For anyone who hasn't read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, now is the time to pick it up from your local bookstore, purchase it on Amazon, or check it out from your town's library. It is required reading for anyone interested in criminal justice reform and racial (in)equality in the United States, especially when our President, Donald Trump, has nominated Senator Jeff Sessions to be the nation's new Attorney General. The book essentially argues that the “War on Drugs” laid the legal and social groundwork for a new racial caste system to emerge as a backlash against the gains of the Civil Rights movement. The system was validated culturally by assumption that “criminals” deserve second-class treatment for breaking the law, and legally by the Supreme Court decision Alexander v. Sandoval. It operates by trapping those convicted of crimes (particularly non-violent drug related crimes) into a vicious legal cycle in which many of their most basic rights are stripped away in the name of “justice”. Without equal access to public housing, employment opportunities, business licenses, federal support (i.e food stamps), and strapped with outrageous court fees (and in some cases the cost of incarceration), people labeled “criminals” have no way to achieve success after prison and, as an obvious result, are forced to resort to criminal activities to survive, hence why about 70% of people released from prison return within 3 years..
There should be no question about the racial characteristics of this system. According to the data from the 2010 census as broken down by the Prison Policy Initiative, African Americans make up only 13% of the U.S/ population yet they account for 40% of the U.S. prison population. Whites, on the other hand, constitute 64% of the U.S. population but only amount to 39% of those incarcerated. This means that African Americans are arrested and imprisoned at a rate far surpassing that of White Americans. However, the worst part is that, even though Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits federally funded programs or activities from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin, in 2001 (Alexander v. Sandoval) the Supreme Court ruled that Title VI did not provide a right of private action, aka the right to sue federally funded programs/organizations on the basis of discrimination, unless plaintiffs could prove “intentional discrimination” as opposed to “disparate impact discrimination”. The difference between the two should be obvious. Even if police initiatives like “Stop and Frisk” disparately target people of color, unless one can prove that a sergeant, lieutenant, or commissioner rallied the troops and said, “Let's go out and frisk those (insert racial slur)”, one cannot sue for racial discrimination or profiling. Even though data shows that the criminal justice system is disproportionately populated by persons of color, one cannot raise a legal hand against racial bias within the system at any level of the process, from arrest to sentencing, without proving “intentional discrimination”.
But what does all of this have to do with Trump and Senator Sessions? Well, the Attorney General nominee is against reform in the criminal justice system. He's against efforts to reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes such as drug offenses. In fact, drug offenses made up 40% of Senator Sessions' convictions as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. When 80% of people in federal prison for drug offenses are black or Latino and almost 60% of people in state prisons are black or Latino, an Attorney General like Senator Sessions, who is particularly invested in perpetuating the practices instituted by the War on Drugs, would only bring about more injustice, more discrimination, more families tossed into despair, and more rights wronged.
Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow decrees the only thing capable of saving this country is a vast social movement that annihilates the social distance between criminals and so-called law abiding citizens (those who are arrested for possession of marijuana and those who smoke weed on their couch), a social movement that destroys the “us/them” dichotomy and instead invites us all to finally take responsibility for the groups that we have historically and presently turned away from. Even when governed by liars, demagogic narcissists, idiots, and soon a man who once called the NAACP and ACLU anti-American (Senator Sessions), this movement is still possible. The first thing to do is research. Educate yourself and share what you've learned. The New Jim Crow, as I've said before, is a great place to start. The second step is to take action. Join protesters. March. Volunteer. Petition your local government. Write online, or for whatever print publications you can. Spread your voice. Get involved. It's already been made painfully clear that real change cannot occur with people twiddling their thumbs.