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Think Outside the Bars

Why real justice means fewer prisons.
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Page 2

White Backlash

Michelle Alexander photo by Nick Koogler

Michelle Alexander teaches law at Ohio State University.

Photo by Nick Koogler.

But a backlash was also brewing. Anxiety and resentment among poor and working class whites was on the rise. The truth is that poor and working class whites had their world rocked by the Civil Rights Movement. Wealthy whites could send their children to private schools and give them all of the advantages that wealth has to offer, yet they were a tiny minority that stood apart from the rest of whites and virtually all blacks. Poor and working class whites—the regular folk—were faced with a social demotion. Their kids were potentially subject to desegregation and busing orders; their kids were suddenly forced to compete on equal terms for increasingly scarce jobs. Poor whites were better off than African Americans for the most part, but they were not well off—they, too, were struggling for survival.

Felon disenfranchisement laws bar 13 percent of African-American men from voting. Polls show 8 in 10 Americans support voting rights for people who have completed their sentences.

What lower-class whites did have, in the words of W.E.B. DuBois, was “the public and psychological wage” paid to white workers, whose status and privileges as whites compensated for low pay and harsh working conditions. In retrospect, it seems clear that, from a racial justice perspective, nothing could have been more important in the 1970s and 80s than finding a way to create a durable, interracial, bottom-up coalition for social and economic justice. But in the years following King’s death, civil rights leaders turned away from the Poor People’s Movement and began resisting calls for class-based affirmative action on the grounds that whites had been enjoying racial preferences for hundreds of years.

Resentment, frustration, and anger expressed by poor and working class whites—as they worried aloud that blacks were leapfrogging over them on their way to Harvard and Yale—were chalked up to racism, leading to little open or honest dialogue about race and an enormous political opportunity for conservative strategists. “Get tough” rhetoric provided a facially race neutral outlet for racial frustrations and hostilities. H.R. ­Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s former chief of staff, summed up what came to be known as the “Southern Strategy” this way: “The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is designing a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

The War on Drugs

And so the “War on Drugs” was born. Richard Nixon was the first to use the term, but Ronald Reagan turned the rhetorical war into a literal one. When he declared his drug war in 1982, drug crime was actually on the decline. It was a couple years before—not after—crack ripped through inner-city communities and became a media sensation. From the outset, the drug war had little to do with drug crime and much to do with racial politics. As numerous historians and political scientists have now shown, Reagan declared his drug war in an attempt to make good on campaign promises to “get tough” on a group of people identified not-so-subtly in the media and political discourse as black and brown. Once crack hit the streets, the Reagan administration seized on the development, actually hiring staff whose job it was to publicize inner-city crack babies, crack dealers, and the so-called crack whores. Once the enemy in the war was racially defined, a wave of punitiveness washed over the United States. Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove they could be even tougher on “them.” Some black legislators joined the calls for “get tough” measures, often in desperation, as they sought to deal with rising crime and joblessness in ghetto communities. They found themselves complicit—­wittingly or unwittingly—in the emergence of a new caste system. And many civil rights advocates found themselves exacerbating racial divisions, fighting for affirmative action even as they abandoned the Poor People’s Movement that sought to restructure our nation’s economic and political system for the benefit of people of all colors. They had accepted a racial bribe: the promise of largely superficial changes benefiting a relative few in exchange for abandoning the radical movement born in the 1960s that sought liberty and equality for all of us.

Poor whites had accepted a similar racial bribe when they embraced Jim Crow laws—laws which were proposed following the Civil War as part of a strategic effort by white elites to destroy the Populist movement, the nation’s first interracial, political coalition for economic and social justice in the South. Time and time again, the divide-and-­conquer strategy has worked to eliminate the possibility that poor people of all colors might see themselves as sharing common interests, having a linked fate.

It’s time for me to break the silence.

"Mass Incarceration
in the Age of Colorblindness"

Video: Amy Goodman interviews Michelle Alexander.

 “Your son is suffering because of a drug war declared with black folks in mind,” I say after a long pause. “White people—especially poor whites—are suffering because of the politics of racial division. Latinos are suffering, too. The drug war as we know it would not exist today, but for the demonization of black men, and now your son, a young white man, is paying the price. Poor whites are collateral damage in this drug war. But whether you’re the target or collateral damage, the suffering remains the same. Thanks to the drug war, we have the opportunity to see clearly how caste-like systems hurt us all, even though they hurt us differently or in different degrees. We must go back and pick up where Martin Luther King Jr. left off and do the hard work of movement building on behalf of poor people of all colors. Are you willing to help build a movement to end racial caste in America, a human rights movement on behalf of all of us? All of us or none?”

“Yes, I am,” the white woman shouts loudly, unaided by a microphone. The crowd erupts in applause. She wipes a few tears and smiles. “I just need to know that my son matters, too. I guess we all need to know that we matter. That’s what it’s all about, right?”


Michelle Alexander wrote this article for Beyond Prisons, the Summer 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Michelle is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University. She is the author of The New Jim Crow.


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