In The New Jim Crow, how does Michelle Alexander tie the war on drugs to mass incarceration?

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In The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander presents the history of systemic oppression of black people in the United States and provides a thorough analysis about how this oppression has not ended but rather has morphed from plantation slavery to the racist war on drugs and resulting mass incarceration. While the 13th amendment is hailed as the constitutional amendment that liberated black people from the horrors of chattel slavery, the amendment, in fact, provided a loop hole for the continuation of state and societal oppression against black people by stating that

. . . neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

This exception that slavery could exist as punishment for a crime paved the way for the horrifying Jim Crow laws that essentially criminalized black existence in the United States from the end of the 1870s to the 1950s. Former plantations were literally transformed into prisons, with a famous example being the Angola prison in Louisiana that was formally the Angola plantation. Prisons were quickly filled with black people and the prisons sold the labor of the black prisoners to the state and private corporations. Sounds exactly like slavery, huh?

Michelle Alexander traces this history and details how the war on drugs, which was catalyzed in the 1970s by Richard Nixon and which led to an astronomical increase in prison population, was essentially a war on people of color and the poor—particularly poor black men. The rates of drug use in black communities were not nearly at the level of crisis that a racist media depicted, and while white folks and black folks have been found to use drugs at the same rates, it was poor black communities that were heavily targeted during the war on drugs. This war, a war on poor people of color, led to over a 790% increase in the federal prison population from 1980 to the present day. Laws were constructed during the war-on-drugs era that specifically targeted poor and black (especially poor, black) people. For instance, while crack cocaine and powder cocaine are the same drug (except that crack cocaine contains backing powder and water, and powder cocaine contains pure cocaine), the "Anti-Drug Abuse Act" of 1986 declared that distribution of 5 grams of crack cocaine carried a minimum of a 5-year federal prison sentence while distribution of 500 grams of powder cocaine carried the same 5-year federal prison sentence.

So what's the difference that would cause such a sentencing disparity? Crack cocaine, due to its less pure form, is less expensive and therefore more readily used by poorer folks, while powder cocaine is a more pure form of the drug and is more readily used by richer folks. Again, white and black people are proven to use drugs at the same rates. This class divide is also heavily racialized, with poor black folks receiving sentences for crack cocaine and affluent white folks receiving (though not nearly as often) sentences for powder cocaine. This disparity has since been reduced to a 18:1 disparity, but it still highlights exactly why Michelle Alexander has termed the era of mass incarceration as "the new Jim Crow."

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In the The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander traces the history of race in the United States from the days of slavery to modern times. Alexander’s thesis is that we are currently living in a new Jim Crow era; the systemic oppression of slavery and segregation never actually went away, Alexander argues, but merely changed form. Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow and has led to the oppression and disenfranchisement of whole generations of young black men. Between 1980 and 2000, the inmate population in the United States skyrocketed from 300,000 to well over 2 million. Most of these inmates are African American. One of the major causes of the mass incarceration epidemic has been the War on Drugs, which was officially declared by President Nixon in the 1970s. Alexander notes that, despite the White House’s aggressive rhetoric, the 1960s and 1970s were a period of relatively low drug-related crime. In the forty years since the War on Drugs began, it is overwhelmingly young black men who have been arrested, convicted, and incarcerated. The racial disparity in the criminal justice system does not correspond to actual rates of drug use between blacks and whites; in reality, it is due to a legal framework that allows law enforcement to target minorities (e.g., racial profiling and stop-and-frisk) and harsh prison sentences for minor drug offenses (e.g., mandatory minimum drug sentences and three-strikes laws). As our criminal justice system offers little to incarcerated individuals in terms of rehabilitation, individuals who have been in the system often end up reoffending upon release. The War on Drugs has undoubtedly disproportionately affected and targeted young black men, and Alexander argues that the resulting epidemic of mass incarceration has devastated the African American community and created a whole new era of Jim Crow.

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