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Think Outside the Bars

Why real justice means fewer prisons.
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Alexander spread 58


A white woman with gray hair pulled neatly into a bun raises her hand. She keeps it up, unwavering and rigid, as she waits patiently for her turn to speak. Finally, the microphone is passed to the back of the room, and she leaps to her feet. With an air of desperation she blurts out, “You know white people suffer in this system, too, don’t you? It’s not just black and brown people destroyed by this drug war. My son, he’s been in the system. He’s an addict. He needs help. He needs treatment, but we don’t have money. He needs his family. But they keep givin’ him prison time. White people are hurting, too.” She is trembling and sits down. 

There is an uncomfortable silence in the room, but I am in no hurry to respond. I let her question hang in the air. I want people to feel this discomfort, the tension created by her suffering. The audience is overwhelmingly African American, and a few of them are visibly agitated or annoyed by her question. I’ve spent the last forty minutes discussing my book, The New Jim Crow. The book argues that today, in the so-called era of colorblindness, and, yes—even in the age of Obama—racial caste is alive and well in America. The mass incarceration of poor people of color through a racially biased drug war has birthed a new caste system. It is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow.

Racial Politics, Not Crime

The audience has heard the facts: Our prison population quintupled in a few short decades for reasons that have stunningly little to do with crime or crime rates. Incarceration rates—especially black incarceration rates—have soared regardless of whether crime was going up or down in any given community or the nation as a whole. Mass incarceration has been driven primarily by politics—racial politics—not crime. As part of a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, our nation declared a “War on Drugs” that has turned back the clock on racial progress in the United States. Although people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, African Americans have been targeted at grossly disproportionate rates. When the War on Drugs escalated in the mid-1980s, prison admissions for African Americans skyrocketed, nearly quadrupling in three years, then increasing steadily to a level in 2000 more than 26 times the level in 1983. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison have been African American.

just the facts
Just the Facts:
It's a Locking-People-Up Problem

The American problem with mass incarceration has less to do with crime than you think.

As a nation, we’ve been encouraged to imagine that this war has been focused on rooting out violent offenders or drug kingpins, but that is far from the truth. Federal funding has flowed to those state and local law enforcement agencies that boost dramatically the sheer number of drug arrests. It’s a numbers game. That’s why the overwhelming majority of people arrested in the drug war are the “low-hanging fruit”—poor people of color who are stopped, frisked, and tossed to the sidewalk by law enforcement, forced to lie spread-eagled on the pavement, simply because they “looked like” criminals while standing on the corner talking to friends or walking home from school or the subway.

The U.S. Supreme Court has given the police license to sweep poor communities of color, stopping, interrogating, searching anyone or everyone—without any evidence of criminal activity—so long as they get “consent.” What’s consent? When a police officer, with his hand on his gun, approaches a 16-year-old on the street and bellows, “Son, will you turn around so I can frisk you?” and the kid says, “Yeah,” and complies, that’s consent. Usually the exchanges are less polite.

And once the police get consent, the Fourth Amendment ban against unreasonable searches and seizures no longer applies. According to the Supreme Court, these “consensual” encounters are of no constitutional significance, even though they may wind up sending a 19-year-old kid to prison for the rest of his life: Life sentences for first-time drug offenses were upheld by the Supreme Court in Harmelin v. Michigan. The race of the defendant in that case was key to the sentence in the first place. It is nearly impossible to imagine a judge sentencing a white college kid to life in prison for getting caught with a bag of weed or cocaine. That’s how this system works: Poor people of color are swept into the criminal justice system by the millions for drug crimes that go largely ignored when committed by middle- or upper-class whites. And release from prison or jail marks just the beginning of punishment, not the end.

Once branded a criminal, people enter a parallel social universe in which they are stripped of the rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement. The old forms of discrimination—employment and housing discrimination, denial of basic public benefits and the right to vote, and exclusion from jury service—are perfectly legal again. In some major American cities, more than half of working-age African American men are saddled with criminal records and thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These men are part of a growing undercaste—not class, caste—a group of people, defined largely by race, who are relegated to a permanent, second-class status by law.

Uniting Poor People

The white woman is waiting for me to speak.

I know a great deal rides on my response. It is not an overstatement to say that the success or failure of the emerging movement to end mass incarceration may turn on the ability of advocates like myself to respond to people like her in a manner that validates and honors her experience, while not brushing aside—even slightly—the thoroughly racial nature of the prevailing caste system. Is it possible to join poor whites like her with poor people of color in a movement to challenge a political and economic system that harms them all, though differently?

1 in 87 working-aged white men is in prison or jail compared with 1 in 36 Hispanic men, and 1 in 12 African-American men.

There was a brief moment when it seemed clear that the answer was yes. As the Civil Rights Movement was gaining full steam, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders made clear that that they viewed the eradication of economic inequality as the next front in movement building—a Poor People’s Movement was required. Genuine equality for black people, King reasoned, demanded a radical restructuring of society, one that would address the needs of black and white poor throughout the country.

In 1968, having won landmark civil rights legislation, King strenuously urged racial justice advocates to shift from a civil rights to a human rights paradigm. A human rights approach, he believed, would offer far greater hope than the civil rights model had provided for those determined to create a thriving, multiracial democracy free from racial hierarchy. It would offer a positive vision of what we can strive for—a society in which people of all races are treated with dignity and have the right to food, shelter, health care, education, and security. “We must see the great distinction between a reform movement and a revolutionary movement,” he said. “We are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.” The Poor People’s Movement seemed poised to unite poor people of all colors in a bold challenge to the prevailing economic and political system.

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