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News (Media Awareness Project) - US KY: OPED: War on Drugs Racist: Mass Incarceration and the
Title:US KY: OPED: War on Drugs Racist: Mass Incarceration and the
Published On:2011-11-20
Source:Courier-Journal, The (Louisville, KY)
Fetched On:2011-11-22 06:01:18

Last year, I wrote a grant proposal on behalf of three organizations
seeking a total of about $300,000 from the Bureau of Justice
Assistance to fund a mentoring program for ex-offenders re-entering
the community.

BJA was one of two offices administering Second Chance Act Grants,
funding meant to help nonprofit organizations implement programs that
would "improve re-entry planning and implementation," the purpose of
the Second Chance Act of 2007.

After reading Dr. Michelle Alexander's book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass
Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," and hearing her keynote
address at the Anne Braden Institute's memorial lecture last week, I
feel like the grant was a sham and a glaring example of the
government waste we hear is so prevalent.

I feel this way because, according to Dr. Alexander, the executive,
legislative and judicial branches of government have structured our
criminal justice system so as to guarantee a vicious cycle of
imprisonment and recidivism, especially among the people targeted in
the War on Drugs.

The target is poor people of color.

To paraphrase Dr. Alexander's thesis, mass incarceration has
relegated millions of black and brown people in America to legalized
second-class citizenship, creating a caste system that is the moral
equivalent of Jim Crow. Rather than rely on race to strip away civil
rights gains, our government and our society in general label people
of color "criminals" and continue the practices civil rights
legislation was supposed to abolish, including discrimination in
employment, education and housing and denial of the rights to vote,
to serve on juries and to receive governmental assistance.

Keep these four points from Dr. Alexander's book in: 1) The U.S.
prison population has quintupled since 1970. 2) Mass incarceration is
a direct result of the War on Drugs. 3) The War on Drugs has been
waged almost exclusively in communities of color, despite research
that consistently shows all races use and/or sell illegal drugs at
equal rates, except among youth.

In that case, black youth are less likely than white youth to use or
sell illegal drugs. 4) The role of personal responsibility
notwithstanding, mass incarceration is wrong, its seizure of
liberties is un-American, and it must end.

Mass incarceration has decimated millions of families and entire
communities. While that saddens me, the legislative and judicial role
in the imprisonment explosion angers me. Through grant programs and
asset allocation legislation, the federal government incentivizes
local police departments to continue practices that are 99 percent
ineffective at stopping drug possession, sales, use or crime.

The U.S. Supreme Court has forced citizens to surrender their 4th
Amendment rights and has made it impossible to file a lawsuit against
a police department or prosecutor based on racial discrimination. The
War on Drugs is well-funded and the U.S. Supreme Court has pre-empted
challenges to its enforcement. The system is so thorough it keeps
privatized, publicly traded prisons that employ some 700,000 people
in business.

And to complicate life forever, or to ensure permanent second-class
status, the government often prevents parolees and ex-offenders from
obtaining the very stability needed to successfully reintegrate into
life on the outside.

They do so through legislation that opens all criminals and
ex-offenders, no matter the nature of their crime, to employment
discrimination and bars them from many professional licenses and from
governmental housing, educational funding and even food assistance.

As I read Dr. Alexander's book, I thought of a number of small ways
to combat the War on Drugs and its effects.

Get the American Civil Liberties Union into classrooms to teach the
youth targeted in the War on Drugs their rights.

Build mixed income housing so that a war waged on poor people
directly affects people of all incomes, who won't tolerate invasive
tactics in their neighborhoods. Invest in the education,
infrastructure and job training needed in poor communities to
eliminate the violent crime that the War on Drugs doesn't.

But I think the most effective way to stop mass incarceration in the
near future is to page Dr. Paul and Dr. Paul. That is, cut mass
incarceration's monetary supply and raise awareness about the
government's unchecked power in the War on Drugs.

Kentucky's own junior U.S. Senator, Dr. Rand Paul, and his father,
Dr. Ron Paul, R-Texas, both claim to want a smaller, less intrusive
government. (The elder Dr. Paul wants to legalize marijuana, an
obvious necessity to ending the War on Drugs.) If that's true, they
have to oppose tax dollars funding a practice that is rendering
millions of people unemployable and labeling them useless at a time
when America can't afford to forfeit anyone's potential.

The people unwilling to consider raising taxes on the "One Percent"
to balance the budget should consider not rewarding law enforcement
for using expensive and largely ineffective tactics in the War on
Drugs. Representatives who fear large government erodes freedom
should be appalled at warrantless car sweeps and at mandatory
sentencing. And instead of giving away millions of dollars each year
to different organizations to do what Congress and the US Supreme
Court have made it impossible to do, why not just eliminate the laws
that bar ex-offenders from fully participating in the economy?

Given the state of the economy and record-low approval ratings of
Congress and the President, declaring the War on Drugs a national
economic catastrophe and a failure of big government might be the
best approach to ending it.

According to Alexander, however, this is not enough.

She asserts that to keep Jim Crow from reincarnating again, we must
acknowledge the racial motives behind mass incarceration and have a
national conversation about race.

Mass incarceration, she explains, is driven by race, not by crime
rates. President Ronald Reagan declared the War on Drugs before crack
cocaine appeared in poor communities of color.

He made the face of drug use and of crime a black one, and he did it
to appeal to poor and working class whites who feared they had lost
irrecoverable ground in the years following the Civil Rights
Movement. He preferred securing their votes over securing poor
communities of color by financing an economic and educational revival
in areas that manufacturing had abandoned.

I don't dispute Alexander's declaration that talking about race is
necessary for preventing another Jim Crow system.

As she makes clear in her book, her point has already been proven at
least twice. Convict leasing, a form of free labor initiated after
the Civil War, replaced slavery.

The War on Drugs and the removal of civil rights from ex-offenders
has many of the same effects Jim Crow had on "free" blacks from the
early 1900s to the signing of the Civil Rights Act. There is no
reason to believe that the powerful class won't again use progress
towards racial equality to make poor and working class whites feel
slighted and then invent new policies to retract those gains and give
the class of whites for whom they possibly have equal disdain a false
sense of security.

The question, for me, then becomes: How do you have a conversation
with people who aren't in the room?

You see, there were a number of students who chose not to hear the
lecture, and I'm not referring to the thousands of students who
attend the school but couldn't possibly fit in an auditorium that
holds 500. The entire student body couldn't fit in the Yum Center,
either. I'm talking about the students who left before the lecture
began. When it was clear that about 20 people who wanted to attend
would not be able to because there weren't enough seats, two
professors announced that they would still give their students credit
for attending the lecture if they left then and gave up their seats
for people who wanted to be there.

The professors gave their students a choice, and once they knew that
in their absence they would still receive their incentive for going,
the students chose not to stay and listen to an honest lecture about
racialized injustice.

Even in our institutions of higher learning, a place where free
thinking is encouraged-and, I must note, a place that gets
increasingly inaccessible for poor and working class people every
semester-the people we expect to lead us in the future can ignore
these stark realities.

Perhaps the solution is to incentivize a national conversation. To
engage poor and working class whites who, Alexander notes, have been
disenfranchised, and to avoid preaching to the choir, I believe the
best chance for this movement is to frame it, initially, as an
economic necessity.

To compete globally with countries that have billions of people, we
must equip as many people as possible in the U.S. for productive
citizenship. Is the promise of restoring our world super-power status
enough to talk about race in America today? Depending on people to
care just because there's a problem affecting other human beings
isn't enough to end this injustice.
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