Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and law professor at Ohio State University, argues in “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” (2010) that the mass imprisonment of black men since the 1980s has taken the place of Jim Crow as American society’s main way to control black men – just as Jim Crow itself took the place of making them slaves. Angela Davis makes this argument too, but what follows is Alexander’s take:
America has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, higher than the cruelest, most backward governments on earth. It has five times more people in prison now than in the 1970s.
Prisons have become a huge part of American society: if it were to return to the levels of the 1970s a million people would face being thrown out of work. And that is just those who work at the prisons. The freed prisoners themselves would drive up the black unemployment rate by at least 15 percentage points since few employers will want to hire them.
It has little to do with the crime rate and everything to do with the War on Drugs. But it is not drug dealers who are filling up the prisons, like you might think, but people caught with drugs, few of them with a violent past. And in most cases we are not even talking about the hard stuff, like heroin, crack or cocaine, but marijuana – weed!!!
And it gets worse:
While blacks and whites sell and possess drugs at about the same rate, guess who is filling up the prisons under these drug laws? Mostly black and Latino men, particularly those from poor neighbourhoods. In some states as many as 80 to 90% of those found guilty of a drug crime are black men. But the Supreme Court sees no racism in that.
Drug possession is a felony. That means you go to prison. And even after you do your time you do not get to start over clean. For one, almost no one will hire you. Most professional licences are out of the question too. For the first five years you cannot get public housing – just when you need it most. You will never again get food stamps. And on and on. Your life is messed up forever. So what becomes of you? We already know: within three years there is a 70% chance you will be back in prison.
The very rights that blacks fought for in the civil rights movement, like the right to vote and to serve on juries, are denied to those in prison and even many who have done their time. This directly weakens black political power.
Millions of black men are having their freedom and rights taken from them and their lives messed up forever – for what? For violent crimes, for hurting people? No. For something that white people get away with all the time. Because it has nothing to do with drugs or crime but everything to do with controlling black men.