I was a student in elementary school when Reagan declared his War on Drugs. At my small Atlanta school, I remember, even then, how this war came to shape my earliest impressions of crime. Other students wore D.A.R.E. tee shirts and our teachers and parents warned us about accepting drugs from strangers. Commercials were filled with slogans and taglines like “Just Say No,” “I Learned It from Watching You,” and, of course, the famous, and much-parodied, “This Is Your Brain On Drugs” demonstration. Reports of crack, crack dealers, and crack babies filled the news. While I would go on, over many years, to learn about some of the injustices Michelle Alexander discusses in The New Jim Crow—especially the discriminatory mass incarceration of black and brown men—I admit that I had never, until I read this book, reflected enough on that early “war” that was such a formative part of my childhood education.
So you can imagine my surprise when I read this:
“there is no truth to the notion that the War on Drugs was launched in response to crack cocaine…. Reagan officially announced the current drug war in 1982, before crack became an issue in the media or a crisis in poor black neighborhoods” (5).
“In fact, the War on Drugs began at a time when illegal drug use was on the decline. During this same time period, however, a war was declared, causing arrests and convictions for drug offenses to skyrocket, especially among people of color” (6).
Such challenges are typical of this book, which presents, in swift prose and formidable detail, its thesis that America’s system of mass incarceration is a restyling of Jim Crow for an era that sees itself as colorblind (11). Alexander’s goal is not to downplay the devastating effects of drug use but rather to highlight how the War on Drugs was a targeted and highly racialized media campaign intended to jail black men for minor drug offenses and to mobilize the resentment of poor white voters who resisted the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. Alexander also situates the drug crisis in the context of globalization and deindustrialization, which devastated poor inner-city neighborhoods, leaving few viable employment options and increasing the incentive to sell drugs (51). With massive amounts of federal funding and the militarization of police forces in subsequent years, the War on Drugs was born as a new version of Jim Crow for a post-Civil Rights society that shunned overt racism for a discourse of colorblindness. By appealing to “law and order,” the “Proponents of racial hierarchy found they could install a new racial caste system without violating the law or the new limits of acceptable public discourse” (40), and this emphasis on law and order was also taken up by subsequent presidents as they relentlessly armed and funded the police.
Each chapter in this magisterial book builds on this central claim, focusing on five different aspects of mass incarceration: the American history of racial caste, the systems of arrest and incarceration, the stark racial disparities that characterize the criminal justice system, the stigma and discrimination faced by people who have been arrested, and the normalization and denial that surrounds the imprisonment of black men. A final chapter offers some rousing suggestions for a new racial justice movement that challenges our society’s underlying assumptions of colorblindness. Throughout, Alexander offers evidence ranging from stories of individual cases to research studies to analyses of Supreme Court rulings.
It’s hard to summarize a book that is so powerfully constructed and informative. Alexander meticulously documents the myriad racial and economic injustices of the War on Drugs, including the startling fact that, in the mid-70s, before the war started, some criminologists were predicting the end of the prison system (8) and that between 1980 and 2000, the number of incarcerated people went from around 300,000 to over 2 million (60). She debunks media stereotypes about race and drug activity, showing that white youth are the most likely of any racial group to possess or sell drugs, but are much less likely to go to prison for it (99). Alexander also uncovers the various ways the criminal justice system perpetuates this discrimination, showing how the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections and use of stop-and-frisk policies and pretext stops are used to profile and arrest black people.
By the way, Alexander also challenges many of the arguments used in favor of law and order policing and anticipates counterarguments, which makes this an important book not just to be read but to be discussed with others. For example, some might contend that violent crime is responsible for our nation’s large prison population, but Alexander cites numerous studies to show that incarceration rates rise even when violent crime rates are down (101).
The final chapter is meant as a call to debate and action, inviting readers to—among other things—talk frankly about race and to build a movement to end mass incarceration with the understanding that it is a racial caste system, not a crime-control system (236). She closes with a powerful quote from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it” (qtd. on 261).
This is a masterful work: it taught me many things I did not know and gave me evidence and language to better understand and discuss things I do know. It should be required reading at every university in America.