“More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began," Michelle Alexander told a packed meeting at the Pasadena Main Library in California on April 13.
Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State, was discussing her bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
More than 200 people braved pouring rain and traffic jams to crowd into the library's main room. Dozens more shuffled into an overflow room, and even more latecomers were turned away. Alexander's topic had struck a nerve.
Alexander said growing crime rates over the past 30 years don't explain the skyrocketing numbers of black ― and increasingly brown ― men caught in the US prison system.
“In fact,” she said, “crime rates have fluctuated over the years and are now at historical lows.
“Most of that increase is due to the 'war on drugs', a war waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color.”
However, she said studies have shown that whites use and sell illegal drugs at rates equal to or above blacks.
In some black inner-city communities, four out of five black youths can expect to be caught up in the criminal justice system during their lifetimes.
As a consequence, a great many black men are disenfranchised, said Alexander. They are prevented from voting because of their felony convictions. They are also barred from public housing, discriminated against in hiring, excluded from juries and denied educational opportunities.
"What do we expect them to do?" she asked. "Well, 70% return to prison within two years."
Alexander said a big impediment to change is the huge prison-industrial system.
"If we were to return prison populations to 1970 levels, before the war on drugs began," she said, "more than a million people working in the system would see their jobs disappear."
It is like the US's current war addiction. The US builds a huge war machine ― bigger than all the other countries in the world combined ― with millions of well-paid defense industry jobs and billions of dollars at stake.
With a hammer that big, every foreign policy issue looks like a nail ― another bomb to drop, another country to invade, another weapons development project to build.
Similarly, with a well-entrenched prison-industrial complex with a million jobs and billions of dollars at stake, every criminal justice issue also looks like a nail ― another prison sentence to pass down, another third strike to enforce, another prison to build in some job-starved small town, another chance at a better life to deny.
[Abridged from www.zmag.org .]