The Failed Drug War Has Created a Human Rights Nightmare — How Can This Happen in Our Country and Go Virtually Undiscussed?

If we fail to commit ourselves to ending mass incarceration, future generations will judge us harshly.

By Michelle Alexander | April 28, 2011

So much about our racial reality today is little more than a mirage. The promised land of racial equality wavers, quivers just out of our reach in the barren desert of our new, “colorblind” political landscape. It looks so good from a distance: Barack Obama, our nation’s first black president, standing in the Rose Garden behind a podium looking handsome, dignified, and in charge. Flip the channel and there’s Michelle Obama, a brown-skinned woman, digging a garden in the backyard of the White House — not as a servant or a maid — but as the first lady, schooling the nation on better health and the need to be good stewards of our planet. Flip the channel again and there’s the whole Obama family exiting Air Force One, waving to the crowd, descending the flight of stairs — a gorgeous black family living in the White House, ruling America, cheered by the world.

Drive a few blocks from the White House and you find the Other America. You find you’re still in the desert, dying of thirst, wondering what wrong turn was made, and how you managed to miss the promised land, though you reached for it with all your might.

A vast new racial undercaste now exists in America, though their plight is rarely mentioned on the evening news. Obama won’t mention it; the Tea Party won’t mention it; media pundits would rather talk about anything else. The members of the undercaste are largely invisible to those of us who have jobs, live in decent neighborhoods, and zoom around on freeways, passing by the virtual and literal prisons in which they live.

But here are the facts. There are more African American adults under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. In major urban areas, like Chicago — Obama’s hometown — the majority of working-age African American men have criminal records are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. Millions of people in the United States, primarily poor people of color, are denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement: the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free from discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits. They have been branded “criminals” and “felons” and now find themselves relegated to a permanent, second-class status for the rest of their lives. They live in a parallel social universe, the Other America.

We, as a nation, are in deep denial about how this came to pass. On the rare occasions when the existence of “them” — the others, the ghetto dwellers, those locked up and locked out — is publicly acknowledged, standard excuses are trotted out for their condition. We’re told black culture, bad schools, poverty, and broken homes are to blame. Almost no one admits: We declared war. We declared a war on them. We declared a war on the most vulnerable people in our society and then blamed them for the wreckage.

And yet that is precisely what we did. We declared a war known as the War on Drugs. The war has driven the quintupling of our prison population in a few short decades. The vast majority of the startling increase in incarceration in America is traceable to the arrest and imprisonment of poor people of color for non-violent, drug-related offenses. Families have been torn apart, young lives shattered, as parents grieve the loss of loved ones to the system, often hiding their grief under a cloak of shame. Politicians claim that the enemy in this war in is a thing — “drugs” — not a group of people, but the facts prove otherwise.

African Americans have been admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate up to 57 times higher than whites. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison have been African American. The rate of Latino imprisonment has been staggering as well. Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black and Latino.

Studies have consistently shown that people of all colors use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates, yet this war has been waged almost exclusively in poor, ghetto communities. For those who are tempted to imagine that the goal of the war has been to root out violent offenders or drug kingpins, think again.

Federal funding flows to those state and local law enforcement agencies that boost dramatically the sheer volume of drug arrests; it’s a numbers game. Agencies don’t get rewarded for bringing down drug bosses or arresting violent offenders. They’re rewarded in cash for arresting people en masse. Ghetto communities are swept for the “low hanging fruit” — which generally means young people hanging out the street corner, walking to school or the subway, or driving around with their friends. They’re stopped and searched for any reason or no reason at all. In 2005, for example, 4 out of 5 drug arrests were for possession; only one of five for sales. And in the 1990’s — the period of the most drastic expansion of the drug war — nearly 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests were for marijuana possession, a drug less harmful than alcohol and tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle class white communities and on college campuses, as it is in poor communities of color.

The drug war, though, has been waged almost exclusively in poor, ghetto communities. It is here, in the poverty-stricken, racially segregated ghettos, where the War on Poverty has been abandoned and factory jobs have disappeared, that the drug war has been waged with the greatest ferocity. SWAT teams are deployed here; buy-bust operations are concentrated here; drug raids of schools and housing projects occur here; stop-and-frisk operations are conducted on the streets. If the tactics of the drug war were employed in middle class white neighborhoods or college campuses there would be public outrage; the war would end overnight. But here in the ghetto, the stops, searches, sweeps, and mass arrests are treated like an accepted fact of life, like the separate water fountains of an earlier era. By the millions, people are arrested, marched into courtrooms in shackles, and when released, they’re stripped of their right to vote and their right to serve on juries. Discrimination against them is officially legal. Barred from public housing and denied even food stamps, millions find they are deemed unworthy of the nation’s care or concern. Jobless, hungry, without shelter, and riddled with shame, they’re trapped in the desert wasteland. The majority of those released from prison return within months of their release, unable to make it on the outside. The racial mirage wavers in the distance, mockingly.

It is impossible to imagine anything like this happening if the enemy in the drug war were white. Economist Glenn Loury made this observation in his book The Anatomy of Racial Inequality. He noted that it is nearly impossible to imagine anything remotely similar to mass incarceration happening to young white men. Can we envision a system that would enforce drug laws almost exclusively against young white men and largely ignore drug crime among young black men? Can we imagine large majorities of young white men being rounded up for minor drug offenses, placed under the control of the criminal justice system, labeled felons, and then subjected to a lifetime of discrimination, scorn and exclusion? Can we imagine this happening while most black men landed decent jobs or trotted off to college? No, we cannot. If such a thing occurred, it would occasion a most profound reflection about what had gone wrong, not with them, but us — all of us. It would never be dismissed with the thought that white men were simply reaping what they have sown. The large-scale criminalization of white men would disturb us to the core.

So the critical questions become: What disturbs us? What upsets us? What seems anomalous? What is contrary to expectation? Or more to the point: Whom do we care about?

An answer to the last question may be found by considering the drastically different manner that we, as a nation, responded to drunk driving in the mid-1980s, as compared to crack cocaine. During the 1980s, at the same time the “crack epidemic” was making headlines, a broad-based grassroots movement was under way to address the widespread and sometimes fatal problem of drunk driving. Unlike the drug war, which was initiated by political elites long before ordinary people identified drug crime as an issue of extraordinary concern, the movement to crack down on drunk drivers was a bottom-up movement, led most notably by mothers whose families were shattered by deaths caused by drunk driving.

Media coverage of the movement peaked in 1988, when a drunk driver traveling the wrong way on Interstate 71 in Kentucky caused a head-on collision with a school bus. Twenty-seven people died and dozens more were injured in the ensuing fire. The tragic accident, known as the Carrollton bus disaster, was one of the worst in U.S. history. In the aftermath, several parents of the victims became actively involved in Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and one became its national president. Throughout the 1980s, drunk driving was a regular topic in the media, and the term “designated driver” became part of the American lexicon.

At the close of the decade, dunk drivers were responsible for approximately 22,000 deaths annually, while overall alcohol-related deaths were close to 100,000 a year. By contrast, during the same time period, there were no prevalence statistics at all on crack, much less crack-related deaths. In fact, the number of deaths related to all illegal drugs combined was tiny compared to the number of deaths caused by drunk drivers. The total of all drug-related deaths due to AIDS, drug overdose, or the violence associated with the illegal drug trade, was estimated at 21,000 annually — less than the number of deaths directly caused by drunk drivers, and a small fraction of the number of alcohol-related deaths that occur every year.

In response to growing concern — fueled by advocacy groups such as MADD and by the media coverage of drunk-driving fatalities — most states adopted tougher laws to punish drunk driving. Numerous states now have some type of mandatory sentencing for this offense — typically two days in jail for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense. New laws governing crack cocaine were passed at the same time as legislatures were “getting tough” on drunk drivers. But notice the contrast: While drunk driving results in a few days in prison, possession of a tiny amount of crack carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison. In fact, some people are serving life sentences for minor drug offenses. In Harmelin v. Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a sentence of life imprisonment for a defendant with no prior convictions who tried to sell 23 ounces of crack cocaine. The Court concluded that life imprisonment was not “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment, despite the fact that no other developed country in the world imposes life imprisonment for a first time drug offense.

The vastly different sentences afforded drunk drivers and drug offenders speaks volumes regarding who is viewed as disposable — someone to be purged from the body politic — and who is not. Drunk drivers are predominately white and male. White men comprised 78 percent of the arrests for drunk driving when new mandatory minimums for the offense were being adopted. They are generally charged with misdemeanors and typically receive sentences involving fines, license suspension, and community service. Although drunk driving carriers are far greater risk of violent death than the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person functional and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling. People charged with drug offenses, though, are disproportionately poor people of color. They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison. If and when they’re released, they become members of the undercaste, no longer locked up, but locked out — for the rest of their lives.

This is not a problem begging merely for policy reform. Much more is required of us. If we fail, as a nation, to awaken to the basic humanity of all those cycling in and out of prison today, and if we fail to commit ourselves to ending mass incarceration, future generations will judge us harshly. A human rightsnightmare is occurring on our watch.

We must do more than bring water to those stranded in the desert. We must act with courage and tell the truth about what is happening in the Other America. In the words of Cornell West, “justice is what love looks like in public.” If we aim to show love, we must be willing to work for justice.

Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow.
Share This Post