Author and Legal Scholar, Michelle Alexander, Talks about The War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration (Part 3)

Kathleen Wells: As we mentioned, it [mass incarceration] was politically expedient. In other words, the politicians could see that there could be a backlash to the gains of the civil rights movement.

Michelle Alexander: Yes. It serves the interests of the politicians well, but did great harm to virtually everyone else. This drug war was declared with black folks in mind, but it has harmed and destroyed the lives of people of all colors.

A poor white kid who's in that situation today is suffering because of a drug war declared with black folks in mind. And in some states Latinos have become the primary target of the drug war. Now that private prison companies have found that they can make a killing on mass incarceration, these private prison companies are now in the business of building detention centers for suspected illegal immigrants. So the profit motive has picked up where the political opportunism left off. And now the system is so deeply rooted in our economic, political, and social structure that, I believe, nothing short of a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration.

Kathleen Wells: Talk to me about the fact that President Obama recently announced his intention to embrace the Edward Byrne Memorial Grant Program? What does this signal to you?

Michelle Alexander: Well, one thing it signals is that this economic crisis that we're in, may not result in a large scale downsizing of our prison system, but actually may result in an increase.

The Edward Byrne Memorial Grant Program is the federal program that funds the drug war -- drug task forces all over the country. So the fact that, Obama would be, expressing his interest in increasing funding for this program is extremely worrisome.

The Democrats have increased the funding for the Byrne Grant Program by 2 billion dollars in the 2009 stimulus package, nearly a twelve fold increase in financing.

The channeling of the economic stimulus dollars to law enforcement may help some folks keep their jobs. But, as New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently observed, it's a callous political calculus. He said, "The fact that they're ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of black and Hispanic men and by extension, the communities they belong to barely seems to register."

Though Barack Obama's drug czar has indicated, that the Obama administration intends to, support drug treatment more than other administrations in the past, the 2011 budget actually has about the same ratio of spending for enforcement activities versus treatment activities as prior administration.

In fact, according to one analyst, the ratio is the worst that he's seen, even worse than in the Reagan administration, favoring an enforcement approach over drug treatment. There are arguments in policy circles about whether the new drug budget is in fact better or worse than previous administrations. But the reality is this; the drug war is not being scaled back by the Obama administration and in fact, they are pouring billions more dollars into the grant program that has been the engine of the drug war for the past 30 years.

Kathleen Wells: What do you say to the critics who say although you're characterizing it as a racial caste system in America, we can look to the successes of a President Obama, or a Colin Powell, or a Condolezza Rice, or an Oprah Winfrey?

Michelle Alexander: Yes. Well, I hear that a lot. How can you say this is a racial caste system? Just look at Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey. Just look at the black doctors and black lawyers. The reality, though, is that no caste system in America has ever governed all African-Americans -- there have always been free blacks and black success stories even during slavery and Jim Crow.

During slavery, there were some black slave owners, you know, not many, but some. And during Jim Crow, there were some black lawyers and black doctors, not many, but some. Certainly, the extraordinary nature of individual black achievement in formerly white domain, certainly does suggest that the old Jim Crow is dead, but it doesn't necessarily mean the end of racial caste -- if history is any guide, it may have just taken a different form. I think any honest observer of American racial history has to acknowledge that the rules and reasons the legal system employs for enforcing status relations of any kind, they evolve and they change as they're challenged.

In the first chapter of the book, I described the cyclical rebirth of caste in America; how systems of control like slavery and Jim Crow appear to die but then are reborn in new form tailored to the needs and constraints of the time. So for example, following the end of slavery, a new system of control emerged known as convict leasing.

Many people don't realize that after the civil war, black men were arrested en masse. It was our nation's first prison boom. They were arrested en masse for extremely minor crimes like loitering and vagrancy, sent to prison, and then released to plantations -- sometimes the very plantations they had been freed from or their parents had been freed from -- leased to plantations, and forced to work for next to nothing. The idea was they were supposed to earn their freedom, but the catch was, they could never earn enough to pay back the cost of their clothing or shelter to the plantation owner's satisfaction. So, they were effectively re-enslaved for the rest of their lives.

Today, I believe the criminal justice system is being used once again to effectively recreate caste for an extraordinary percentage of the African-American community. Now the success of the few, does not excuse the caste-like system that exists for many. In fact, black exceptionalism -- the high profile, highly visible, examples of the black success actually serves to justify and rationalize mass incarceration. Today, the public consensus is that not all black people are bad, not all black people are inferior, but some, and if only they make good choices like Barack Obama, then they wouldn't be part of the under caste. But as I mentioned earlier, Barack Obama himself made the very mistakes, experimenting with drug use, violating our nation's drug laws, he made those very mistakes and yet he is not part of the under caste. So, to say it's all a matter of choice, ignores the fact that these laws are being enforced in such a highly discriminatory manner and locking poor people of color into a caste-like system where they are barred from jobs and housing, voting, jury service for the rest of their lives for engaging in precisely the same kinds of activities that get a pass in other communities.

Kathleen Wells: Martin Luther King's last speech in 1968 dealt with economic justice. What would King say if he were to come back and look at the situation today?

Michelle Alexander: I gave a speech about precisely that question and pointed out that in 1968, Martin Luther King gave his "Other America" speech, where he described two Americas; one America that was overflowing with opportunity and prosperity where people lived lives of hope and well-being and another America where there was rampant joblessness, chronic unemployment, underfunded and inadequate schools -- where people no longer had motivation to look for work because their odds of finding work were so low, that there were these drastically two different Americas.

And in the other America that African-Americans occupied, Negroes were isolated on a lonely island of poverty surrounded by an ocean of material prosperity. And I asked the question what really has changed? The reality is, is that most of the indicators of black well-being that Martin Luther King cited in his "Other America" speech are actually worse today than they were back then.

Only 35% of black boys nationwide graduate from high school -- the figure is 26% in New York City. And back in 1968 Martin Luther King was complaining of black unemployment rate of about 9%. Today, in major cities nationwide, about 50% of black men are jobless. And in Detroit the figure is 60%.

A study was recently released showing that in New York City only about 25% of young black men actually have a job. So here we are, decades after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, and many of those economic indicators are far worse. And from the ashes of slavery and Jim Crow has emerged a vast new system of racial and social control that Martin Luther King could never have imagined. I believe this system of mass incarceration would have Dr. King turning in his grave. There's no doubt in my mind that Dr. King would be doing everything in his power to build a movement to end mass incarceration in the United States; a movement for education, not incarceration. For jobs, not jails. For an end to the discrimination against those who have been to prison -- discrimination that denies people their basic human rights to work, to shelter, to food.

So I think this emergence of mass incarceration in America proves just how far we as a nation have veered away from the path Dr. King was traveling at the end of his life.

Part 1 and 2 of my Alexander interviews can be seen here and here.