Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The New Jim Crow

Yes, I'd read reviews of this book, now on The New York Times best seller list. Yes, the author's premise sounded right on. Tonight, Sally and I went to hear Michelle Alexander speak at Houston's Progressive Forum at the Wortham Theater. Alexander made an articulate and passionate case for the epic failure of this country's 'war on drugs.' I always wondered why the whole effort was called a 'war' on drugs, when clearly it never seemed totally about drugs, but about being hard and tough, strutting your stuff. I wasn't sure who the audience for this was, but tonight I found out.
Seems the 'war on drugs' began during the Reagan administration, when actually, drug use was down, but drugs in and of themselves were seen as a political tool. The war on drugs was a strategy. "We will get tough on 'them'." And 'them' were people of color. Seems the Reagan administration wanted to appeal to working class, blue collar voters who felt belittled, demoted and angry after the Civil Rights Movement. We couldn't talk about race, so it was in code. Race was implicit in the 'war on drugs.' It was all part of the Southern Strategy first developed by President Nixon. Simply put, if Republicans got tough on crime and drugs, i.e. people of color, African Americans, the 'other', then traditional Southern Democrats in blue states would join the Republicans and make red states. It worked. Conservative Southern Democrats crossed over in droves.
President Reagan called for a 'war on drugs' in 1982, at a time when crime rates were declining nationwide and a full two years before crack cocaine became a problem. His administration knew how to promote their cause and for a while, if you remember, all we heard on TV were stories about crack babies in the hood.
President Clinton was even tougher when it came to the ongoing 'war on drugs.' Who knew this? I didn't put two and two together. As a candidate, he stated he would "never permit any Republican to be perceived as tougher on crime than he." Once president, Clinton endorsed 'three strikes and you're out.' That was another thing that bothered me at the time. Do you put men in prison for life for simple possession of weed?
It get worse. There are more people in prison today for drug offenses, most of them black men, than were in the entire prison system in 1980. That's 32 years. Private prisons are a growth industry. They mean jobs, actually 1 million jobs in America, but these are not jobs for black felons.
Once declared a felon, you have felon status for life. There is a little box you check off on every job application forever, you cannot vote in this country, forever, you cannot get public housing or food stamps, forever. And most likely after you check that box on the application, you can't get a proper job to support yourself or a family. Life becomes a Catch-22 and a lot of black men shuffle back to jails and prisons.
Alexander says,  "A human rights revolution has taken place right under our noses." We didn't see it coming and even now, most people don't see it for what it is and are blinded to the full effects of this ostensible war on drugs.
Does law enforcement go to university campuses and march white boys off to prison? Do they enter lofts and gated communities and search for cocaine? Is there a likelihood that I'd be profiled and pulled over for illegal drug use?
Human rights are being trod on and generations of Americans are lost for political gain. The strategy worked. Remember reading Frank Rich's, "What's the Matter with Kansas, How Conservatives Won the Heart of America", which was a commentary on how many Americans vote on narrow social issues and fear, rather than in their own economic interest, time and again and again.
Alexander didn't just lay out the situation. She gave a call to action, to a new movement, citing Martin Luther King's belief that the next big movement must be a human rights movement, for only when we are all free and fearless, will we be the nation to which we aspire.
Black men have been taken off the streets. Who is next? Illegal immigrants? What about that tall wall that folks still want built through Big Bend and ranch land that only the only desperate would travel. The fence is about appeasing the fears of white voters who feel, once again, overtaken by forces beyond their control.  However, we've made it so dangerous for illegals to enter along our southern border that numbers are in decline. Yet, have you noticed? The rhetoric is still pitched high. And tough.
I left tonight thinking, "This is what the new 'war on women' is about too." Politics dictated being tough on crime and now tough on illegal immigrants and newly tough on women's health (which seems to mean birth control these days). Stop all these 'others' in their tracks and maybe the fear will go away. Or maybe the fear must hang around forever, because it is so useful when playing with folk's feelings and their vote.
I hear so much talk this election cycle about freeloading and 'government entitlements.' Isn't this just code for the aforementioned groups? Vote for us and we'll put them all in their place and once again, everyone will be safe.
Buy Michelle Alexander's book here.  Or you might buy the book at an independent book seller? That might be the better thing to do.

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