Michelle Alexander makes the case in this book that mass incarceration of black and brown men resulting from the War on Drugs has created a new form of Jim Crow practices that has resulted in creating a minority underclass. She argues that “colorblind” ideologies actually play into this in creating a system that is ostensibly about law enforcement when in fact it discriminates heavily against African Americans and Latinos.
This seems like a dramatic and overblown claim except for some disturbing facts. One is that drug use is just as heavy in white and more affluent communities and yet the focus of law enforcement has been in minority communities almost exclusively. Building on that, random stops of minority motorists and pedestrians for drug enforcement searches that ask for consent in fact violate illegal search and seizure principles even though such searches have been upheld in courts–and such practices almost exclusively take place in minority communities.
From here the system makes even minor drug offenses felonies with strict sentencing guidelines and post-incarceration stigmas. Consequently, finding legitimate employment and rebuilding a life after prison is very difficult, contributing to recidivism. Restrictions on federally funded housing results in former felons returning to the communities and life patterns that led to prison.
Alexander allows that these are not the only factors behind poverty and that none of this excuses criminal activity. Nevertheless, she argues that the pattern of law enforcement and incarceration perpetuates an underclass and represents an unjust system.
Two striking observations for me: 1) it is sobering to be reminded of the prevalence of drug use in our country and we need to ask fundamental questions in all of our communities about this and what it says about our way of life. 2) it strikes me that there is tremendous waste in all of this–the costs of incarceration and law enforcement represent investments that are not being made elsewhere in education, business development, health care, that could dramatically change the communities in question.
She concludes with a call for all of us to come together to address this waste and unjust system. Often poor whites are pitted against other minorities while also kept in poverty. She believes we can do better for all our citizens. This is a call that needs to be heard in all our communities.