By Phillip Smith
Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness sat down with poet/activist Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance to discuss the book’s impact and where we go from here.
The New Jim Crow has been a phenomenon. Spending nearly 80 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, it brought to the forefront a national conversation about why the United States had become the world’s largest incarcerator, with 2.2 million in prison or jail and 7.7 million under control of the criminal justice system, and African American boys and men — and now women — making up a disproportionate number of those imprisoned. Alexander identified failed drug war policies as the primary driver of those numbers, and called for a greater challenge to them by key civil rights leaders.
It’s now been nearly four years since The New Jim Crow first appeared. Some things have changed — federal sentencing reforms, marijuana legalization in two states — but many others haven’t. Alexander and Bandele discuss what has changed, what hasn’t, and what needs to, raising serious questions about the path we’ve been down and providing suggestions about new directions.
Audio of the conversation is online here, and a transcript follows here:
Asha Bandele: The US has 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, and the biggest policy cause is the failed drug war. How has the landscape changed in the last four years since The New Jim Crow came out?
Michelle Alexander: The landscape absolutely has changed in profound ways. When writing this book, I was feeling incredibly frustrated by the failure of many civil rights organizations and leaders to make the war on drugs a critical priority in their organization and also by the failure of many of my progressive friends and allies to awaken to the magnitude of the harm caused by the war on drugs and mass incarceration. At the same time, not so long ago, I didn’t understand the horror of the drug war myself, I failed to connect the dots and understand the ways these systems of racial and social control are born and reborn.
But over last few years, I couldn’t be more pleased with reception. Many people warned me that civil rights organizations could be defensive or angered by criticisms in the book, but they’ve done nothing but respond with enthusiasm and some real self-reflection.
There is absolutely an awakening taking place. It’s important to understand that this didn’t start with my book — Angela Davis coined the term “prison industrial complex” years ago; Mumia Abu-Jamal was writing from prison about mass incarceration and our racialized prison state. Many, many advocates have been doing this work and connecting the dots for far longer than I have. I wanted to lend more credibility and support for the work that so many have been doing for some, but that has been marginalized.
I am optimistic, but at the same time, I see real reasons for concern. There are important victories in legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington, in Holder speaking out against mandatory minimums and felon disenfranchisement, in politicians across the country raising concerns about the size of the prison state for the first time in 40 years, but much of the dialogue is still driven by fiscal concerns rather than genuine concern for the people and communities most impacted, the families destroyed. We haven’t yet really had the kind of conversation we must have as a nation if we are going to do more than tinker with the machine and break our habit of creating mass incarceration in America.
Asha Bandele: Obama has his My Brother’s Keeper initiative directed at black boys falling behind. A lot of this is driven by having families and communities disrupted by the drug war. Obama nodded at the structural racism that dismembers communities, but he said it was a moral failing. He’s addressed race the least of any modern American president. Your thoughts?
Michelle Alexander: I’m glad that Obama is shining a spotlight on the real crisis facing black communities today, in particular black boys and young men, and he’s right to draw attention to it and elevate it, but I worry that the initiative is based more in rhetoric than in a meaningful commitment to addressing the structures and institutions that have created these conditions in our communities. There is a commitment to studying the problem and identifying programs that work to keep black kids in school and out of jail, and there is an aspect that seeks to engage foundations and corporations, but there is nothing in the initiative that offers any kind of policy change from the government or any government funding of any kind to support these desperately needed programs.
There is an implicit assumption that we just need to find what works to lift people up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that we’re waging a war on these communities we claim to be so concerned about. The initiative itself reflects this common narrative that suggests the reasons why there are so many poor people of color trapped at the bottom — bad schools, poverty, broken homes. And if we encourage people to stay in school and get and stay married, then the whole problem of mass incarceration will no longer be of any real concern.
But I’ve come to believe we have it backwards. These communities are poor and have failing schools and broken homes not because of their personal failings, but because we’ve declared war on them, spent billions building prisons while allowing schools to fail, targeted children in these communities, stopping, searching, frisking them — and the first arrest is typically for some nonviolent minor drug offense, which occurs with equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods but typically goes ignored. We saddle them with criminal records, jail them, then release them to a parallel universe where they are discriminated against for the rest of their lives, locked into permanent second-class status.
We’ve done this in the communities most in need our support and economic investment. Rather than providing meaningful support to these families and communities where the jobs have gone overseas and they are struggling to move from an industrial-based economy to a global one, we have declared war on them. We have stood back and said “What is wrong with them?” The more pressing question is “What is wrong with us?”
Asha Bandele: During the Great Depression, FDR had the New Deal, but now it seem like there is no social commitment at the highest levels of government. And we see things like Eric Holder and Rand Paul standing together to end mandatory minimums. Is this an unholy alliance?
Michelle Alexander: We have to be very clear that so much of the progress being made on drug policy reflects the fact that we are at a time when politicians are highly motivated to downsize prisons because we can’t afford the massive prison state without raising taxes on the predominantly white middle class. This is the first time in 40 years we’ve been willing to have a serious conversation about prison downsizing.
But I’m deeply concerned about us doing the right things for the wrong reasons. This movement to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs is about breaking the habit of forming caste-like systems and creating a new ethic of care and concern for each of us, this idea that each of us has basic human rights. That is the ultimate goal of this movement. The real issue that lies at the core of every caste system ever created is the devaluing of human beings.
If we’re going to do this just to save some cash, we haven’t woken up to the magnitude of the harm. If we are not willing to have a searching conversation about how we got to this place, how we are able to lock up millions of people, we will find ourselves either still having a slightly downsized mass incarceration system or some new system of racial control because we will have not learned the core lesson our racial history is trying to teach us. We have to learn to care for them, the Other, the ghetto dwellers we demonize.
Temporary, fleeting political alliances with politicians who may have no real interest in communities of color is problematic. We need to stay focused on doing the right things for the right reasons, and not count as victories battles won when the real lessons have not been learned.
Asha Bandele: Portugal decriminalized all drugs and drug use has remained flat, overdoses been cut by a third, HIV cut by two-thirds. What can we learn from taking a public health approach and its fundamental rejection of stigma?
Michelle Alexander: Portugal is an excellent example of how it is possible to reduce addiction and abuse and drug related crime in a non-punitive manner without filling prisons and jails. Supposedly, we criminalize drugs because we are so concerned about the harm they cause people, but we wind up inflicting far more pain and suffering than the substances themselves. What are we doing really when we criminalize drugs is not criminalizing substances, but people.
I support a wholesale shift to a public health model for dealing with drug addiction and abuse. How would we treat people abusing if we really cared about them? Would we put them in a cage, saddle them with criminal records that will force them into legal discrimination the rest of their lives? I support the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use. If you possess a substance, we should help you get education and support, not demonize, shame, and punish you for the rest of your life.
I’m thrilled that Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana and DC has decriminalized it — these are critically important steps in shifting from a purely punitive approach. But there are warning flags. I flick on the news, and I see images of people using marijuana and trying to run legitimate businesses, and they’re almost all white. When we thought of them as black or brown, we had a purely punitive approach. Also, it seems like its exclusively white men being interviewed as wanting to start marijuana businesses and make a lot of money selling marijuana.
I have to say the image doesn’t sit right. Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for doing the same thing. As we talk about legalization, we have to also be willing to talk about reparations for the war on drugs, as in how do we repair the harm caused.
With regard to Iraq, Colin Powell said “If you break it, you own it,” but we haven’t learned that basic lesson from our own racial history. We set the slaves free with nothing, and after Reconstruction, a new caste system arose, Jim Crow. A movement arose and we stopped Jim Crow, but we got no reparations after the waging of a brutal war on poor communities of color that decimated families and fanned the violence it was supposed to address.
Do we simply say “We’re done now, let’s move on” and white men can make money? This time, we have to get it right; we have to tell the whole truth, we have to repair the harm done. It’s not enough to just stop. Enormous harm had been done; we have to repair those communities.