanently lock out of mainstream society tens of millions of people, destroy families?” she said. “If we’re not going to have a real conversation about that and ultimately be willing to care for ‘them,’ the ‘others,’ those ‘ghetto dwellers’ who’ve been demonized in this rush to declare war, we’re going to find ourselves years from now either still having a slightly downsized system of mass incarceration that continues to hum along very well, or we will have managed to downsize our prisons but some new system of racial and social control will have emerged again because we have not yet learned the core lesson that our racial history has been trying to teach us.”

Hear, hear. She points out that in Colorado right now lot and lots of people, the overwhelming majority of them white, are getting rich taking advantage of marijuana legalization. At the same time, huge numbers of people, the overwhelming majority of them black, are still in prison for doing the very same thing that those people are doing.

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  • Wylann

    I really wish the Governors of WA and CO would grant a blanket amnesty to all non-violent drug offenders currently in prison. It won’t happen, but it should.

    Commit the first 3 (5?) years of taxes on pot specifically to rehabilitation and education for those people.

  • qwints

    Some Coloradans are eligible to challenge the convictions, but the state should pro-actively release anyone whose actions wouldn’t be a crime under the current law.

  • maddog1129

    Even without respect to drug laws, no matter who it is or what the crime was, a person with a record is handicapped ever after. There has to be some idea, means, or program to restore people once the sentence has been served. There has to be a way to have special consideration for reintegration in jobs, housing, education, etc. Otherwise, how can someone compete, or restore themselves, with cannon balls tied around their ankles? I don’t know what to propose, but we need to apply some intelligent thought to this problem.

  • corporal klinger

    In a nutshell:

    We can’t enslave you anymore, we can’t call you n****r anymore, we have to pretend to be colorblind and to “respect” you, but we will make your lives a living hell whenever we can as payback.

  • freehand

    As a nation need people to hate. Right wing authoritarians especially would sacrifice their life savings and years of their lives if it can guarantee a class of people that they can despise for being worse off. I long ago figured out that the very rich (mostly) would rather be millionaires in a land of paupers than billionaires in a land of millionaires. You can’t rightly despise millionaires,for their lifestyle, nor buy their daughters.


    But it now also seems clear to me that we would rather be paupers in a land of slaves and outcasts than a prosperous middle class, with no poor at all.

  • marcus

    Colorado resident here, you all are absolutely correct. This has to be the next step in the deconstruction of the “War” on Drugs Brown-skinned poor people. Don’t fault the new entrepreneurs…yet. Hopefully we are all just getting started. Ms Alexander continues to be a voice of reason and inspiration.

  • pocketnerd

    It’s important to remember the War On (Some) Drugs didn’t somehow end up at racism — it started there. Many years ago I worked with anti-drug law enforcement, and many of the veteran cops who had been in it since the 1970s were quite open about their racism. For example, a lot of the oldsters still called marijuana “n***** weed.” Most of them were also comfortable with selective enforcement; more than once I heard the assertion that white people used drugs only within their financial means, while black people who used drugs must naturally be committing robbery, murder, and welfare fraud to pay for their habits. Because “you know how Those People are.”

  • Alexander cautioned that drug policy activists need to keep this disparity in mind and cultivate a conversation about repairing the damages done by the systemic racism of the war on drugs, before cashing in on legalization.

    Yeah, I’m sure the anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-regulation, anti-social-welfare libertarians who so consistently support legalization of all drugs, no matter how harmful, will be totally receptive to that message.