Politics and Racism, As Usual
by Rev. Dr. Herbert Daughtry
Again, I am indebted to Ms. Michelle Alexander, from whose book, “The New Jim Crow,” I drew heavily for the next two articles.
In 1972, criminologists were saying that prisons in America would soon come to an end, that the prisons were breeding grounds for criminal behavior. At that time, there were only 385,000 people in prison. Now, the numbers are up to around 2 million. What happened? Regarding women prisoners, in 1980, there were just 12,000. Now, the number is up to around 200,000. Again, the question is, “What happened?”
It has been argued that the most important cause in the escalation of incarceration rates in the United States of America has to do with drug offenses. Drug offenses alone accounted for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population, and more than half of the state prison between 1985 and 2000. Approximately, half a million of people are in prison for a drug offense today compared to an estimated 41, 100 in 1980 – an increase of 1,100 percent.
“Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result, more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offences since the drug war began. Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the war on drugs (New Jim Crow, page 59).”
Now, let us turn our attention to explode a couple of myths regarding the war on drugs. Law enforcement people claim that the war is aimed at getting rid of the nation’s dope king pins, or big-time sellers, but that is as far from the truth as you can get. The vast majority of those arrested are not charged with serious offenses.
In 2005, 4 out of 5 arrests were for possession. And, only one out of 5 was for sales. Here’s another fact: Most people in State Prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity. The second myth is that the drug war is primarily concerned with dangerous drugs. Another misleading statement. The arrest for marijuana possession, which some people claim, is less harmful than tobacco and alcohol, accounted for nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s. And, in spite of the fact that most drug arrests are for non-violent minor offenses, the war on drugs has brought in an era of unprecedented punitiveness.
When did the drug war start? And, what are some of its deeper implications? In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michele Alexander traces the history of the war on drugs. Since the middle 1950s, with the Brown vs. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Movement using direct action tactics were forcing Southern states to desegregate. Southern governors and law enforcement people labeled the action of the Civil Rights Activists as criminal, and tried to convince people that the increase in Civil Rights activity was a breakdown in law and order. The Civil Rights legislation was castigated by Southern segregationists and conservatists as “rewarding law breakers.”
For more than ten years, from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, conservatives sought to link opposition to Civil Rights legislation, to calls for law and order. They said that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strategy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime. So, Civil Rights’ protestors were often portrayed as criminals rather than political activists and the federal courts were excused of excessive leniency towards the law-breakers. So, it all contributed to crime, they argued.
Vice-president Richard Nixon said that the “escalation of the crime rate can be traced directly to the spread of the coercive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to obey them.” There were some conservatives who even went further and insisted that integration causes crime. They compared the lower crime rates in Southern states as evident that segregation was necessary.
Now, at the same time, that Civil Rights was being identified as a threat to law and order, the FBI was reporting fairly dramatic increases in the national crime rate. Although there was widespread controversy over the FBI statistics, nevertheless, they received a lot of publicity and was put forth as additional evidence of the breakdown in law and order, morality and social stability.
Then there were the riots of Summer 1964 in Harlem and Rochester, New York followed by a series of uprisings that swept across the nation following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. All of which reinforced the conservative argument that the Civil Rights Movement had led to the increase of crime.
…. to be continued.