A white woman with gray hair pulled neatly into a bun raises her hand. She keeps it up, unwavering and rigid, as she waits patiently for her turn to speak. Finally, the microphone is passed to the back of the room, and she leaps to her feet. With an air of desperation she blurts out, “You know white people suffer in this system, too, don’t you? It’s not just black and brown people destroyed by this drug war. My son, he’s been in the system. He’s an addict. He needs help. He needs treatment, but we don’t have money. He needs his family. But they keep givin’ him prison time. White people are hurting, too.” She is trembling and sits down.
There is an uncomfortable silence in the room, but I am in no hurry to respond. I let her question hang in the air. I want people to feel this discomfort, the tension created by her suffering. The audience is overwhelmingly African American, and a few of them are visibly agitated or annoyed by her question. I’ve spent the last forty minutes discussing my book, The New Jim Crow. The book argues that today, in the so-called era of colorblindness, and, yes—even in the age of Obama—racial caste is alive and well in America. The mass incarceration of poor people of color through a racially biased drug war has birthed a new caste system. It is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow.
Racial Politics, Not Crime
The audience has heard the facts: Our prison population quintupled in a few short decades for reasons that have stunningly little to do with crime or crime rates. Incarceration rates—especially black incarceration rates—have soared regardless of whether crime was going up or down in any given community or the nation as a whole. Mass incarceration has been driven primarily by politics—racial politics—not crime. As part of a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, our nation declared a “War on Drugs” that has turned back the clock on racial progress in the United States. Although people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, African Americans have been targeted at grossly disproportionate rates. When the War on Drugs escalated in the mid-1980s, prison admissions for African Americans skyrocketed, nearly quadrupling in three years, then increasing steadily to a level in 2000 more than 26 times the level in 1983. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison have been African American.
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As a nation, we’ve been encouraged to imagine that this war has been focused on rooting out violent offenders or drug kingpins, but that is far from the truth. Federal funding has flowed to those state and local law enforcement agencies that boost dramatically the sheer number of drug arrests. It’s a numbers game. That’s why the overwhelming majority of people arrested in the drug war are the “low-hanging fruit”—poor people of color who are stopped, frisked, and tossed to the sidewalk by law enforcement, forced to lie spread-eagled on the pavement, simply because they “looked like” criminals while standing on the corner talking to friends or walking home from school or the subway.
The U.S. Supreme Court has given the police license to sweep poor communities of color, stopping, interrogating, searching anyone or everyone—without any evidence of criminal activity—so long as they get “consent.” What’s consent? When a police officer, with his hand on his gun, approaches a 16-year-old on the street and bellows, “Son, will you turn around so I can frisk you?” and the kid says, “Yeah,” and complies, that’s consent. Usually the exchanges are less polite.
And once the police get consent, the Fourth Amendment ban against unreasonable searches and seizures no longer applies. According to the Supreme Court, these “consensual” encounters are of no constitutional significance, even though they may wind up sending a 19-year-old kid to prison for the rest of his life: Life sentences for first-time drug offenses were upheld by the Supreme Court inHarmelin v. Michigan. The race of the defendant in that case was key to the sentence in the first place. It is nearly impossible to imagine a judge sentencing a white college kid to life in prison for getting caught with a bag of weed or cocaine. That’s how this system works: Poor people of color are swept into the criminal justice system by the millions for drug crimes that go largely ignored when committed by middle- or upper-class whites. And release from prison or jail marks just the beginning of punishment, not the end.
Once branded a criminal, people enter a parallel social universe in which they are stripped of the rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement. The old forms of discrimination—employment and housing discrimination, denial of basic public benefits and the right to vote, and exclusion from jury service—are perfectly legal again. In some major American cities, more than half of working-age African American men are saddled with criminal records and thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These men are part of a growing undercaste—not class, caste—a group of people, defined largely by race, who are relegated to a permanent, second-class status by law.
Uniting Poor People
The white woman is waiting for me to speak.
I know a great deal rides on my response. It is not an overstatement to say that the success or failure of the emerging movement to end mass incarceration may turn on the ability of advocates like myself to respond to people like her in a manner that validates and honors her experience, while not brushing aside—even slightly—the thoroughly racial nature of the prevailing caste system. Is it possible to join poor whites like her with poor people of color in a movement to challenge a political and economic system that harms them all, though differently?
There was a brief moment when it seemed clear that the answer was yes. As the Civil Rights Movement was gaining full steam, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders made clear that that they viewed the eradication of economic inequality as the next front in movement building—a Poor People’s Movement was required. Genuine equality for black people, King reasoned, demanded a radical restructuring of society, one that would address the needs of black and white poor throughout the country.
In 1968, having won landmark civil rights legislation, King strenuously urged racial justice advocates to shift from a civil rights to a human rights paradigm. A human rights approach, he believed, would offer far greater hope than the civil rights model had provided for those determined to create a thriving, multiracial democracy free from racial hierarchy. It would offer a positive vision of what we can strive for—a society in which people of all races are treated with dignity and have the right to food, shelter, health care, education, and security. “We must see the great distinction between a reform movement and a revolutionary movement,” he said. “We are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.” The Poor People’s Movement seemed poised to unite poor people of all colors in a bold challenge to the prevailing economic and political system.
But a backlash was also brewing. Anxiety and resentment among poor and working class whites was on the rise. The truth is that poor and working class whites had their world rocked by the Civil Rights Movement. Wealthy whites could send their children to private schools and give them all of the advantages that wealth has to offer, yet they were a tiny minority that stood apart from the rest of whites and virtually all blacks. Poor and working class whites—the regular folk—were faced with a social demotion. Their kids were potentially subject to desegregation and busing orders; their kids were suddenly forced to compete on equal terms for increasingly scarce jobs. Poor whites were better off than African Americans for the most part, but they were not well off—they, too, were struggling for survival.
What lower-class whites did have, in the words of W.E.B. DuBois, was “the public and psychological wage” paid to white workers, whose status and privileges as whites compensated for low pay and harsh working conditions. In retrospect, it seems clear that, from a racial justice perspective, nothing could have been more important in the 1970s and 80s than finding a way to create a durable, interracial, bottom-up coalition for social and economic justice. But in the years following King’s death, civil rights leaders turned away from the Poor People’s Movement and began resisting calls for class-based affirmative action on the grounds that whites had been enjoying racial preferences for hundreds of years.
Resentment, frustration, and anger expressed by poor and working class whites—as they worried aloud that blacks were leapfrogging over them on their way to Harvard and Yale—were chalked up to racism, leading to little open or honest dialogue about race and an enormous political opportunity for conservative strategists. “Get tough” rhetoric provided a facially race neutral outlet for racial frustrations and hostilities. H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s former chief of staff, summed up what came to be known as the “Southern Strategy” this way: “The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is designing a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
The War on Drugs
And so the “War on Drugs” was born. Richard Nixon was the first to use the term, but Ronald Reagan turned the rhetorical war into a literal one. When he declared his drug war in 1982, drug crime was actually on the decline. It was a couple years before—not after—crack ripped through inner-city communities and became a media sensation. From the outset, the drug war had little to do with drug crime and much to do with racial politics. As numerous historians and political scientists have now shown, Reagan declared his drug war in an attempt to make good on campaign promises to “get tough” on a group of people identified not-so-subtly in the media and political discourse as black and brown. Once crack hit the streets, the Reagan administration seized on the development, actually hiring staff whose job it was to publicize inner-city crack babies, crack dealers, and the so-called crack whores. Once the enemy in the war was racially defined, a wave of punitiveness washed over the United States. Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove they could be even tougher on “them.” Some black legislators joined the calls for “get tough” measures, often in desperation, as they sought to deal with rising crime and joblessness in ghetto communities. They found themselves complicit—wittingly or unwittingly—in the emergence of a new caste system. And many civil rights advocates found themselves exacerbating racial divisions, fighting for affirmative action even as they abandoned the Poor People’s Movement that sought to restructure our nation’s economic and political system for the benefit of people of all colors. They had accepted a racial bribe: the promise of largely superficial changes benefiting a relative few in exchange for abandoning the radical movement born in the 1960s that sought liberty and equality for all of us.
Poor whites had accepted a similar racial bribe when they embraced Jim Crow laws—laws which were proposed following the Civil War as part of a strategic effort by white elites to destroy the Populist movement, the nation’s first interracial, political coalition for economic and social justice in the South. Time and time again, the divide-and-conquer strategy has worked to eliminate the possibility that poor people of all colors might see themselves as sharing common interests, having a linked fate.
It’s time for me to break the silence.
“Your son is suffering because of a drug war declared with black folks in mind,” I say after a long pause. “White people—especially poor whites—are suffering because of the politics of racial division. Latinos are suffering, too. The drug war as we know it would not exist today, but for the demonization of black men, and now your son, a young white man, is paying the price. Poor whites are collateral damage in this drug war. But whether you’re the target or collateral damage, the suffering remains the same. Thanks to the drug war, we have the opportunity to see clearly how caste-like systems hurt us all, even though they hurt us differently or in different degrees. We must go back and pick up where Martin Luther King Jr. left off and do the hard work of movement building on behalf of poor people of all colors. Are you willing to help build a movement to end racial caste in America, a human rights movement on behalf of all of us? All of us or none?”
“Yes, I am,” the white woman shouts loudly, unaided by a microphone. The crowd erupts in applause. She wipes a few tears and smiles. “I just need to know that my son matters, too. I guess we all need to know that we matter. That’s what it’s all about, right?”
Michelle Alexander wrote this article for
, the Summer 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Michelle is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University. She is the author of The New Jim Crow.