This radio documentary is the first segment in Truthout’s serialization of Chris Moore-Backman’s Bringing Down the New Jim Crow. New episodes will be posted over the course of the next four weeks, here.
Marijuana is the single largest agricultural commodity in California, and it is the primary vehicle for the war on drugs’ racialized arrest and incarceration system, which has our prisons bursting at the seams nationwide. Great numbers of predominantly white men and women grow, harvest and process marijuana in California for distribution throughout the United States. Local law enforcement and the communities they represent – communities whose economies are marijuana-dependent – benefit from letting this part of the illegal process go mostly undetected, while the crackdown happens almost exclusively in poor inner-city neighborhoods of color.
“A Bitter Harvest” follows the eyewitness narrative of Monica Bell, a young farmer in Nevada County, California, who read The New Jim Crow while witnessing the influx of white marijuana workers into her area during the fall harvest season. Bell’s candid and perceptive account is complemented by interviews with Michelle Alexander, Stephen Gutwillig (Drug Policy Alliance), and the late Vincent Harding (renowned veteran of the African-American Freedom Movement). Each of these voices help crack open the question of why and how California’s marijuana industry is directly tied to the racial injustices of the system of mass incarceration. The result is a radio documentary that grapples head on with the reality of white privilege in the United States.
Michelle Alexander: And this young man comes into my office; I’m spending my afternoon interviewing one young black man after another who’s been stopped, searched – for no apparent reason other than race. He has documented a pattern of stops and searches that he’s experienced over a period of nine months, with extraordinary detail. And on top of that, he was a good-looking young man. He was well-spoken and charismatic, and I thought to myself, “This is my dream plaintiff. This is the one we’ve been waiting for.” And so I’m talking to him, getting all excited. Then he says something that has me pause, and I say “Wait, did you just say you’re a felon? A drug felon?” And he gets quiet. And I just say, “You know what, I’m sorry we can’t represent you if you have a felony.” And he says to me, “You’re no better than the police! The minute I tell you I’m a felon you just stop listening, you can’t even hear what I have to say.” He says “What’s to become of me? I can’t get a job. I’m living in my grandma’s basement right now, ’cause nowhere else will take me in. I can’t even take care of myself as I man. I can’t even get food stamps today. What’s to become of me? What’s to become . . . ” He says, “Good luck trying to find one young black man in my neighborhood they haven’t gotten to yet. They’ve gotten to us already.”
Monica Bell: I remember people making somewhere in the range of $175 to $250 for a pound of bud, for a pound of weed that’s processed. And, it’ll take someone maybe . . . maybe four hours to trim a pound. I knew one couple that was trimming throughout the weekend, and it took them one weekend to make about $2,000 as a couple. And then they bought mountain bikes with it. So . . . a lot of money really fast.
Vincent Harding: We human beings are fundamentally and deeply interconnected. And my sense is that this consciousness is a wonderful and important beginning – just to become . . . and allow ourselves to become aware of the connections between what we are doing and what others are suffering.
Chris Moore-Backman: This program focuses on the racial dynamics of the “war on drugs,” giving special attention to a recent, deeply influential book by legal scholar Michelle Alexander, titled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it.
The current economic climate has pushed criminal justice and the “war on drugs” higher on the public agenda, as states throughout the nation struggle to find a way out of an economic nightmare. But of course the question of whether or not we can continue to afford to wage this war from an economic standpoint is by no means the most important question we face with regards to criminal justice in America. Largely thanks to the work of Michelle Alexander, the racial injustice that characterizes the “war on drugs” is also on the public radar, if only dimly. This program deals with that critical aspect. And, more likely than not, we’ll be coming at the issue from an angle that you, your family, your friends and neighbors have never considered.
The program brings together a variety of voices. These include criminal justice experts, including Michelle Alexander; key organizers in the drug policy reform movement; an esteemed veteran of the African-American Freedom Movement; and a young vegetable farmer whose experience of reading The New Jim Crow in a very unique setting opened her eyes to realities and connections that almost literally no one is talking about. Realities and connections of great importance to those of us who seek a more just, more human society.
I’m Chris Moore-Backman and you’re listening to “A Bitter Harvest: California, Marijuana, and the New Jim Crow.”
Song Excerpt: Joe Henry, “Our Song”
Michelle Alexander: What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color criminals, and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal you have scarcely more rights and arguably less respect than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it.
Chris Moore-Backman: That was Michelle Alexander reading an excerpt from the Introduction to The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
The US incarcerates human beings at a rate unprecedented in world history, and its primary instrument has been the “war on drugs.” Since the drug war began, while crime rates have fluctuated, sometimes up, sometimes down, the rate of incarceration has steadily and steeply climbed. Approximately half a million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, as compared to 40 some thousand in 1980. That’s an increase of 1100 percent. Since the drug war began, over 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses.
The war on drugs and the get-tough movement that served to justify it were from the beginning tied to issues of race. In the mid-1980s, when crack cocaine hit the streets and became an overnight media sensation, the color of drug criminality was etched in our national consciousness. This, beside the fact that study after study has shown that drug use and drug sales are more or less equal across racial and socio-economic lines.
But, as the color of drug criminality became defined as black and brown, the prison boom that has come hand in hand with the war on drugs has been characterized by an atrocious degree of racial disparity. While the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino. In the year 2000, prison admissions for whites was 8 times the number it had been in 1983. But for blacks during the same period, the rate of prison admissions increased by a factor of 26.
“. . . The message being transmitted is that some lives are distinctly worth more than others, and that the algebra of relative importance does not favor the black and brown.”
One of the principle myths undergirding the drug war is that it is war to root out the most violent offenders. This is simply not the case as the vast majority of arrests have been for simple possession, mostly of marijuana. Across the nation, law enforcement agencies have been financially rewarded with federal dollars in proportion to the sheer numbers they have ushered into the criminal justice system. And the crackdown has occurred almost exclusively in poor communities of color, where literally millions of individuals have suffered, both in prison and upon release with the felon label firmly attached.
Michelle Alexander explains that this gross racial disparity is not the outcome of overt bigotry. Rather, it is the outcome, she argues, of racial indifference. White antiracist writer and educator Tim Wise sheds light on this key difference, explaining that what may appear to be a kinder, gentler form of racism is in fact a shape-shifted version of the old-fashioned kind we like to think we’ve transcended. He cites an analogy offered by Michael Eric Dyson to illustrate the point:
“If one conceives of racism as a cellphone,” Dyson explains, “then active malice is the ring tone on its highest volume, while passive indifference is the ring tone on vibrate. In either case, whether loudly or silently, the consequence is the same: A call is transmitted, a racial message is communicated.”
Tim Wise comments that, in terms of race in America, “the message being transmitted is that some lives are distinctly worth more than others, and that the algebra of relative importance does not favor the black and brown.”
In her book and in her many speeches, Michelle Alexander calls for a massive social movement to bring an end, not only to mass incarceration, but to our nation’s continuing pattern of resurrecting Jim Crow. This documentary places its focus on the implications of Alexander’s call, particularly for those of us with white skin. To do this, we’ll look at the racial dynamics of the drug war through the lens of California’s marijuana industry. Marijuana has consistently represented the drug war’s widest gateway into the racialized criminal justice system. Being that that’s the case, we cannot help but turn our attention to California, which – when it comes to marijuana – is the garden of plenty.
To set the stage, I spoke to Stephen Gutwillig, California’s state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in order to better understand the basics of California’s marijuana industry.
Stephen Gutwillig: So marijuana is widely believed to be California’s number one agricultural commodity. It is understood to be, by far, our largest cash crop. It has been valued at more than 14 billion dollars a year, although that’s a number that no one can quite prove where it came from. California is also believed to be, by far, the largest domestic producer of marijuana, with the runnerup being several Appalachian states that produce marijuana at probably less than half California’s production combined. There’s a long history of marijuana being produced particularly in Northern California in the so-called Emerald Triangle of Trinity, Humboldt and Mendocino Counties. People have been cultivating marijuana, primarily for domestic consumption, for generations. And there is a long history of people making a living, largely off the grid, as a part of this . . . this underground economy.
Chris Moore-Backman: I also spoke with Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Gieringer gave a brief explanation of the different destinations for California-grown marijuana. While a sizable amount is ending up in legal medical marijuana dispensaries, some simple arithmetic confirms that the majority of California-grown marijuana is ending up on the illegal market, both in and out of state.
Dale Gieringer: The legal market extends to somewhere from 700,000 to over a million patients, probably on the order of one and a half to 2 billion dollars. So, that’s the legal market. There’s probably a slightly larger illegal market within California. And then there’s a much larger illegal market nationwide that California exports to. There’s no question that California produces far more than it consumes. California is an exporting state.
Chris Moore-Backman: I’m Chris Moore-Backman and you’re listening to “A Bitter Harvest: California, Marijuana, and the New Jim Crow.”
The fact that there are legal and illegal markets for marijuana in California has created a great deal of confusion, and it has provided a good amount of cover for marijuana growers, processors and distributors whose end-product, or some portion of it, is bound – not for legal medical marijuana dispensaries or bona fide medical marijuana patients – but for the street.
In communities throughout northern California, meanwhile, public debate consistently centers around the right to grow and the right to use marijuana, with little to no attention to the marijuana black market or its connection to the human rights crisis described by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow.
A couple hundred miles to the east of the famed Emerald Triangle lies Nevada County, another well-established hub for marijuana production. Let’s turn now to the unique, perhaps singular experience of a young farmer, Monica Bell, who in 2010 spent an eight-month period there working on an organic vegetable farm. Bell read The New Jim Crow“while witnessing the influx of young, primarily white workers who flocked to Nevada County as the marijuana was getting ready for harvest.
Monica Bell: I didn’t anticipate reading this book and having it tie in with a lot of what was going on on an organic vegetable farm. I had heard a little bit about people growing and being pot farmers in and around the area where we were farming, but it wasn’t something on-site. My boss didn’t grow, and he didn’t talk to us about that. So, fall is a harvest time for all sorts of vegetables – it’s just an abundant time in general. So not only is it the harvest time for fruits and vegetables on our farm, it’s also a time for the harvest of weed. And so as the season progressed, people started talking more and more and more about the harvest and getting in on the harvest.
You drive through this strip of downtown and there are bamboo fences to the left and to the right, and you know people are growing marijuana, and you know that the sheriff drives on that main road and there’s no way that he doesn’t know what’s happening.
There are a lot of young people, A LOT of young people, that are up there, that are trimming or growing and that’s their . . . that’s their living. And there’s an influx of people during the harvest. People sitting at the turn-off off the main highway with a cardboard sign that says “Work?” People showing up at the little grocery store near where our farm was. Young kids that had come from the Midwest. I have a friend who came out from the Midwest because somebody told her that if she came out, she could find a job trimming. And so she came out and didn’t know anybody who was growing, so somebody told her – you know you’re a cute young girl, if you sit at this grocery store and kinda ask people if they’re looking for workers you’ll probably be able to find work.
I don’t remember hearing of anybody that I knew was growing, or any friends of my friends that were growing getting in trouble or getting busted. One of my friends would tell a story of a sheriff going to visit a pot farm, and they’d count their plants and if there was one plant over a hundred plants or a couple plants over a hundred plants, they’d pull out a couple plants and then go.
In downtown North San Juan, this tiny little town that we were closest to, the bamboo fence – which is the regional sign of “Oh I’m hiding a pot garden” – is ubiquitous; it’s all over the place. You drive through this strip of downtown and there are bamboo fences to the left and to the right, and you know people are growing marijuana, and you know that the sheriff drives on that main road and there’s no way that he doesn’t know what’s happening.
And it’s ironic because all of the Yuba River area up there is known for having been plundered during the mining rush, the ’49ers and . . . There are scars in the earth, these big areas, there’s this area called the Malakov Diggins that just looks terrible from what people did to it. And there’s this really tragic history of what happened to the people living . . . the natives that were living there when people discovered gold and came in to strike it rich. It’s ironic to me that now this area is making so much money off the marijuana industry. It’s a new kind of . . . it’s a new kind of gold rush. But it’s harder to see who’s being, and what’s being destroyed. The scars aren’t visible there. They’re somewhere else.
Chris Moore-Backman: In the New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander doesn’t lay the burden of responsibility for mass incarceration on marijuana cultivators or anyone else working the supply side of the illegal drug market. In fact, her book doesn’t discuss the supply side of the equation much at all. Alexander lays the burden of responsibility at the doorstep of lawmakers and law enforcement officials who are taking advantage of political and economic opportunism and with all of us exhibiting racial indifference in the face of a human rights crisis.
But Monica Bell draws her own conclusion with regards to responsibility, connecting dots that Michelle Alexander doesn’t connect in The New Jim Crow. As a white woman witnessing her fellow whites profiting from their work on the supply side, she could find no significant difference between that form of opportunism and that practiced by politicians or law enforcement benefitting from the racial anxieties and indifference in our society.
Monica Bell: I started to see the culture in Nevada City as kind of a . . . a Never-Neverland. It’s this place where there’s enough capital because of the marijuana industry for people to do what they want most of the time. To be able to fund their art project, or their traveling lifestyle, or their social justice project, or their community projects . . . a beautiful house, or a homesteading project, or a farm that they want to have. What I saw after I read the book was that it’s not a free and clear benefit for these people that are profiting off of this industry. The Prison-Industrial Complex isn’t just the stockholders that want to build a private prison. It’s not just the guards that are employed by those prisons. It’s not just the people in the justice system who make their living off of prosecuting people. The Prison-Industrial Complex that is riding on the drug laws has created this abundant opportunity for people to . . . to grow weed. And I think people either don’t know, or don’t see, or don’t want to know or see that that’s the industry they’re involved in. They don’t want to see that for them to be able to make $200 a pound trimming, someone somewhere is paying a pretty high price. They’re paying with their life or their freedoms.
Chris Moore-Backman: Bell links personal behavior with the larger social concern of mass incarceration. This kind of linkage is the hallmark of the young, progressive mindset, which leads to sensitivity about a great many issues for young people today. The clothing one wears, for example, raises the question of sweatshop labor. The food one eats – bears its connection to the treatment of animals, the degradation of the environment and the corporatization of farming. The transportation one uses, and its connection to global warming and wars in the Middle East.
So why is Monica Bell so alone in drawing the conclusion that working the supply side of the marijuana black market bears such a connection to the mass incarceration of people of color? It’s a question that cuts to the heart of white privilege.
Song Excerpt: Joe Henry, “Our Song”
Michelle Alexander: There are more people in prison and jail today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980. Drug convictions have increased more than 1,000 percent since the drug war began. Now, most Americans violate drug laws in their lifetime, but the enemy in this war has been racially defined. The drug war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color despite the fact that studies have now shown for decades that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites. Now that defies our basic stereotype of who a drug dealer is, as some, you know, black kid standing on the street corner with his pants sagging down. Plenty of drug dealing happens in the ‘hood, but it happens everywhere else in America as well. A kid living in rural Kansas doesn’t drive to the ‘hood to get his marijuana, or his meth, or his cocaine. No, he gets it most likely from someone of his own race, down the road. In fact, where significant differences in the data can be found, they frequently suggest that white youth are more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth. But that’s not what you would guess by taking a peek inside our nation’s prisons and jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison have been African American. Young folks of color are often caught with a small amount of marijuana, arrested, sent to jail, and saddled with a criminal record that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Now this didn’t happen to Barack Obama when he used marijuana and cocaine. No, because he did so at predominantly white universities where stop and frisk tactics don’t ever occur. If you’re living in the ‘hood, your odds of going to jail are sky high for engaging in exactly the same kind of behavior that goes ignored on the other side of town.
Chris Moore-Backman: In Monica Bell’s hometown of Chico, California, which is nestled about midway between the Emerald Triangle to the west and Nevada County to the east, she has monitored local media and the tenor of conversation in her community, and she has noticed that in relation to the drug war and marijuana, race is not on the radar. With the exception, that is, of occasional xenophobic references to drug operations in the region purportedly connected to “Mexican drug cartels” or “Mexican crime bosses.”
The sharp focus in Northern California lands squarely on the right to grow and the right to use marijuana. A focus that is clearly reflected in the discourse of the marijuana policy reform movement, which consistently emphasizes personal freedom and civil liberties. In what is a very predominantly white movement, race is not on the agenda.
Stephen Gutwillig of the Drug Policy Alliance explains, however, that race is on the agenda for the wider drug policy reform movement, but that it is typically superseded by another concern.
Stephen Gutwillig: What we’re really talking about is a racist system that enforces these laws against black and brown people in ways that are completely unheard of within predominantly white communities. That fact is not generally considered to be the number one thing that we talk about when we talk about the drug war. And this is just from, you know, as a social justice/racial justice advocate, something that I acknowledge, and a point that Michelle Alexander made in her New York Times editorial when she pointed out that the number one issue that is being discussed across the country for reforming drug laws and sentencing is that we can’t afford it any more. That the mass arrests and incarceration of low-level drug offenders, and that prison overcrowding in general, is a phenomenon that the states can’t afford in the midst of the fiscal crisis.
“. . . It has been the refusal and failure to recognize the basic dignity and humanity of all people that has formed the sturdy foundation for every caste system that has ever existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world.”
And it’s true, there really is an unprecedented movement toward reforming sentencing and incarceration in state after state. And Michelle Alexander has pointed out that while that is a great short-term way of keeping people from being put into the criminal justice system and is potentially a way for some people to be released from state prison and county jail, it is not a long-term solution – because it doesn’t go to the fundamental question of how we allowed for a, you know, quadrupling, quintupling of the American prison population in just a few decades. The argument that we should reform sentencing and imprisonment because we can’t afford mass incarceration simply suggests that the day will come when we can afford it again, and we should just go back to those practices. And this is the danger that many of us see.
Chris Moore-Backman: I also spoke to Michelle Alexander, who mirrored Stephen Gutwillig’s concern that when it comes to tackling mass incarceration, it may not be wise to place a large amount of confidence in the apparent silver lining of our national fiscal crisis.
Michelle Alexander: We haven’t had a political climate as favorable to reform, in at least 40 years, around criminal justice issues. And it’s because we face a huge economic crisis, so states like California find that they’re teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, in large part because they’ve constructed this massive prison state it can no longer afford. And also because crime rates nationally are low. So there’s a moment of opportunity here. Now my great fear, though, is that this moment of opportunity will lead to significant reforms and some prison downsizing, but that we’ll reach a plateau. You know, a plateau that is unconscionable by global standards, but that politicians and many civil rights advocates will then just congratulate themselves as having made progress, and we will still have a prison system unprecedented in world history, and millions of people cycling in and out of prison. But we will have told ourselves that we did something about it.
Chris Moore-Backman: Monica Bell draws an interesting parallel between the optimism of criminal justice advocates, due to the opportunities afforded by the current fiscal crisis, and the optimism of many proponents of marijuana legalization. The legalization movement in California has received a groundswell of support in recent years, signaling what many believe is an inevitable and likely soon-to-be victory.
Unsurprisingly, some of the more outspoken opponents of legalization have been marijuana growers and processors. The RAND corporation estimates that in California, legalization would bring the price of marijuana down 80 to 90 percent. Many of those heavily invested in the industry would obviously be seriously impacted by such a shift. Many also fear that corporate interests will come in to monopolize what has until now been heralded as a more democratic and open field for entrepreneurs.
While Monica Bell herself is fully in favor of the legalization of marijuana, she joins Stephen Gutwillig and Michelle Alexander in worrying that there might be a large cost for doing the right thing for the wrong reason.
Monica Bell: I’m not interested in legalization for the sake of what I think a lot of people are. With Michelle Alexander’s book, this is a really important opportunity for us to look at race in our society. We’ve seen people, typically of lighter skin, cashing in on opportunity that ends up selling other people down the river. We’ve seen it in the past, and it looks different now, but how is this similar to something we’ve done throughout the history of the United States?
Michelle Alexander talks about . . . it’s an issue of care and who you’re gonna care for. And when I was reading her book, I was thinking about . . . We don’t care enough about someone we don’t know to not take the opportunity to make a quick buck, some quick cash. Of course I think that legalization needs to happen. And, if it happens without the kind of reflection that needs to occur for us to really understand what makes this dynamic re-emerge – that lack of care for people that don’t look like us, that don’t live in our neighborhoods . . . then we missed it.
Chris Moore-Backman: You’re listening to “A Bitter Harvest: California, Marijuana, and the New Jim Crow.” I’m Chris Moore-Backman.
Michelle Alexander: One day I believe historians will look back on the era of mass incarceration and they will say it was there, right there at the prison gates that we abandoned Dr. King’s dream. We took a detour – a tragic u-turn – that would result in millions of African Americans permanently locked up and locked out. Now, there are those who say there is no hope of ending mass incarceration in America. Just as many were resigned to Jim Crow in the south, today many people view the millions cycling in and out of our nation’s prisons and jails as an unfortunate but inalterable fact of American life. Now I know that Dr. King, and Ella Baker, and Sojourner Truth, and the many other freedom fighters who came before us would not have been so easily deterred. And it’s time for us to pick up the baton.
But before this movement can get underway a great awakening is required. We’ve got to awaken from our colorblind slumber to the realities of race in America. And we’ve got to embrace those labeled criminals – not necessarily all of their behavior, but them, their humanness. For it has been the refusal and failure to recognize the basic dignity and humanity of all people that has formed the sturdy foundation for every caste system that has ever existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world. It’s our task to end not just mass incarceration, but to end this history and cycle of caste in America.
Chris Moore-Backman: It is impossible to quite fathom the implications of Michelle Alexander’s two-fold call to bring down mass incarceration and short circuit our pattern of resurrecting Jim Crow. Ending Jim Crow, really ending it, would require those of us called white and seen as white in our society to relinquish our psychology and position of privilege to an extent scarcely imaginable in the context of our national life and history.
“. . . Unlearning racism is a lifelong job.”
It follows, that while Michelle Alexander calls for a multiracial, multiethnic social movement, she warns that if racial justice strategies involve waiting for white people to suddenly practice fairness, history suggests it will be a very long wait. “It’s not that white people are more unjust than others,” she writes. “Rather it seems that an aspect of human nature is the tendency to cling tightly to one’s advantages and privileges and to rationalize the suffering and exclusion of others.”
Laura Magnani, interim director for the California region of the American Friends Service Committee has been a criminal justice advocate and activist for decades. I was curious how she felt, as a white woman, about Michelle Alexander’s claim that the movement cannot afford to wait for white people to take the lead.
Laura Magnani: Well I agree that white people can’t or won’t take the lead. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for allies. But the question is how to be an ally. I think the reason why I wouldn’t expect it to come from white people is because we’re not feeling the same kind of pain that people of color are. It’s really so disproportionately applied, the drug laws are, that white folks can go a long way and live their whole lives without realizing how intense these laws are and how much they ruin people’s lives. So that’s the reason, I would say, one can’t wait – shouldn’t wait – for white people to take the lead.
So, what does it mean to be an ally? For one thing, you have to be willing to take leadership from communities of color. If we don’t we’re really just perpetuating colonialism. We also have to constantly examine ourselves, and our tactics, and our practices, for signs and expressions of our own internalized oppression. Take a look at how we’re designing a program, how inclusive is it? You know, who’s on the program? Who are the spokespeople? How representative are the structures in the organizations we’re working in, so that we’re not just perpetuating the same patterns. And then I think that the other thing is that unlearning racism is a lifelong job. I mean I think it’s a lifelong job for people of all colors, but I think that, as people of privilege, we’re under a special burden to engage in that process. I have to say I’m discouraged by the number of white people I know for whom it is not a priority to do that work. And that’s a pretty big obstacle in my experience so far.
Chris Moore-Backman: The testimony of Monica Bell, in view of the role played by white Californians in the marijuana industry, suggests that for white people, participation in the movement Michelle Alexander is calling for must have its foundation in this work of unlearning racism, which Laura Magnani finds so many whites reluctant to take up.
As a young woman recently graduated from college, and completely uninspired by the consumerist and corporate models set before her by the dominant US culture, Monica Bell fits the demographic of a great many of the young people who flock to places like the Emerald Triangle and Nevada County every fall seeking a way to make a living. It’s a time of exploration, uncertainty and transition for many of them. And, as Bell has described, the profitable marijuana industry provides many such young people a source of financial security as they explore their options and their goals.
In my conversations with them, both Monica Bell and Laura Magnani shared the perspective that the financial security and freedom offered young people by the marijuana industry points to a tragic scarcity of meaningful and inspiring alternatives. It’s only natural, it would seem, that young people would seek an escape from what seems like the dead-end of America’s dominant narrative. And many of them, of course, unaware of its connection to mass incarceration, see the cultivation and processing of marijuana as a positive, or at least benign, venture.
“Only when we decided to stop leaving the hard place, and to struggle in the hard place, and to become lights in the dark place, were we able to begin to open that up to something other than what there was.”
Of the many people who have taken notice of Michelle Alexander and her call for a new phase of the struggle for freedom in the United States, one is particularly familiar with and appreciative of the contributions that young people can make in our society. Vincent Harding, a veteran of the African-American Freedom Movement, is well known as a close friend and coworker of Martin Luther King Jr. Harding was the principle author of King’s famous speech titled “Beyond Vietnam,” arguably one of the clearest, most powerful treatises on social justice, peace and nonviolence in our nation’s history. Harding is also well known as a friend and advisor to many of the key organizers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which spearheaded such pivotal student-led chapters of the Freedom Struggle as the sit-in movement, the Freedom Rides, and Freedom Summer.
Harding has joined Michelle Alexander in her efforts to catalyze and shape the movement to end mass incarceration and the recurring cycle of caste in America. I spoke to him and conveyed something of Monica Bell’s experience in light of her reading The New Jim Crow. Harding responded by drawing a fascinating comparison, which challenges young people to cease trying to find a way out of the darkness they sense in the values and structures of their society, but to stay with that darkness, intentionally, and to struggle within it.
Vincent Harding: There is always the temptation to try to get out of the hard places, the dark places, and find what seems to be an easier way. In the days of Jim Crow, of lynchings, of terrible disenfranchisement, of the loss of citizenship rights, for many of us – say in the first 20, 30, 40 years of the 20th century – the best way to deal with that was to leave the South, to get away to places that we thought were more open to the development of our humanity. But the South was never really opened up to change until an increasingly significant number of us, especially young people, decided to stay in the South and struggle to change the South, which led into the development of the Freedom Movement, that people call the Civil Rights Movement. Only when we decided to stop leaving the hard place, and to struggle in the hard place, and to become lights in the dark place, were we able to begin to open that up to something other than what there was.
I always worry about that instinct towards finding the easier way, the way that will make it possible for us to avoid the harder paths, the harder struggles. And young people – always – are the ones who must present the major challenges to a society that is not right and that needs to be made right.
Chris Moore-Backman: This program has focused squarely on the intersection of marijuana and race. But Michelle Alexander’s work plainly illustrates that whites profiting off the marijuana industry is but one of seemingly countless ways that white privilege is expressing itself in the context of the “war on drugs” and the New Jim Crow. In no way is this an isolated dynamic. The implications of this discussion are relevant to all of white America.
As Monica Bell considers the shape that she hopes the movement to end mass incarceration will take in her own predominantly white community of Chico, California, she envisions an approach that on the surface would bear no resemblance to the high drama that we are conditioned to associate with massive social movements. And yet, it may be that for white America, Bell’s vision is the needed vision, or at least an essential part of it, in that it speaks to the urgent need for whites to somehow manage to unlearn, to renounce, and to abandon their unearned privilege to whatever extent possible. And while Bell frames this vision here in relation to those profiting off of the marijuana industry, it applies to the whole of white America, regardless of the particular form our privilege might be taking in relation to our imprisoned and stigmatized brothers and sisters of color.
Monica Bell: I hope that in my community what that movement will look like is . . . folks deciding that instead of looking to the security of the economic benefits of the marijuana industry, they’ll look to each other and realize that there’s a certain kind of freedom that money can buy that we’re used to seeking, but that we can also provide for each other in a way that money can’t. And that if we look to one another, to support each other . . . Like if someone can’t pay rent, looking at, well, can I live with other people? Or can I get by on less money? Can I band together with my community to meet some needs I was filling with the money I was making out of this industry? And that if I’m in that uncomfortable space of having less money and less independence in one way, my interdependence with my community could be more powerful and more revolutionary. It’s stepping out of the way that we’re doing things right now. I don’t imagine that that’s what Michelle Alexander had in mind. But maybe she did.
Chris Moore-Backman: I’m Chris Moore-Backman, and you’ve been listening to “A Bitter Harvest: California, Marijuana, and the New Jim Crow.” Thanks for tuning in.
Song Excerpt: Joe Henry, “Our Song”
Special thanks to Sue Hilderbrand and all at KZFR Community Radio in Chico, California, where this program was produced. The show featured “Our Song” and an excerpt from “God Only Knows,” written and performed by Joe Henry, from his album “Civilians.” The music of Joe Henry appears courtesy of Anti records and BMG Rights Management. The solo acoustic guitar was written and performed by Chris Moore-Backman. Excerpts of Michelle Alexander were included from her speech at Riverside Church in New York City on May 21, 2011. Her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is published by The New Press. Also cited was Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, written by Tim Wise and published by City Lights Publishers.
“A Bitter Harvest” is part of a radio documentary series titled “Bringing Down the New Jim Crow.” The series seeks to expand public discourse on the drug war and race in the United States, in service to the movement to end mass incarceration and our nation’s pattern of resurrecting Jim Crow. Thanks again for listening.
Copyright, Chris Moore-Backman. Original transcript produced for Truthout. May not reprint without permission.