By Michelle Alexander
261 pages, New Press, 2012
Racism will never die in the United States. Pace Martin Luther King.
Lifelong Democrats in one Ohio county will not vote for President Obama this fall because he is black.
When a black hockey player recently scored a goal in a Stanley Cup playoff that eliminated their beloved Bruins, Bostonians hurled racial epithets via social media.
But far more significant is the virulent racism of the U.S. prison system. It is an international scandal.
Author Michelle Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor, rightly calls it the “new racial caste system.”
About 2.3 million Americans are behind bars, most of them blacks and Latinos. Most of them were jailed in the so-called drug war for the most trivial reasons.
Alexander confirms what The Nation has characterized as “America’s homegrown gulag archipelago, a vast network of jails, prisons and supermax tombs for the living dead. It has metastasized into the largest detention system in the industrialized world.”
One in three young African-Americans will serve time in prison because of “policies that effectively funnel youth of color from schools to jails,” Alexander says.
But that is just the beginning of their woes. Once a felon, always a felon. Felons are forever branded with the “mark of Cain.”
Felons find it hard to get jobs. They are denied federal housing. Felons usually can’t vote. They are excluded from juries. Felons are denied food stamps. They are hounded by parole officers.
Felons are fifth-class citizens, living under a legal apartheid with shattered lives.
The book vividly portrays America for what it is: a grossly unjust society. The author has facts and figures to back up her horror story.
U.S. jails are swollen with people who don’t belong there. They were jailed for possessing a pinch or two of marijuana, the mildest of drugs and less harmful than cigarettes.
The American prison system is terribly punitive.
“A life sentence for a first-time drug offense is unheard of in the rest of the developed world,” Alexander writes. “A conviction for selling a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of heroin yields a mandatory 10-year sentence in U.S. federal court compared with six months in prison in England.”
Sentencing disparity is huge. Sale of 500 grams of powder cocaine, favored by whites, gets a five-year sentence. Sale of just five grams of crack cocaine, favored by blacks, gets five years.
Prisoners face a dilemma in the plea. Even the innocent often plead guilty because jail is “only” three years. If convicted, prisoners risk five to 20 years behind bars.
The press boosted the absurd drug war.
In 1986, Time called crack cocaine “the issue of the year.” Newsweek declared crack the biggest story since Vietnam and Watergate. From October 1988 to October 1989 the Washington Post ran 1,565 stories about the “drug scourge.”
The Supreme Court upholds the injustice, repeatedly sustaining the built-in racism of the criminal justice system.
“It has seized every opportunity to facilitate the drug war by eviscerating Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizures,” Alexander writes.
In the 1987 McCleskey case, the court declared that a criminal justice system that treats blacks worse than whites is inevitable, that the Constitution is violated only by individual discrimination. The court refuses to grant relief to blacks being stopped because they are black, searched, arrested, held on bail, charged with crimes, convicted and sent to prison.
Obama abets the bogus war on drugs. He laments the “AWOL fathers” but never says the majority of young black men in large urban areas are under the control of the criminal justice system.
Alexander concludes: “Hundreds of thousands of black men are unable to be fathers, not because of a lack of commitment or desire, but because they are warehoused in prisons.”
Racist laws play a tremendous role in politics. Alexander notes that if 600,000 former prisoners had been allowed to vote in Florida, Al Gore would have easily won the presidency in 2000.
The reason for harsh drug laws is simple. They were enacted by politicians — and will not be repealed by politicians — because a tough-on-crime stance wins elections.
The prison system makes it plain that while overt racism is barred, covert bias is rampant.
The solution? Portugal’s. It decriminalized all drugs in 2001, spending the money “putting drug users in cages” and into treatment and prevention.
A Cato Institute study by Glenn Greenwald called decriminalization “a resounding success, a guide for drug policy debates around the world.”
Unfortunately, this sensible solution will never be adopted in benighted America.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.