A New System of Jim Crow?

“Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises-the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.” (The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander)

The story of Jarvious Cotton’s family tells more then simply generations of black men being unable to vote in the United States. It tells the history of a group of people in the United States of America who have been legally discriminated against for over 300 years. From slavery to Jim Crow to now mass incarceration, the United States has maintained a system of social. Today, the criminal justice system in this country has come to operate as a system of social control analogous to Jim Crow.

Today our criminal justice system has come to operate as a system of laws, policies, and customs that operate to create and maintain a second-class status of a group defined largely by race. However, for many people this idea is hard to swallow. It seems impossible that there could be a system in place today that operates in the same way that slavery or Jim Crow did during their respective times. Furthermore, it is hard for people to take to the idea that today’s system was created and maintained under the guise of a War on Drugs, a war that was promoted and supported under the false premise of a drug epidemic in this country. However, in order to truly understand the comparison between slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, it is important to understand the reality of our criminal justice system, and the political culture that allowed it to come about.

When President Nixon came into office, he brought with him an ideology and strategy, which later came to be known as the Southern Strategy.

However, this “War” came truly into being with President Reagan. Reagan announced his administration’s own “War on Drugs” in October 1982. At the time he declared this new war, less then 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation. (Alexander) However, that was not a deterrent for Reagan, who was more concerned with public opinion surrounding race. Due to this new focus there were immediate policy changes that Reagan began to implement.

It is important to note that this declaration of war was made not only in direct conflict with how the public felt, but also the reality of drug use in the United States. In 1982, when the drug war began, the recreational use of illegal drugs was in decline. Surveys conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed significant drops in drug usage over long periods for a wide range of age groups.

Almost immediately after the War on Drugs was declared, there were clear impacts on employment as well as incarceration rates among black men in the United States. When it came to unemployment, it was clear that the combination of previous inequality, partnered with the War on Drugs led to dramatic consequences. In 1970, more than 70 percent of all blacks working in metropolitan areas held blue-collar jobs. Yet by 1987, when the drug war hit high gear, the industrial employment of black men had plummeted to 28 percent. (Alexander)

The other impact of the Drug War was an increase in incarceration rates in this country in a way that had never been seen before. The incarceration rates have exploded in the United States, to the point, where as of 2009, 1 in every 31 adults in under some form of correction control. This explosion in the prison population is directly linked to the war on drugs. Drug convictions account for nearly two-thirds of the rise in the federal prison population, and more then half of the state population since 1982. Today, a half million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense, compared to an estimated 41,000 in 1980—an increase of 1,100 percent.

It is also important to note, that these drug arrests are not for trafficking or large distribution. In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for possession…and furthermore marijuana possession accounted for nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990’s. When it comes to the racial makeup of the prison population today, and specifically when talking about drug arrests, the numbers are even more astounding.

The Sentencing Project has done a lot of studies that have exposed the true racial disparity within our prison system. More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. Today, 1 in every 8 black men is in prison or jail every year. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color. The Sentencing Project also points out how today the national ratio of black to white in the prison system is 5.6 to 1. These statistics are astounding when you look at the population demographic statistics as identified by the U.S. Census Bureau. In the 2010 Census, they found that the US population is 12.6 percent black, while it is 72.4 percent white. Given this percentage, one would expect the ratio of white to black imprisoned in the United States to be more like 6 to 1 white, the exact opposite of what it is.

This once again, while thought to be true by a lot of Americans, couldn’t be further from the truth. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that illicit drug use by blacks as compared to whites was pretty much equal. They identified how 9.2 percent of blacks above the age of 12 having used illicit drugs, while 8.1 percent of whites have. Other studies have shown, that particularly among youth, actual drug use happens earlier and with a wider variety with white youth as opposed to black youth.  Another study done by the University of Michigan suggested that at all three grade levels (10,11,12), African-American students have substantially lower rates of drug use then do whites.  So given these statistics, if the incarceration rates were reflective of drug use as well as the population, then African-Americans would make up less then 15% of drug arrests and inmates. However, since African-Americans in some states make up 80-90% of drug arrests, it is clear that the system in instead motivated by racial prejudice.

The final portion to the creation of a system of social control is the policies in place that allow for the legalized discrimination of people who posses criminal records. Across the country, people with criminal records are discriminated against when it comes to housing, employment, voting, job licenses as well as preventing them in some cases from utilizing federal benefits. By forcing a certain group of people out of the job market, and discriminating against them in all aspects of life, it is creating a system of control very similar to Jim Crow Laws. Furthermore, it is forcing poor, urban black men and women into the drug market, because in many cases it is the only way to make a real living.