07/25/10 - Michelle Alexander

Century of Lies

Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow - Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness"

Audio file


Century of Lies July 27, 2010

The failure of Drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors and millions more. Now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century of Lies.



(singing) Pfizer and Merck kill more of us
Than the Cartel’s crap ever could
They thank us for silence
Each year’s $100 Billion
And the chance to do it evermore
Drugs, the first Eternal War

Welcome to this edition of Century of Lies. I am really proud to have with us as our guest today, Michelle Alexander. She’s written a great new book, each and every one of you needs to read, please. The New Jim Crow - Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and if she’ll allow me to just to briefly read from her book, before we bring her on air.

“Our current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions but it functions more, like a caste system than a system of crime control.”

“Viewed from this perspective, the so-called ‘underclass’ is better understood as an ‘undercaste’ a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society. Although this new system of racialized social control, purports to be colorblind it creates and maintains racial hierarchy much as earlier systems of control did.”

“Like ‘Jim Crow’ and slavery, mass incarceration operates as a tightly controlled system of laws, policies, customs and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race”.

With that, I want to welcome Michelle Alexander. Are you with us?

Michelle Alexander: Yes, thank you so much for having me.

Dean Becker: Michelle, I want to thank you for this book. This should be an eye opener for a lot of people. I wish every politician in America had a chance to read it. It is a great piece of work, I thank you.

Michelle Alexander: Well, thank you. Thank you so much.

Dean Becker: Michelle, this book has cost you, many months, man-years, if you will, to produce, has it not?

Michelle Alexander: Yes. It took me quite a while to write but I’m thankful it’s done.

Dean Becker: Well, you know there are so many tangent points, so many ways that this Drug War impacts on our society. As you indicate here, it has caused America to become the world’s leading jailer. Tell us about the escalation of the prison building era and how this came about.

Michelle Alexander: Yes, you know, within a relatively short period of time, we went from a prison population of 300,000 to now, nearly 2,500,000 in basically just a few decades. Our prison population quintupled. Not doubled or tripled – quintupled!

This exponential increase in the size of our prison system was not due to crime rates, as is so often believed and is told to us frequently by politicians and media pundits. Rather than crime rates, the explosion of our prison population has been due, largely to the Drug War.

A war that has been waged largely in poor communities of color, even though studies have now shown, for decades, that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites. People of all races and ethnicities use and sell legal and illegal drugs in the United States.

It has been primarily and overwhelmingly poor people of color in the United States who have been stopped, searched, arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses. Once you’re branded a drug felon, you’re relegated to a permanent second-class status. Once labeled a felon, you may be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.

So many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the “Jim Crow” era are suddenly legal again, once you’ve been branded a felon. It’s the Drug War primarily, that is responsible for the return of millions of African Americans to a permanent second-class status, analogous in many ways to “Jim Crow”.

Dean Becker: The thing that strikes me right between the eyes from this book is that we have walked away from our amendments. We have walked away from what was prior, valid and useful law that the Supreme Court and other courts are determined, though they say there is not one that in effect, there is a Drug War exception to the Constitution, which allows all of this to unfold. Your thoughts on that please.

Michelle Alexander: Yes, well, I devote a whole chapter in the book to the shredding of the Fourth Amendment in the Drug War. Once upon a time, it used to be he case that law enforcement officials had to have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and a reasonable belief that someone was actually dangerous before they could stop them or frisk them on the street, on the sidewalk or stop and search their car.

Today, thanks to a series of decisions by the US Supreme Court. as long as police can “get” consent from an individual, they can stop and search them for any reason or no reason at all. Giving the police license to fan out into neighborhoods and stop and search just about anyone, anywhere.

Consent is a very easy thing to obtain. If a law enforcement officer approaches you with his hand on his gun and says, “May I search your bag? Will you put your hands up in the air and turn around so I may search you?” and you comply, that’s interpreted as consent.

But of course, it’s precisely that kind of discriminatory and arbitrary police action that lead the framers of the Constitution to adopt the Fourth Amendment prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures.

Today, law enforcement feels free to stop and search just about anyone, anywhere they please and they know very well that almost no one will refuse consent to a search especially in a poor communities of color where people have been trained and disciplined that resisting police authority can lead to violence.

Dean Becker: We are speaking with Michelle Alexander she’s author of a great new book that I highly recommend, The New Jim Crow - Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle, I want to read a portion of a page here:

“With no means to pay off their debts back in the ‘Jim Crow’ days, prisoners were sold as forced labor to lumber camps to brick yards, railroads, etc. Death rates were shockingly high, for the contractors had no interest in the health or well being of their laborers”.

We have a very similar situation that has developed in America now where people work for pennies on the dollar. Thus earning great profits for prison guards unions and others that are in effect “contractors” here. Your thoughts on that. please.

Michelle Alexander: Well, yes, you know, a number of things. First, many people have no conception of how extraordinarily difficult it is for people once they are released for prison to “reintegrate” into mainstream society.

Not only may they be denied the right to vote and not only are they ineligible for jury service for the rest of their lives and if they’ve been branded a felon but employment discrimination is perfectly legal against them.

Every time they’ve got that employment application, you got to check that box, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” It doesn’t matter if that felony happened last week or thirty-five years ago, for the rest of your life you have to check that box. Knowing full well that the odds are that application is going in the trash once that box has been checked.

Housing discrimination is perfectly legal against those branded felons. Public housing is off limits to people released from prison for a minimum of five years and regulations encourage public housing agencies to discriminate against formerly incarcerated people for the rest of their lives.

Even food stamps are off limits to people who have been convicted of drug felonies. People with HIV/AIDS and pregnant woman, aren’t even entitled to food stamps for the rest of their lives, no matter how sick or hungry they may be.

The kicker here is that people released from prison are often saddled with thousands, hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs and accumulated back child support. You know, in some states, a growing number of states you’re expected to pay back the cost of your imprisonment once you’re released.

Up to 100% of your wages can be garnished to pay back all of these fees, fines and accumulated back child support. You know back in the days of convict leasing, there was a system where African Americans were arrested for minor offenses, like loitering. They were arrested, imprisoned and then leased back to plantations where they were forced to work for little or no pay.

Well, you know today, we have a similar system where African Americans are arrested for extremely minor nonviolent, drug related offenses. Arrested en masse and sent to prison where they are often forced to work for little or no pay for either private companies or their imprisonment itself.

It enriches prison guard unions and private prison companies and then once they’re released. If they’re lucky enough to get a job 100% of their wages can be garnished, resulting in what? Them unable to survive, to make it a legal economy and they are returned to right back to prison.

In fact about 70% of people released from prison return within three years and a majority of those who return, do so in a matter of months because the challenges associated with mere survival after being branded a felon are so immense.

Dean Becker: Michelle, you know it used to be America was the Land of Second Chances, that a person could always start again, perhaps, prosper, but you’re right.

It has been stacked very definitely against the potential of making that second chance, especially for those convicted of drug crimes, that as you say, have to jump through so many hoops, pay so many fees and yet they just can’t seem to prosper. That black market is always out there, enticing people to come back to work for them, is it not?

Michelle Alexander: Yes, absolutely, you know that’s the thing. Many people say, “Well, people who commit drug offenses, particularly those who sell drugs, well they’re making a choice to violate the law and so they deserve whatever they get.”

Well, first of all, most of us, most people in the Untied States, you know I’d venture to say mostly all, have violated the law at some point in their lives. Most of us have broken the law, either by experimenting with illegal drugs, using illegal drugs at some point in our lives or have violated a law by speeding on the freeway, which certainly posses more risk to human life and potential harm than smoking marijuana in the privacy of one’s home.

All of us have broken the law, all of us have made mistakes but it’s poor folks of color primarily, who are asked to basically forfeit their lives for the youthful mistakes or indiscretions, mistakes of judgment that they make relatively minor, non-violent drug offences.

It’s youth of color in these inner city schools that have their school swept for drugs and have drug sniffing dogs brought to sniff all their schools’ lockers. They are stopped and frisked while waiting for the school buses. This Drug War has resulted in branding of young people before they even have the opportunity to reach a voting age as criminals and felons for engaging in precisely the same kind of illegal drug activity that is largely ignored on college campuses, universities and middle class white communities.

So, back during the “Jim Crow” era, you know, literacy tests and poll taxes were facially race neutral. Poll taxes and literacy tests operated to keep African Americans away from the polls. On their face, they appeared race neutral. They said nothing about race, but the laws were forced in such a racially discriminatory manner that they operated to create a caste system.

Well, the same is much true with drug laws in the United States today. On their face, they appear race neutral but the way they’re enforced is so grossly discriminatory. In fact, in some states, African Americans have constituted 80-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison. Even though we know that people of color aren’t any more likely to violate our nation’s drug laws.

Dean Becker: We are speaking to Michelle Alexander author of The New Jim Crow. Michelle, I think it’s Illinois but isn’t there one of the states where your chances of going to prison is about fifty times more likely because of these drug laws?

Michelle Alexander: Yes, absolutely. You know, in the Chicago, in the Chaicago area, nearly 80% of working age African American men, if you include all of those behind prison – behind bars, because of course prisons are excluded from poverty statistics and unemployment data.

If you count the prison part of the population, nearly 80% of working age African American men in the Chicago area have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.

These men, this group is part of a growing racial “undercaste” not class but “caste”, a group of people defined largely by race that are relegated to a permanent second-class status by law and custom. You know that’s why I say we have not ended racial castes in America we’ve merely redesigned it through facially race neutral drug laws, that are forced in a racially discriminatory manner and through a whole host of laws that deny basic civil and human rights to people branded felons.

We’ve managed to effectively to create a caste system even in the age of Obama. You know, that’s the great irony. People say, “How can there be a racial castee system today when we’ve just elected Barak Obama, our nation’s first African American President?” but the reality is that every caste system in the United States has had Black Exceptionalism.

During slavery, there were some black slave owners. During “Jim Crow” there were some black lawyers, some black doctors and some black success stories. There are far more black success stories today, yet the reality is that there are actually more African Americans under correctional control today, in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved.

In 1850, a decade before the Civil War began, if we’re going to talk about the sheer scale of this system and not just those who have escaped it and proven to be exceptions to the rule, if you talk about sheer scale of the system, it is destroying and devastating more lives of African Americans today then slavery did at it’s peak.

Dean Becker: Alright, Michelle Alexander, I want to read some information I got from Jack Cole, the Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Please bear with me. This is from the International of Use of Incarceration, produced by the Sentencing Project:

“Under the most racist regime in modern history, South Africa’s Apartheid Law, 851 black men were imprisoned per 100,000 population, that’s 851.

In 2008, under the United States Drug Prohibition Law, we imprison males 18 years old and above per 100,000 population, at 943 for white men.”

So already, we’re imprisoning more than South Africa at 851.

“Hispanic men, 2770 and black men, 6664 per 100,000. That’s seven or eight times more than did South Africa under Apartheid.” Your response, Michelle Alexander?

Michelle Alexander: Yes, well, that’s absolutely correct. You know, we are incarcerating more African Americans at a higher rate than South Africa did in the heart of Apartheid. We have higher incarceration rates than any other country in the world, including the most repressive regimes in the world.

The excuse that’s often given, of course, is violent crime and particularly violent drug related crime. You know, I am often told, “Oh, the reason that the Drug War is being fought in those poor communities of color is because that’s were the violent offenders are can be found. That’s why the Drug War is focused there.”

Well, nothing could be further from the truth. The Drug War has never been aimed primarily for rooting out violent offenders or drug kingpins. Federal funding flows to those state and federal law enforcement agencies that boost dramatically, the volume, the sheer number of drug arrests.

They’re not rewarded for bringing down the drug kingpins or the most violent offenders so law enforcement agencies have a financial incentive to round up as many people as possible and cast the net as widely as possible in poor communities of color, where these stop and frisk tactics are feasible, you know they can’t get away with that kind of stuff in middle class white communities or on college campuses.

It’s feasible in poor communities of color to stop and search and arrest en masse people for extremely minor, nonviolent and drug related offenses. It’s also the case that this Drug War was not raised in response to violent drug crime. Many people think that the Drug War was announced in reaction to the emergence of crack cocaine in inner city communities and it’s just not true.

President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current Drug War in 1982, a few years before crack first hit the streets in Los Angeles and later spread to communities of color across America. The Drug War was declared in response to racial politics, not drug crime.

It was part of the effort of conservative whites, particularly in the South to appeal to the racial resentment and the racial anxiety of poor and working class Whites particularly in the South who were anxious about, quite understandably, anxious about desegregation, busing, affirmative action and many of the gains of the civil rights movement.

Pollsters and political strategists found that they could appeal to those voters and get them to defect from the Democratic Party and join the Republication Party by using racially coded “get tough” appeals on issues of crime and welfare.

Dean Becker: The Southern Strategy.

Michelle Alexander: Absolutely, the Southern Strategy. In the words of H.R. Holderman, President Richard Nixon’s former Chief of Staff, he said explicitly, “The whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to divide the system that recognizes this and while not appearing to.”

Well, they certainly succeeded. With the Drug War, they were able to effectively recreate a caste system that locks millions of African Americans in a status not unlike the one they thought they left behind.

Dean Becker: Speaking of Presidents, it wasn’t just Nixon or Reagan, the last three Presidents are known to have smoked: Clinton, Bush and Barack Obama, even admitted to using cocaine but the mask seems to come off once they take that oath. Reading from you book here:

“One strike and you’re out initiative, Clinton explained that from now on the rule for residents who commit crimes and peddle drugs should be one strike and you’re out.” Not very forgiving considering their history, right?

Michelle Alexander: Absolutely, you know you would think, given the drug use of President Clinton and President Obama, that given their own drug use, their own criminal history really, that they would have a more forgiving and understanding attitude toward those who are cycling in and out of prisons for relatively minor drug crimes.

You know, the perception many people have is that most people who are in prison doing time for drug offenses are doing time for serious drug crimes. Not the case! In 2005, for example, 4 out of 5 drug arrests were for simple possession, only 1 out of 5 were for sales. Most people in state prison for drug offenses in the United States have no history of violence or significant selling activity.

In the 1990’s, you know the Clinton era, where the Drug War has escalated far beyond what the Republicans even dreamed possible. You know in the 1990’s, nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and equally, if not more prevalent, in middle class white communities and on college campuses as it is in the Hood.

The Drug War has been waged almost exclusively in the Hood, resulting in young kids being transferred from their decrepit inner-city schools to high tech new prisons and often cycling in and out of those prisons for the rest of their lives.

Dean Becker: We’re speaking with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow - Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle, I live in Houston and in many ways we lead the world in our incarceration rate here and again it is young Blacks and Hispanics, caught with minor, sometime microscopic amounts of drugs who wind up caught in that snare so to speak.

As you indicted earlier, that they do not focus these efforts in the white communities. I’ve heard it said that if they did wage the war in the white communities that like they did in the black communities that this Drug War would have been over a long time ago.

My question to you Michelle is, why does not the black community of Houston and other cities focus more on this problem, on the reality of this situation and work to help bring it to an end. Your thoughts.

Michelle Alexander: Well, it’s a good question. It’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. I wrote the book in large part, because I was so alarmed by the failure of the civil rights community to prioritize the War of Drugs and the mass incarceration of poor people of color in the United States you would think that given the sheer scale of the Drug War and of mass incarceration and its impact in the black community, that it would be the number one priority of every civil rights organization in the country.

The African American political leadership should be outspoken, calling for an end to the Drug War but instead, you know, there’s been a relative quiet. Happily, the NAACP in recent years, under new leadership, has become more vocal and aggressive and calling for an end to mass incarceration, but there has been an eerie quiet.

Now why? Well, I think there are many reasons for it, not at least of which is the fact that one of the primary strategies that racial justice advocates have used, really for centuries, since the days of slavery, has been to try to identify with those African Americans who defy racial stereotypes and try to attract public attention to them. You know, people like Rosa Parks.

Try to identify with those individuals who defy prevailing racial stereotypes and hold them up as examples of why the prevailing caste system, the prevailing system of discrimination is unfair and unjust and should be eradicated but today, where the prevailing system of control criminalizes the black community, that strategy of distancing yourself from kind of the “worst” elements of your community and trying to shine a light on those who are the most noble within the community doesn’t work so well.

So there’s been a reflexive tendency in the African American community to try not to draw public attention to those within the community, you know, that have gotten into trouble or who might look bad and so the plight of those cycling in and out of the criminal justice system unfortunately haven’t been a top priority but issues like Affirmative Action have topped the list. Efforts like, struggling African American students to get into the best high schools and colleges have been a higher priority.

As civil rights organizations have agonized over Affirmative Action, millions, millions of people of color have been rounded up, branded felons and relegated to a permanent second-class status.

Dean Becker: Michelle we’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much, here’s hoping you will come back and join us again soon.

Michelle Alexander: Oh, thanks you so much.

Dean Becker: I highly recommend the book, my friends, it is The New Jim Crow - Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

As always, I remind you that there is no logic to this Drug War. You’ve got to do your part. Help bring it to an end. Please visit our website: endprohibition.org

Prohibido istac evilesco!


For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker. Asking you to examine our policy of Drug Prohibition.

The Century of Lies.

Drug Truth Network programs, archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Policy Studies.

Transcript provided by: Ayn Morgan of www.eigengraupress.com