Recently I’ve had discussions revolving around a book titled The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by legal scholar Michelle Alexander. I feel some of us, before reading the book, thought discrimination of people of color had decreased substantially because of the Civil Rights reform of the 1960s. I think things are better now. We all know of many Black success stories like Obama, Oprah, super athletes, entertainers and people in business. However, Alexander disagrees that things are better and describes how our tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs and institutions now operate to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race. In this caste system, the role the criminal justice system plays in the discrimination of many people of color is evident. Over the past 40 years the prison population has quintupled. In the U. S. the percentage of African Americans is about 13%. Our prisons are largely filled with people of color. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported in March of this year 71% of those in prison were Black and Hispanic. That is a huge disparity.
In the 1980s and 90s our government launched a War on Drugs campaign. I worked in the alcohol and drug abuse prevention field then. Decreasing the number of drug users and dealers sounded, to me, like the right thing to do. I knew law enforcement agencies used federal Drug on War grants to make drug-law enforcement a priority. When reading The New Jim Crow book it was a startling revelation for me to learn this federal money also prompted racial injustice. It had never occurred to me that this “War” I supported had discriminated so unfairly against people of color.
Just recently I learned much of those federal dollars prompted SWAT teams to be formed. Policies to allow no-knocking drug raids and searches were implemented. Highway patrol units and local police adopted ‘stop and frisk’ policies. Drug arrests drastically increased, mostly of non-white people. Many more people of color than white people were stopped for minor traffic violations. Once stopped, Blacks and Latinos were often subjected to search and if even a small amount of a drug, such as marijuana, was found they were charged, often convicted, and sentenced to inordinately long prison sentences. Sadly, many of these people needed medical treatment not prison. And once labeled a felon, one is relegated to second-class status. Felons had a hard time being productive citizens on release from prison as they have been barred from public housing, discriminated against by landlords, ineligible for food stamps, forced to “check the box” felon on employment applications. This is still happening; remember Ferguson? No wonder there was and still is a high recidivism rate. White people with the same offenses have been largely reprimanded and sent on their way or maybe fined. This might be an example of what is now called white privilege. It is also racial injustice.
I know one never stops learning. I hope to increase my awareness of the role criminal injustice has in preserving a racial caste system. I want to watch carefully what laws our legislators try to pass locally, at the state, and national level. I want to better understand how laws will be implemented so both white people and people of color are not unfairly discriminated against. I feel we all need to keep learning and speaking up when we see disparities. I believe we should not be colorblind.