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

I work this issue every day and am well aware of the racist nature of the War on (Certain American Citizens Using Non-Pharmaceutical, Non-Alcoholic, Tobacco-Free) Drugs. But even I wasn’t aware of the outrageous statistics comparing the Drug War to Jim Crow era. Michelle Alexander lays it all out in her new book, The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste:

  • 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.

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.

The only thing more shocking to me than the new Jim Crow of the drug war is how few African-Americans are involved in ending it.

This sort of racial homogeneity is also found at the grassroots activist level as well. I coordinate NORML’s 95 active state, local, and college chapters and off the top of my head I can think of only one chapter not run by a white person (Oregon NORML‘s Madeline Martinez, who, coincidentally, is that sole Latina on the National NORML Board).
When I speak at conferences and festivals to crowds ranging from 50 to 50,000, it is always a nearly unbroken sea of white faces looking back at me. When I participate in the marches and protests against the drug war, I rarely see black or Latino people carrying a sign.

The War on Drugs is primarily a War on Marijuana, which makes up 49.8% of all drug war arrests, 89% of those arrests for simple possession. In New York City, a black man is nine times more likely to be busted for pot than a white man and three times more likely to get a custodial sentence out of that arrest. Yet when we look at the cannabis community, the only place we find many African-American faces is in rap videos extolling the virtues of “the chronic”.
Where is the Martin Luther King Jr. of the movement to end the War on Drugs? Why is he or she not responding to the efforts to end the single greatest cause of racial inequality in this nation?
Is he or she dissuaded by the culture of the black church, which demonizes drugs and drug use to the point where those who support sensible drug policies are shamed into silence?

Is he or she turned away by looking at the leadership of drug law reform and seeing no faces like theirs?
Is he or she already feeling like they wear a target for law enforcement on their back already based on skin color and don’t feel like exacerbating that by publicly standing for drug law reform?
Whatever it is, this white man who’s used cannabis for twenty years and never once had an interaction with police is urgently calling out to my black and Latino brothers and sisters to get involved with your own liberation!

0 thoughts

  1. I can answer that one from the African American standpoint.
    We as a people have been broken. The very thing that you have written about is the self-same cause of our failure to be involved. After the Civil Rights Movement, those in power decided that they did not want a repeat. Look up the article which discussed Freeway Ricky Ross and how the US Government supported the use of drugs in the black community as a means to destabilize potential activist groups (i.e. Black Panther Party for Self-Defense). Add to that the glorification of thug culture and ignorance that has been ingrained into our communities by the MsM, and you see the result.
    Our young people are too ignorant and selfish to care about things like civil rights, and our adults are too browbeaten to even consider anything other than trying to keep their heads down and survive.

  2. [But thank you for confirming my suspicions that conservatives and moderates don’t care about racial injustice. (Unless some of you conservatives and moderates would like to chime in…)]
    Dear Russ, I think you are confusing neo-conservatives with real Constitutional conservatives. Don’t let the “teabaggers” fool you either, they are neo-cons in disguise. Say what you will about the ‘liberty-movement’ not being viable, but watch how we transform the GOP in the next 2 election cycles. I hope you give us a chance by then.

  3. I feel that one aspect of the War on Drugs’ discrimination of minorities was not addressed by the article. It’s been my experience that marijuana dealers in urban, primarily minority, settings are much more likely to be involved with hard drugs, in addition to marijuana, than their counterparts in the white suburban environment. This could account for some of the increased police interest and the resulting increased arrest rates.
    This, however, is why legalization is such a great solution. By regulating the sale of marijuana in a safe, controlled marketplace you effectively remove shady drug dealers from the equation and remove a key source of income for gangs and organized crime, thus reducing their influence in crime plagued communities. People of every race and social status will benefit from legalization but it will have the greatest positive impact on poor minority communities.

  4. Strong Words! That is eye-opening! Peace and Love to all and let’s get this changed so we can move forward as a unit. We as human beings need to step up and realize the realities that are at work here. We have to power to change it all, but we must work together to get to that goal. Talk to at least 3 people a day about it. Bring up somehtin you read on or in an e-mail. Hell maybe even your local news, but bring it up with whomever, get people thinking about and let them know they have the power. Myabe next time you have a “session” with some friends, bring up topics, find things that you can help aquire the goal. All I can say is Truth will Prevail!

  5. This is important information, which I also just saw on Democracy Now. However, I dislike the implication of this article that black Americans are to blame for not ‘liberating’ themselves. Why hasn’t the author reached out to communities of color more? The marijuana legalization crowd (of which I’m a part) consists of privileged folks who don’t have the cops to fear. My slogan has long been that marijuana prohibition is the last remaining Jim Crow law (so I disagree with Alexander that such laws are a thing of the past). I’m shocked, though not surprised, to see so many posts on this board of the “This is eye-opening info” sort.
    I think this should be the legalization campaign’s angle, as opposed to revenue raising–which latter concern is morally irrelevant. Why is the Times Square ad on making money, rather than erasing Jim Crow??
    [Editor’s note: The author grew up in Idaho…where there historically has been very few minorities. In the time spent in Portland, Russ and OR NORML do reach out and avail themselves to minorities to get more involved in their own liberation. The challenge of better minority and female representation remains a challenge for NORML and all drug policy reform groups.
    The Times Square ad buy from NORML consists of a swap out around April 20th, and there is a good chance the second ad will partially address the prolific racial disparity in New York City’s annual dragnet of cannabis consumers.]

  6. A couple of years ago I thought, “when the financial crisis hits the states and they have to decide whether to close schools and layoff firefighters or rethink the war on drugs, surely we will have reform”. Sadly enough they are actually closing schools. And the latest news stories about sex offenders who get out of prison early to re-offend is disgusting in light of all the non-violent offenders in prison. I also used to think “oh well, marijuana might not be legalized but I can still smoke every day so whatever”, but that seems like an insensitive attitude to have while Jim Crow is still in effect.
    I think it would be helpful to put up a website called “” (sorry I can’t stand it up, I can not have the personal scrutiny) with all the relevant facts so that anytime a student, teacher or other person searches in the internet for Jim Crow material they will run across this site and learn about the current situation.

  7. Mike Says:

    i personally think it MAY be possible that if u break drug laws on ur front po-ch, Vs inside ur home u could have about a 9X greater chance of being arrested

    True, but more to the point on the current situation:
    If you live in an inner city neighborhood where the police cruise by regularly, (black/latino) your odds of being arrested go up.
    I (whitey), on the other hand, live in a house on 3/4 of an acre and smoke on my front porch regularly without worry.

  8. Thanks for the response to my previous post. I’m happy to hear that NORML’s second ad might emphasize the racial disparity in enforcement. I do support NORML (politically and financially), and I want it to be the best organization that it can be.
    Lots of Americans crave a moral discussion of politics and society, as the right-wing has long known. Morality matters, and I have faith that plain-spoken middle class folk will respond to these moral considerations (as they did in the 1960s push to cut out much Jim Crow). At the very least, adding moral discourse to the cause with help to undermine any perception that regulation advocates are merely tax-and-spend liberals who just want to get high.
    Keep up the good work, NORM–and let’s see whether minority groups join the cause. Again, my guess is that taking the Jim Crow angle will assist with such recruitment.

  9. Please go to this site and answer the following poll. We are fighting for our local law enforcment to stop prosecuting MMJ patients and to allow safe access to their medicine. Thank you
    Should San Bernardino County and local cities allow medical marijuana dispensaries?

  10. There are two reasons behind this:
    1. Urban youths (largely minority) spend far more time in public spaces as compared to suburban (mostly white) youths who spend far more of their time in private spaces. This makes it much easier to catch minority youths for drug offenses.
    2. If the war on drugs was fought the same way in suburban neighborhoods there would be no one left to support the war on drugs.
    I too am astounded how many people seem surprised by this, but, I suppose I am in the business. (Criminal defense, not drug dealing….)

  11. I would also like to point at, as the moderator did, that the first drug prohibition laws were enacted for specifically racist purposes. Marijuana was explicitly banned as a means of cracking down on Mexican migrant workers before the habit of smoking it passed into the rest of American culture. A major argument for banning cocaine was that it was responsible for black men raping white women.
    And did anyone really think that the timing of the war on drugs relative to Jim Crow is a coincidence? The laws against drugs started as a means to jail minorities for using drugs other than those which the majority also used, and the war on drugs has picked up as a counter-reaction to the civil rights movement.
    But the genius of the idea is that no one has to say so, it just appeals to the same constituency in a way that makes it feel like it is standing up for law and order, and not being racist.

  12. Why is everybody so hung up on Black and Latino people? Give it a rest! What about us Native Americans. Affirmitive Action failed my people. All other races go on and prosper, we are left for dead. How many of us are on any board of anything. We can’t even get roles on T.V.. You are all racist, especially the other minorities. You all have it so bad, Boo Hoo. Live on a reservation for a while. All minorities need to grow up and get over it. As far as I’m concerned you are all illeagal since 1492.

  13. I just watched the movie AKA Tommy Chong, and in the movie he states that “thanks” to his prison experience he is now an activist and no longer simply a comedian and actor. I suspect we’ll be hearing much more from Cheech and Chong, both of who are minorities.

  14. This article just shows how the Drug War hurts society in so many different ways than most people commonly believe.
    Most people just believe that the drug war is wasteful and bureaucratic. It is a crime itself and is costing our Nations billions, if not trillions of dollars and millions of innocent lives.

    What should we do if we voted for obama thinking that perhaps he would do something constructive with our war on drugs (like getting rid of it). was it just wishful thinking on our parts did he mention his stance on cannabis prior to election. should we vote for him again if he runs again ???
    btw i dont think he is doing a bad job, he seems to be doing the best he can considering the circumstances

  16. There are 2 main problems. As much as Whites seem to be concerned with the Black community, I rarely see them reaching out to the Black Community as a whole. Chris Rock said, “I got ,a lot of white friends…., but they only have 1 Black friend”. If Black people saw more genuine interaction and concern of their “race” with other culturea, maybe they would be more willing to join the fight. For the most part, it seems that other communities are AFRAID of the Black community, except fot the few “token” Blacks that reach out to them. Yep, that’s what I think it is.

  17. Point #2. We HAVE MLK’s but they are not validated by the mainstream on any level. For instance, Minister Louis Farrakhan doesn’t support Cannanbis but he supports Black Leadership among youth and being an activist in general. He organized The Million Man March, which I went to. It immediately got blasted by the Media and it still has been THE MOST INCREDIBLE, PEACEFUL, BEAUTIFUL EXPERIENCE of my life. We as positive (Black Men) are still not recognized. Unless we promote a leader who advocates what makes Blacks and Whites comfortable then we won’t have another MLK (whom they assassinated). Maybe the Black Community needs someone who may not make both cultures comfortable but gets the job done. May not be Farrakhan but whomever does emerge, keep this comment in mind. MUCH LUV

  18. Since 2008 a record number of Black people are now registered voters, I would have thought there would be more Blacks doing jury duty. That’s not the case. Then up to 80% of Blacks are felons and can’t vote. How did he get to be presidents if most Blacks can’t vote?
    The only way he got to be president was because 97% of all Blacks voted for him. But up to 80% of Blacks can’t vote because of a felony. He also got 98% of the arab and mexican vote. Most Mexicans are felons too. Then he also got a large percentage of young white people to vote for him.
    It doesn’t add up. People that are not allowed to vote, like illegals and felones some how got to vote.
    We need a recount, and kick him out, before more oil washes up on the Gulf Coast.

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