The question came from a speaker during his allotted three-minute presentation on March 9 to a governor’s task force convened to improve police and community relations in Ohio. How many on the panel, the questioner asked, had read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness? Six committee members at that Cincinnati meeting raised their hands, all black. “I believe that this is an extremely important book, one that should be required reading by, not only all of you task force members, but by every law enforcement officer in this country,” said the speaker, retired Central State University chemistry professor Albert Schlueter.
A tall order, every police officer. But such is the impact on readers of The New Jim Crow, by Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander, even five years after its publication. The stark premise of the book goes like this: the war on drugs has unleashed a system of control over African Americans akin to slavery and the post-Reconstruction era of segregation. Because of drug prosecutions, carried out largely against people of color, Alexander says, the country’s prison population has soared in the past three decades from 300,000 to nearly two million. Incredibly, she writes, we’ve gone from a time when some criminologists were predicting the end of prisons, to incarcerating more people per capita than countries like China, Russia and Iran. And with that system has come a stripping away of people’s rights equivalent to the Jim Crow laws, whether it’s the right to vote, receive government assistance or live in public housing. “Today,” Alexander writes, “it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.”
Alexander is hardly the first critic of the war on drugs, but her thesis, that it has created an entirely new (and powerless) underclass, is eye opening. But she goes farther, suggesting an even more troubling result of the country’s high prison population. Whereas slavery and Jim Crow exploited the country’s black population, she argues, mass incarceration marginalizes it, shoving those prosecuted for drug crimes to the edges of society. “The nature of the criminal justice system has changed,” she says. “It is no longer concerned primarily with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed. Prior drug wars were ancillary to the prevailing caste system. This time the drug war is the system of control.”
Bulging prison populations are a big concern in Ohio, where state prisons director Gary Mohr has said frequently he will have failed in his job if the state has to build another correctional facility. Meanwhile, the war on drugs is very much on the minds of people monitoring the forums presented by Gov. John Kasich’s police relations task force. (A second commission created by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is looking specifically at changes to police training requirements.) “The drug wars are the very foundation of racism, the basis of the suspicion regarding young black males in Walmart handling BB guns,” one person commented to Kasich’s task force in a March 14 email, referring to last year’s fatal police shooting of John Crawford III in a suburban Dayton Wal-Mart. In response, Kasich has announced plans for a first-ever police standards board in Ohio to lay out rules for proper use of deadly force. “It is not acceptable to have these divisions between our friends in the African-American community and law enforcement,” the governor said as he unveiled the initiative last month.”
“My last question for you is this,” Schlueter said to the governor’s task force back in March. “Do you agree that we have a problem?” It’s the question at the heart of the country’s current debate over race and policing. Certainly, there are those who will argue Alexander goes too far with her thesis, that a criminal justice system that strives to rise above racial prejudice can’t be accused of consciously adopting the type of widespread restraint of blacks, particularly black men, that she postulates. Regardless of your feelings about this, Alexander’s argument remains at the forefront of the race debate. On April 29, the same day Kasich announced his police standards board, amidst rioting in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray from injuries allegedly suffered during his arrest and transport in a police van, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made a major policy speech on criminal justice reform. “It’s time to change our approach,” she said. “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration.”