How I spent my fall semester (Online writing)

We all entered the classroom with assumptions and thoughts about race in contemporary society.  Write about these ideas and how they might have changed during the course of the semester.  Give at least 5 examples and discuss how this information has impacted you focusing on how you think about race, racism, and inequality now

Last day to post – December 8

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Life in Prison for Stealing Candy? (DOUBLE Participation)

The number of prisoners serving life for nonviolent crimes is truly staggering.
November 15, 2013  |

This past August, the Lafayette-based IND Monthly published a story about a 54-year-old man named Bill Winters, incarcerated at a medium-security prison in Epps, Louisiana. Winters, who is black, was arrested in June 2009, after he drunkenly entered an unlocked oncologist’s office on a Sunday morning, setting off a security alarm. When police arrived, he had rummaged through a desk drawer, and was in possession of a box of Gobstoppers candy. Winters was convicted of simple burglary a week before Thanksgiving, and given a seven-year prison sentence—hardly a slap on the wrist. But a few days later, the prosecutor in his case, Assistant District Attorney Alan Haney, sought additional punishment for Winters, under the state’s habitual offender law. Based on his record of nonviolent offenses, which went back to 1991 and ranged from cocaine possession to burglary, the trial court resentenced Winters to twelve years without any chance of parole. But Haney was still not satisfied. He appealed the ruling, arguing that the court had imposed an “illegally lenient sentence” and that the rightful punishment was life without the possibility of parole.

At a subsequent hearing, Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft estimated that Winters had been arrested more than twenty times, calling him a “career criminal who victimized a lot of citizens in our city.” But it seemed clear that he was more of a thorn in the side of law enforcement than a looming threat to society. His brothers, Dennis and James, testified that Winters had been homeless at the time of his offense and that he had a history of addiction; James had overcome his own drug problems and said that he would be willing to “take [Winters] in and work with him.” A former Lafayette police officer who had once worked at a correctional facility where Winters was held, said that although he did not know him well, Winters “didn’t cause problems” and had potential for rehabilitation. But this past summer, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision: “The state asserts that because of the defendant’s particular multiple offender status, the law mandates a minimum sentence of life in prison without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. We agree.”

Dennis Winters was incredulous when he heard the news about his brother. “What? This makes no sense,” he told IND Monthly. “I don’t understand what these people are trying to do. He’s not a violent person. He’s fragile. He wouldn’t hurt anybody, except maybe for himself. I just don’t get how they’re going to give him life for some Gobstopper candy.”

Today, Winters joins hundreds of Louisiana prisoners sent to die in prison after committing similarly nonviolent offenses, from drug possession to property crimes. The national numbers are tallied in a major new study released today by the American Civil Liberties Union, titled “A Living Death: Life without Parole For Nonviolent Offenses,” which documents scores of cases with echoes of Winters’s story. Across the country, defendants have been given life without parole for such crimes as having a crack pipe, “siphoning gasoline from a truck” and, inanother Louisiana case, shoplifting a $159 jacket.

Tales of outsized sentencing for minor crimes may not surprise anyone familiar with the well-documented excesses of three-strikes sentencing in California, for example. But the ACLU’s report is the first to attempt to grasp the national numbers, specifically concerning nonviolent offenders sentenced to die behind bars. The report found 3,278 prisoners serving life without parole in 2012 for nonviolent crimes, of which 79 percent were for drug crimes. This is not the complete picture—Bill Winters himself is not among the prisoners covered—and crucially, only includes formal life-without-parole cases. It does not include life sentences where parole is a possibility—if largely only in theory, given the increasing reluctance of parole boards to free prisoners. It also does not include, say, 100-year sentences, or the kinds of stacked, decades-long sentences that are, in effect, permanent life sentences. “The number of people serving death-in-prison sentences after being convicted of nonviolent crimes is not known,” the report concludes, “but it is most certainly higher than the number of prisoners serving formal life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent crimes.”

Indeed, a report released earlier this year by the Sentencing Project found that one in nine prisoners in the US are serving a life sentence and that “those with parole-eligible life sentences are increasingly less likely to be released.” Including life with parole, the report estimated that “approximately 10,000 lifers have been convicted of nonviolent offenses.”

Determining what qualifies as “nonviolent” is similarly complicated. As the ACLU points out, “Although the term ‘violent crime’ brings to mind very serious offenses such as rape and murder, some jurisdictions define violent crime to include burglary, breaking and entering, manufacture or sale of controlled substances, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, or extortion.” In other words, the number of prisoners serving life without parole who are far from the “worst of the worst” is higher still.

* * *

Regardless of the exact numbers, and perhaps not surprisingly for the state known as theprison capital of the world, it is clear that Louisiana is home to a disproportionate number of these sentences. It also provides a dramatic illustration of the explosion of permanent life sentences over the past four decades: “In Louisiana, just 143 people were serving LWOP sentences in 1970,” the ACLU notes. “That number had increased to 4,637 by 2012.” The report found that Louisiana had the highest number of nonviolent offenders serving life without parole out of all the states: 429. Florida was a distant second, with 270. (Thanks to the drug war, federal prisoners accounted for the largest share at 2,074.)

Among the Louisiana prisoners highlighted in the report are Fate Vincent Winslow, who, while homeless, “acted as a go-between in the sale of two small bags of marijuana, worth $10 in total, to an undercover police officer;” Timothy Jackson, who stole a jacket from a department store in New Orleans, Paul Carter, convicted of “possession of a trace amount of heroin residue that was so minute it could not be weighed;” and Sylvester Mead, a Shreveport man who drunkenly threatened a police officer while seated, handcuffed, in the back of a patrol car.

Mead’s case, like Winters’s, shows the way in which prosecutors’ wishes consistently trump judicial power when it comes to sentencing people for such crimes. Not only did his trial judge oppose the initial charge of public intimidation, he made it repeatedly clear he opposed sending Mead to die in prison. Mead’s verbal offense “does not warrant, under any conscionable or constitutional basis, a life sentence,” he said. But Mead’s prosecutor appealed multiple times seeking a harsher sentence because of his old convictions. After his previous sentences were vacated by a higher court multiple times, Judge Leon L. Emanuel was bound by Louisiana’s mandatory sentencing statute to hand down a sentence of life without parole. “No matter how long this Court were to deliberate about this matter, it cannot fashion a legal result to explain that the life sentence without probation or suspension of sentence is unconstitutionally excessive,” he concluded.

Such statements from judges are not unusual, it turns out. “In case after case reviewed by the ACLU, the sentencing judge said on the record that he or she opposed the mandatory LWOP sentence as too severe but had no discretion to take individual circumstances into account or override the prosecutor’s charging decision,” the ACLU found. Mandatory sentencing schemes are certainly to blame—in Louisiana, they account for almost all—97.6 percent—of the surveyed nonviolent LWOP sentences. But while mandatory sentencing ties the hands of judges, such punishments do not impose themselves. Prosecutors have the power to seek or not seek them.

* * *

Bill Winters was not the first defendant to find himself in the crosshairs of Lafayette ADA Alan Haney. Indeed, in 2007, Haney created a “career criminal program,” as described by the localDaily Advertiser, to “identify repeat offenders all over Lafayette Parish.”

“We basically had to start this whole project from scratch,” he told the City-Parish Council in September 2010, according to the Advertiser. Thus far, he boasted, some forty-nine people had been sentenced as habitual offenders with the help of the initiative.

In the fall of 2009, the same year Winters was convicted for stealing Gobstoppers, a 29-year-old black man named Travis Bourda was convicted for possessing 130 grams of marijuana “with intent to distribute.” Writing to the ACLU, Bourda insists that no drugs were actually found in his posession and that his court-appointed lawyer “filed no motions, failed to investigate,” and “made no objections at trial.” His initial sentence of eight years was increased to fourteen after Haney filed habitual offender charges based on Bourda’s previous record, which included “carnal knowledge of a juvenile” when he was 19. Responding to Haney’s attempt to seek a sentence of life without parole for Bourda, the trial judge wrote: “I believe a life sentence under the circumstances…would be an unconstitutional sentence. I believe that fourteen years is more than enough considering the underlying charge was possession with intent to distribute marijuana, and that the amount of marijuana involved was not significant.”

But in 2011 the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed with Haney, vacating the fourteen-year sentence and imposing life without parole. Today, Bourda is serving his sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, famously known as Angola.

Angola prisoners were not allowed to receive visits or speak on the phone to the ACLU. But in response to the questionnaire sent out by attorney Jennifer Turner, who authored the report and corresponded with more than 600 prisoners, Bourda described himself as “the most miserable person there is.” He wrote that he was diagnosed as schizophrenic when he was 13 and that he hears voices that tell him to do things. In a separate, handwritten letter, he wrote to “share my thoughts about the Habitual Offender law,” which he describes as “the most unconstitutional law there is.”

“We paid our debts to society for the past crimes we committed,” Bourda wrote.” “…There is never any forgiveness once you have a record.” In his opinion, he added, “the prosecution is abusing his discretion on a certain race of people which we know to be black individuals.”

Whether or not prosecutorial discretion is to blame, Bourda’s observation about race is certainly supported by the numbers. The ACLU report shows, and Turner wrote to me in an e-mail, that “the racial disparity in life without parole sentencing for nonviolent crimes in Louisiana is staggering.” While the state would not provide figures according to race, the ACLU calculated that black prisoners “comprise 91.4 percent of the nonviolent LWOP prison population in Louisiana,” despite the fact that “Blacks make up only about one-third of the general population in the state.” Black defendants in Louisiana “were 23 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to LWOP for a nonviolent crime.”

There are many factors that could explain this. “The racial disparity can result from disparate treatment at every stage of the criminal justice system, including stops and searches, points of arrest, prosecutions and plea negotiations, trials, and sentencing,” Turner explains. She adds, “In Louisiana, it may also have to do with how prosecutors wield their enormous discretion in deciding whether to charge defendants as habitual offenders.”

I contacted Alan Haney’s office by phone and e-mail to discuss his Habitual Offender Division, but have not received a response. In the meantime, the ACLU report is only the most recent to cast a stark light on Louisiana’s sentencing excesses. While some recent reforms in the state have sought to mitigate some of Louisiana’s harshest sentencing statutes, they still preserve the power of the prosecutor to decide if and when to trigger mandatory sentences. In a report released by the Reason Foundation last month, which closely examines the state’s determinate sentencing laws and makes recommendations for reform, the authors found that a 2012 law signed by Governor Bobby Jindal to allow courts to waive mandatory minimums in some cases put all the power in prosecutors’ hands, giving prosecutors “much more power than they previously had.”

The ACLU also makes recommendations for reform. It calls on the states and federal government to get rid of laws that mandate or allow life without parole for nonviolent crimes, and exhorts state governors, as well as the Obama administration, to commute such disproportionate punishments. “Life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses defy common sense,” it concludes, and “are grotesquely out of proportion to the conduct they seek to punish.”

In Bourda’s words, “I never committed a capital offense such as murder….I don’t deserve to be sentenced like a hard-core criminal.”

Renisha McBride and Evolution of Black-Female Stereotype (Participation)

Renisha McBride and Evolution of Black-Female Stereotype

Why are black women seen as more threatening, more masculine and less in need of help? Because they’re not being seen as women at all

Mourners attend the funeral service for 19-year-old shooting victim Renisha McBride in Detroit, on Nov. 8, 2013.
Joshua Lott / ReutersMourners attend the funeral service for 19-year-old shooting victim Renisha McBride in Detroit, on Nov. 8, 2013.

The case of Renisha McBride, the 19-year-old black girl whose car broke down in the early-morning hours of Nov. 2 in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heights and was shot in the face by a white homeowner after she knocked on his door asking for help, has all the markings of becoming a divisive racial flash point. Although her death has been ruled a homicide, the shooter has not been charged with anything. Vigils have been held demanding justice, as well as a vibrant Twitter campaign, mostly thanks to the efforts of writer, filmmaker and Detroit native Dream Hampton. In a short film that she posted to YouTube about the events surrounding the case, one of the protesters writes a sign saying, “Don’t shoot, I’m a black woman.”

This is not the only time in recent memory that a black woman in danger was viewed as a threat. Last October during Hurricane Sandy, 39-year-old Glenda Moore of Staten Island had been trying to get her two young sons to safety when quickly rising floodwaters swept them away. Moore ran to one house and then another, asking the residents to call 911. The first told her to go away, reportedly saying, “I don’t know you. I’m not going to help,” and the second turned out their porch lights. Neither called the police as asked.

These cases signal the rise of a new black-female stereotype that just may be more insidious than the old ones. In her 2011 book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America, Tulane political-science professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry describes four classic caricatures: the “angry black woman”; the loud-talking, neck-rolling Sapphire; the highly sexed and sexualized Jezebel; and the maternal, asexual, dark-skinned, large-boned Mammy. But none of those images should inspire fear, or explain why anyone would immediately view black women like McBride or Moore as threats, as opposed to women merely in need of help.

Of course, black men have long been profiled by society as threatening, or maybe even as criminals. The tragedy of the killing of Trayvon Martin only served as proof of how persistent this stereotype is. As legal scholar Michelle Alexander points out in her book, The New Jim Crow, the systemic profiling of black youth leads to increasingly higher rates of their arrest and incarceration, as well as massive distrust of law enforcement in black communities. But Alexander is silent on black women profiled as criminals.

(MORE: Michelle Alexander: Why Black Men Are the Permanent Underclass)

In order to better understand how history might help us understand the present, I contacted a historian at UCLA, Sarah Haley, whose work looks at how historical perceptions of black women have impacted their societal treatment and relationship to the criminal-justice system. When I asked her about the McBride case, and why she thought the homeowner might not have offered help, she said that black women are more often viewed as “the help” than in need of help. She added, “Black women have been seen as different than black men, certainly, but they have not always been seen as women either; to be a woman is to be seen as deserving of protection, and black women are not always seen that way.”

As an example of how these views have impacted the lives of individual black women, she pointed out that at the turn of the 20th century, black women were sometimes subjected to harsher treatment than men when convicted of crimes. “They were thrown in city convict camps, whipped and forced to pave local streets for things like cursing in public … it was rare for white women to even be prosecuted for such crimes.” Haley was of course saddened by the McBride case, but in some ways she was not surprised because we have so often viewed black women as more threatening, more masculine and less in need of help, protection and support than white women.

It’s a complicated and dehumanizing stereotype — and its debunking seems somehow at odds with feminism. No one wants to project the message that black women are weak and helpless. And yet when a 19-year-old with a broken-down car knocks on a door only to get shot in the face, we know that something is severely wrong in how society perceives black women as criminals or not, victims or not, and even women or not.

Who’s Still Afraid of Interracial Marriage? (Participation)

Who’s Still Afraid of Interracial Marriage?

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Not quite two weeks ago, Julianne Hough’s Halloween costume ignited conversations about the ignominious history of blackface caricature in entertainment. A week later, Kanye West announced that he had co-opted the Confederate flag, in a scheme that was audacious, futile, cynical, provocative, and bewildering—perhaps the next logical step for a genre that has relentlessly repurposed the six-letter epithet mot closely associated with Confederate racial sentiment. In the midst of these two spectacles, we were asked to ponder another case study, this one about the intersection of race, athletics, bullying, and the conspicuous behavior of a man named Incognito. The moral of all these misadventures in race seems to be that our culture is in need of either a greater sum of social maturity or a faster metabolism. Perhaps both.

The other theme here is the capacity of antiquated concerns to inject themselves into the present. In that light, it’s easy to dismiss Richard Cohen’s much-excoriated column regarding Chris Christie’s chances in the next Iowa caucuses as nothing but more cultural noise. But after suggesting that the conservative base of today’s Republican party is the political heir to the Dixiecrats of the nineteen-forties—a group wholly dedicated to separation of the races—Cohen goes on to say:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

What makes this interesting is that Cohen is simultaneously right and deeply wrong, in ways that he likely didn’t suspect, and that have serious implications for our current politics. (After the uproar, Cohen told the Washington Post, “What I was doing was expressing not my own views but those of extreme right-wing Republican tea party people. I don’t have a problem with interracial marriage or same-sex marriage. In fact, I exult in them.”)

Earlier this year, Gallup reported that eighty-seven per cent of Americans saw no problem with blacks and whites getting married. A top-rated network television show features a philandering President and his P.R.-maven mistress, and viewers care more about the amorality of its characters than about the interracial relationship at its core. The views Cohen ascribed to Tea Partiers aren’t “conventional”; they’re antediluvian, a brand of racism that is still running the old operating system. But they do represent a thread connecting the politics of the past to those of the present—and it is easy to imagine the view of the embattled minority on this subject feeding the kinds of cultural resentments that have helped fuel the Tea Party’s emergence.

The super-majority in the Gallup poll is exactly the outcome the Dixiecrats presciently warned would be the byproduct of desegregation, and took as their rationale for existence. Theodore Bilbo, the segregationist governor of Mississippi, died a year before the Dixiecrat Party’s founding, but not before he penned a treatise with the none-too-subtle title “Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.”

Yet anyone who’s seen “12 Years a Slave” or read Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work “The Hemingses of Monticello” knows that sex between white men and black women, whether coerced or consensual, has been a feature of this country literally since its inception. The Dixiecrats nominated Strom Thurmond for President in 1948 on a platform devoted to the preservation of segregation, though the delegates were unaware that Thurmond had, as a young man, fathered a child with a teen-age black domestic. But had this knowledge been public, it would likely not have ruined Thurmond’s standing: the most violent prohibitions were reserved for sex between black men and white women.

The people with “conventional views,” as described by Cohen, don’t actually gag at the sight of the union that produced Dante de Blasio; they gag at the type that produced Barack Obama. They don’t resent de Blasio’s marriage to a black woman; they resent a culture that offers that relationship public acknowledgement and legitimacy. It’s worth recalling that Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage, centered on the union of a white man and a black woman. These laws ended at least in part because, in an ironic twist, racism had interfered with a white man’s right to choose.

Nearly a half-century later, there’s a kind of magical thinking intertwined with our various racial flashpoints—one in which the flat denial that a sentiment is racist absolves its bearer from suspicion. Defenders of Kanye’s beloved rebel battle flag—Brad Paisley excepted—have long cited it as a symbol of Southern pride rather than racial contempt. Paisley’s collaboration with LL Cool J, “Accidental Racist,” was troubling for more than simply aesthetic reasons. If displaying the flag of a movement devoted to the preservation of slavery qualifies as inadvertent racism, then nothing short of a Bilbo-style fixation with race purity amounts to actual racism. For that reason alone it’s worth recognizing the value of Cohen’s piece: even his disclaimer couldn’t cloak the kinship between the people he’s talking about and those who united around Thurmond sixty-five years ago.

For a recalcitrant minority, there is a creeping realization, aggravated each time the President appears on their televisions, that this is not the world in which they grew up. But for the emerging electoral majority—especially those who lived through the Dixiecrat era—this is precisely the point.

Photograph by Francis Miller/Time & Life Pictures/Getty.

The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste (Participation)

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.”  Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.

Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality.  There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you.  If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you.  Trust us.  Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars.  You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand.  Racial caste is alive and well in America.

Most people don’t like it when I say this.  It makes them angry.  In the “era of colorblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race.  Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:

*There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.  The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life.  (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status.  They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

Excuses for the Lockdown

There is, of course, a colorblind explanation for all this: crime rates.  Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime.  We’re told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years.  Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades — they are currently are at historical lows — but imprisonment rates have consistently soared.  Quintupled, in fact.  And the vast majority of that increase is due to the War on Drugs.  Drug offenses alone account for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population.

The drug war has been brutal — complete with SWAT teams, tanks, bazookas, grenade launchers, and sweeps of entire neighborhoods — but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought.  This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.  In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth.  Any notion that drug use among African Americans is more severe or dangerous is belied by the data.  White youth, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders.  In some states, African Americans comprise 80%-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.

This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded that black men have higher rates of violent crime.  That’s why the drug war is waged in poor communities of color and not middle-class suburbs.  Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell.  It has nothing to do with race; it’s all about violent crime.

Again, not so.  President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising.  From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics.  The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action.  In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks.  The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities.  The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicizing inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores, and drug-related violence.  The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.

The plan worked like a charm.  For more than a decade, black drug dealers and users would be regulars in newspaper stories and would saturate the evening TV news.  Congress and state legislatures nationwide would devote billions of dollars to the drug war and pass harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes — sentences longer than murderers receive in many countries.

Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs.  In President Bill Clinton’s boastful words, “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.”  The facts bear him out.  Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.  But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations.  He and the “New Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life.  Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic, and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labeled a felon.

Facing Facts

But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn’t the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found?  The answer is yes… in made-for-TV movies.  In real life, the answer is no.

The drug war has never been focused on rooting out drug kingpins or violent offenders.  Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses.  What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests.  To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80% of the cash, cars, and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.

The results have been predictable: people of color rounded up en masse for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses.  In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five for sales.  Most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity.  In fact, during the 1990s — the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war — nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities as in the inner city.

In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time — a new Jim Crow system.  Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.

Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality.  Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers — not to mention president of the United States — causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come.

Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth.  In many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America.  Nearly a quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line today, approximately the same percentage as in 1968.  The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than it was then.  Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries.  And that’s with affirmative action!

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colorblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure — the structure of racial caste.  The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.

This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.  This is not the promised land.  The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.

Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness  (The New Press, 2010). The former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU in Northern California, she also served as a law clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court.  Currently, she holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.  To listen to a TomCast audio interview in which Alexander explains how she came to realize that this country was bringing Jim Crow into the Age of Obama, click here.