What do you get when you add American slavery, the convict-lease system, the Jim Crow era, and the “War on Drugs”?

Give up? You get 150+ years of nearly uninterrupted mistreatment of young, African American men at the hands of businesses, individuals and various governmental agencies in the United States. You get ongoing racial profiling in cities like New York.


We in hallowed suburbia who see the brutality of slavery and the lynchings and “coloreds only” water fountains of Jim Crow only in an ever dustier rear-view mirror are perhaps ignorant of the current realities. Those who are ignorant of the multi-decade convict lease system in the South are in our own good company: we know little and most of our friends know less. (I interviewed Douglas Blackmon, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Slavery by Another Name, in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.)

Subtitled “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, The New Jim Crow takes its name from the condition author Alexander sees exemplified, for instance, in the massive government effort knows as the War on Drugs. This “war” has been so disproportionately prosecuted that a disproportionately large percentage of one specific demographic section of the U.S. population is either imprisoned, on probation or parole: African-American men.

Alexander’s case is built brick-by-brick as she examines policing, the court system, laws like Civil Asset Forfeiture, abuses of the Constitution and the favoritism shown to white defendants. She writes:

The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America.

These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color. That is not what one would guess, however, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men. And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. (pgs. 6, 7)

Aiding and abetting this treatment are prosecution and sentencing requirements mandated by War on Drugs styled legislation like “Three Strikes and You’re Out.”

In 1986, Congress passed The Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established extremely long mandatory minimum prison terms for low-level drug dealing and possession of crack cocaine. The typical mandatory sentence for a first-time offense in federal court is five or ten years. By contrast, in other developed countries around the world, a first-time offense would merit no more than six months in jail, if jail time is imposed at all.

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Now, simply by charging someone with an offense carrying a mandatory sentence of ten to fifteen years or life, prosecutors are able to force people to plead guilty rather than risk a decade or more in prison…They “load up” defendants with charges than carry extremely harsh sentences in order to force them to plead guilty to lesser offenses and–here’s the kicker–to obtain testimony for a related case. Harsh sentencing laws encourage people to snitch.

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In fact, under federal sentencing guidelines, providing “substantial assistance” [ie, "snitching"] is often the only way defendants can hope to obtain a sentence below the mandatory minimum. The “assistance” provided by snitches is notoriously unreliable, as studies have documented countless informants who have fabricated stories about drug-related and other criminal activity in exchange for money or leniency in their pending criminal cases. (pgs. 87, 88)

Add to this unholy mix laws that increase federal assistance based on number of drug-related arrests, inadequate representation from the public defender’s office, warrantless searches and the like, and you have a never ending pool of “violators” into which to cast the net. (For additional contributing factors like race and the Prison Industrial Complex, see my series Our comfortable injustice Part 1 and Part 2.)

Alexander’s chapter “The Color of Justice” is particularly disturbing. In a passage on the New York Police Department’s use of “stop-and-frisk” tactics–which should be unconstitutional–she quotes the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Darius Chaney, “[W]e have been saying for the last 10 or 11 years…that with stop-and-frisk patterns–it really is race, not crime, that is driving this.” Alexander concludes,

Ultimately, these stop-and-frisk operations amount to much more than humiliating, demeaning rituals for young men of color, who must raise their arms and spread their legs, always careful not to make a sudden move or gesture that could provide an excuse for brutal–even lethal–force. Like the days when black men were expected to step off the sidewalk and cast their eyes downward when a white woman passed, young black men know the drill when they see the police crossing the street toward them; it is a ritual of dominance and submission played out hundred of thousands of times each year. (p. 136)

It should raise concerns for followers of Christ not only because of the actual injustices faced by African-Americans but for the mindsets Americans have about such injustices. From page 106:

A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: “Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?” The startling results were published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education. Ninety-five percent of respondents picture a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups. These results contrast sharply with the reality of drug crime in America. African Americans constituted only 15 percent of current drug users in 1995, and they constitute roughly the same percentage today. Whites constituted the vast majority of drug users then (and now), but almost no one pictured a white person when asked to imagine what a drug user looks like. The same group of respondents also perceived the typical drug trafficker as black. [Emphasis mine.]

One sentencing issue reversed in 2010 by Congress and President Obama had to do with the differences in punishments for possession of crack cocaine (more common among blacks) and powder cocaine (more common among whites). “A conviction for the sale of five hundred grams of powder cocaine triggers a five-year mandatory sentence,” notes Alexander, “while only five grams of crack triggers the same sentence.” The sentencing disparity was reduced to from a 100:1 to an 18:1 ratio. Why there is any disparity at all remains unexplained.

According to Alexander the same kind of race-based disparity can be seen in the differences between drug use and drunk driving.

At the close of the [1980s], drunk 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.

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.

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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 predominantly white and male. White men comprised 78 percent of the arrests for this offense in 1990 when new mandatory minimums governing drunk driving were being adopted. (pgs. 206, 207) [Emphasis in original]

Alexander concludes that the result of this embedded racism throughout these multiple levels of the legal system is a new caste system. It is into this caste a permanent underclass of young black men are thrown.

The New Jim Crow is well worth the read even if you do not come to all the same conclusions as its author. The preponderance of evidence on the misuse of our legal system alone justifies the time spent.

Below the video of Michelle Alexander are several resources about race, mass incarceration, and the War on Drugs. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.