A lot has happened in the four years since the publication of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, a landmark book that showed how the “war on drugs” and the mass incarceration of black Americans has undermined much of the progress achieved by the civil rights movement.
States around the country have downsized their prison systems. Washington and Colorado legalized recreational marijuana for adults. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has promoted a less punitive approach to the prosecution of drug crimes.
And yet, in a press call on Thursday sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for the decriminalization of drugs, Alexander warned against complacency. She called for the U.S. to not just stop the war on drugs, but to pay “reparations” and give a public platform to the communities of color most harmed by the drug war.
“When I see images of people using marijuana and images of people who are now trying to run legitimate marijuana businesses, they’re almost all white," she said, noting she supports legalizing pot.
“After 40 years of impoverished black men getting prison time for selling weed, white men are planning to get rich doing the same things," she added. "So that’s why I think we have to start talking about reparations for the war on drugs. How do we repair the harms caused?"
She added that the government should pay reparation money to families that have been destroyed by the drug war. “You can’t just destroy a people and say, ‘It’s over, we’re stopping now,'” she said.
The United States incarcerates more than 2 million people, many of whom are jailed for drug offenses. Blacks make up more than 40 percent of the prison population, despite comprising less than 15 percent of the U.S. population as a whole, according to U.S. Census data.
In recent years, states around the country, including conservative places like Texas and North Carolina, have slashed prison budgets by investing more heavily in less expensive alternatives to incarceration, like ankle bracelets that allow people to serve time at home and centers that treat drug addiction.
“We see politicians across the spectrum raising concerns for the first time in 40 years about the size of our prison state,” said Alexander, “and yet I worry that so much of the dialogue is driven by financial concerns rather than genuine concern for the communities that have been most impacted and the families that have been destroyed” by aggressive anti-drug policies.
Unless “we have a real conversation” about the magnitude of the damage caused by the drug war, “we’re going to find ourselves, years from now, either having a slightly downsized system of mass incarceration that continues to hum along pretty well,” she said, "or some new system of racial and social control will have emerged again, because we have not learned the core lesson that our history is trying to teach us.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the publication date of Alexander’s book. It was published four years ago. It also misstated that "most" people are incarcerated for drug offenses. About one-fourth are.