On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing millions of blacks from the cruel bondage of slavery.
But 150 years later after Lincoln’s historic proclamation, the shackles of the plantation endure in the form of mass incarceration of people of color. Just as slavery gave way to decades of injustice under Jim Crow, the evils of Southern segregation have been replaced by nationwide mass incarceration of mostly non-violent drug offenders who face sentences as harsh as life imprisonment for marijuana possession.
In the supremely hypocritical and failing War on Drugs, minorities and the poor are disproportionately targeted as the ‘enemy.’ Rarely, if ever, are college campuses– arguably among the most concentrated sites of illegal drug use in the nation– targeted for raids. Nor are the legal, finance, or entertainment industries, all of which are awash in illegal drugs. And speaking of colleges, over the past two decades prison spending has risen at six times the rate of of spending on higher education. As a result, black men in cities like Chicago are more likely to go to prison than to college. Indeed, more black men are serving time just on drug charges in Illinois prisons than are enrolled in undergraduate degree programs in state universities.
The Supreme Court has even declared that racial discrimination is perfectly permissible in the War on Drugs. The court ruled in McClesky v. Kemp that racial bias in sentencing could not be challenged under the 14th Amendment in the absence of convincing evidence of conscious discriminatory intent, something police can plausibly deny by citing petty yet legally valid (think blown tail lights or failure to signal a lane change) excuses. And in United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, the Supreme Court ruled that police can use race as a factor when deciding which motorists to stop and search.
The results of legalized racial discrimination and the granting of broad discretionary powers to law enforcement officials have been nothing short of shocking. Although Americans of all races use and sell illegal drugs at roughly the same rate, and whites are actually more likely to commit drug crimes than people of color, black men in at least 15 states have been imprisoned on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times higher than white men. In seven states, blacks make up 80 to 90 percent of all jailed drug offenders.
According to the federal government’s own statistics, of the more than 2,000 people charged with federal crack cocaine violations over a three-year period, all but 11 were black. None were white. In Georgia, more than 98 percent of those serving life prison sentences under a “two strikes and you’re out” drug conviction policy were recently black, perhaps because prosecutors only invoke the policy against 1 percent of white defendants in “two strikes” situations.
In some cities, as many as four out of five young black men have criminal records, which means they are subject to legal discrimination for as long as they live. In Washington, DC, where administrations since Richard Nixon have protected international drug kingpins whose products are sold on American streets, three out of four black men, and nearly all young black men in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, can expect to serve time in prison– many of them for using the very same drugs our nation’s leaders have allowed to be marketed to the young men being locked up in record numbers.
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Terry v. Ohio decision, police may briefly detain a person who they have a “reasonable suspicion” of involvement in a crime, but no probable cause for arrest. In America, driving or walking while black or Latino often constitutes “reasonable suspicion” in the minds of law enforcement officers. In New York, supposedly one of the most liberal and racially tolerant cities on earth, a shocking pattern of discriminatory policing has emerged in recent years. In 2011, New York City cops made 684,330 ’Terry’ stops. Of these, a staggering 87 percent were of blacks or Latinos. And out of all those stopped, 88 percent were totally innocent of any offense. But the NYPD still employs this ‘stop-and-frisk’ tactic to apprehend thousands of minorities for simple marijuana possession.
In fact, 50,684 New Yorkers were arrested for low-level marijuana possession in 2011, the highest total of any city in the world. Most of these “criminals” were black or Latino. Worse, New York decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977. Some law enforcement officers and city officials defend the discriminatory ‘stop-and-frisk’ policy on the grounds that it gets guns off the city’s streets. But only 0.15 percent of all stops– that’s 1 out of every 650– resulted in a firearms arrest in 2011.
Largely as a result of the racist and hypocritical War on Drugs, black Americans, who make up about 1/8 of the nation’s population, are incarcerated seven times as often as whites. There are more black men under correctional control today than were bound in slavery in 1850, contributing to an overall US correctional population of six million people. That’s more than the number of prisoners in Soviet gulags at the height of Stalinist repression. And because those who serve time are so often stripped of their voting rights long after they’ve paid their debts to society– for life, in nine states– more black men are disenfranchised today than when the 15th Amendment, which prohibited denying the vote to citizens based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude,” was ratified in 1870.
Future generations will surely wonder how such a shocking state of affairs could exist in 21st century America. Stanford law professor Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” a devastating dissection of our nation’s epidemic of racialized mass incarceration, writes:
When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinary system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color– people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prisons, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination. Legally barred from employment, housing and welfare benefits– and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt– these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families. They were chastened for succumbing to depression and anger, and blamed for landing back in prison. Historians will likely wonder how we could describe the new caste system as a system of crime control, when it is difficult to imagine a system better designed to create– rather than prevent– crime.
Yet the absurd drug war rages on, destroying countless lives over the years. Instead of addressing the root causes of drug use and drug crime, we’ve decided as a society that the best way to deal with these problems is by punishing low-level offenders. And so we have overcrowded prisons, in which more than half the inmates are there for non-violent drug offenses. But building more prisons to fix the drug problem, which benefits only the prison-industrial complex, is like building more cemeteries to solve the cancer epidemic. Society isn’t any safer for locking up millions of pot smokers. On the contrary, how many low-level drug offenders emerge from prisons as hardened criminals?
And so here we are, 40 years and a trillion dollars into a war that even US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske admits has failed. Drug use is as rampant as ever, and drug-related violence, much of it caused by prohibition, is more brutal and widespread than ever. Despite a promise to fight drug use with a new policy that treats the problem as a public health issue rather than as crime, President Barack Obama, who once called the War on Drugs “an utter failure” and who once supported the decriminalization of marijuana, has increased drug war spending to record levels while allocating a much smaller amount for drug prevention and treatment.
A century and a half after Lincoln freed America’s slaves, millions of black men remain bound by the shackles of racialized mass incarceration.