Legal weed's race problem: White men get rich, black men stay in prison

Even with legalization, the devastating legacy of the drug war lingers, says Professor Michelle Alexander

Published March 14, 2014 12:50PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


Ever since Colorado and Washington made the unprecedented move to legalize recreational pot last year, excitement and stories of unfettered success have billowed into the air. Colorado's marijuana tax revenue far exceeded expectations, bringing a whopping $185 million to the state and tourists are lining up to taste the budding culture (pun intended). Several other states are now looking to follow suit and legalize.

But the ramifications of this momentous shift are left unaddressed. When you flick on the TV to a segment about the flowering pot market in Colorado, you'll find that the faces of the movement are primarily white and male. Meanwhile, many of the more than  210,000 people who were arrested for marijuana possession in Colorado between 1986 and 2010 according to a report from the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, remain behind bars. Thousands of black men and boys still sit in prisons for possession of the very plant that's making those white guys on TV rich.

“In many ways the imagery doesn't sit right,” said Michelle Alexander, associate professor of law at Ohio State University and author of  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in a  public conversation on March 6 with Asha Bandele of the  Drug Policy Alliance.  “Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big—big money, big businesses selling weed—after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?”

Alexander said she is “thrilled” that Colorado and Washington have legalized pot and that Washington D.C. decriminalized possession of small amounts earlier this month. But she said she’s noticed "warning signs" of a troubling trend emerging in the pot legalization movement: Whites—men in particular—are the face of the movement, and the emerging pot industry. (A recent In These Times article titled “ The Unbearable Whiteness of Marijuana Legalization,” summarize this trend.)

Alexander said for 40 years poor communities of color have experienced the wrath of the war on drugs.

“Black men and boys” have been the target of the war on drugs’ racist policies—stopped, frisked and disturbed—“often before they’re old enough to vote,” she said. Those youths are arrested most often for nonviolent first offenses that would go ignored in middle-class white neighborhoods.

“We arrest these kids at young ages, saddle them with criminal records, throw them in cages, and then release them into a parallel social universe in which the very civil and human rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights movement no longer apply to them for the rest of their lives,” she said. “They can be discriminated against [when it comes to] employment, housing, access to education, public benefits. They're locked into a permanent second-class status for life. And we’ve done this in precisely the communities that were most in need of our support.”

As Asha Bandele of DPA pointed out during the conversation, the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. Today, 2.2 million people are in prison or jail and 7.7 million are under the control of the criminal justice system, with African American boys and men—and now women—making up a disproportionate number of those imprisoned.

Alexander’s book was published four years ago and spent 75 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, helping to bring mass incarceration to the forefront of the national discussion.

Alexander said over the last four years, as she’s been traveling from state to state speaking to audiences from prisons to universities about her book, she’s witnessed an “awakening.” More and more people are talking about mass incarceration, racism and the war on drugs.

Often when people talk about the reasons certain communities are impoverished or lack education they blame the personal choices or moral shortcomings of the people in those communities, but that way of looking at things has got it backwards, she said.

“That these communities are poor and have failing schools and have broken rules is not because of their personal failings but because we’ve declared war on them,” she said. “We’ve spent billions of dollars building prisons and allowing schools to fail. We’ve decimated these communities by shuttling young people from their underfunded schools to these brand new, high tech prisons. We’ve begun targeting children in these communities at young ages.”

Alexander cautioned that drug policy activists need to keep this disparity in mind and cultivate a conversation about repairing the damages done by the systemic racism of the war on drugs, before cashing in on legalization.

“After waging a brutal war on poor communities of color, a drug war that has decimated families, spread despair and hopelessness through entire communities, and a war that has fanned the flames of the very violence it was supposedly intended to address and control; after pouring billions of dollars into prisons and allowing schools to fail; we’re gonna simply say, we’re done now?” Alexander said. “I think we have to be willing, as we’re talking about legalization, to also start talking about reparations for the war on drugs, how to repair the harm caused.”

Alexander used the example of post-apartheid reparations in South Africa to point out the way a society can and should own up to its past mistakes. After apartheid ended, the nation passed a law called the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995. Under the new law, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed to "elicit truth" about the human rights violations that had occurred. The commission recorded the statements of witnesses who endured "gross human rights violations" and facilitated public hearings. Those who had committed violence could request amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution in order to share testimony about what they'd done with the commission.

“At the end of apartheid in South Africa there was an understanding that there could be no healing, no progress, no reconciliation without truth,” she said. “You can’t just destroy a people and then say ‘It’s over, we’re stopping now.’ You have to be willing to deal with the truth, deal with the history openly and honestly.”

Alexander pointed to America’s tendency to shove its racist legacies under the rug rather than own up to them. When the civil war ended, slaves were free on paper but they were left with nothing—“no 40 acres and a mule, nothing,” Alexander said. The only option was to work low-paying contract jobs for the same slave owners who had previously brutalized them.

“And after a brief period of reconstruction a new caste system was imposed—Jim Crow—and another extraordinary movement arose and brought the old Jim Crow to its knees,” she said. “Americans said, OK, we’ll stop now. We’ll take down the whites-only signs, we’ll stop doing that. But there were not reparations for slavery, not for Jim Crow, and scarcely an acknowledgement of the harm done except for Martin Luther King Day, one day out of the year. And I feel like, here we go again.”

Last week, Obama pushed out an initiative called My Brother’s Keeper, focused on helping black boys who have fallen down the social ladder. Alexander said she’s glad Obama is shining a spotlight on the crisis facing black communities. However, she said Obama has perpetuated the backward way of framing the situation when he talks about the issues facing those communities.

"I am worried that much of the initiative is more based in rhetoric than in meaningful commitment to address the structures and institutions that have created the conditions in these communities," she said.

Asked about the unlikely relationship forming between U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Kentucky’s Tea Party senator Rand Paul, both of whom are standing together to end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, Alexander responded she is wary of whether these politicians are making the right decisions for the wrong reasons.

She cautioned that politicians across the political spectrum are “highly motivated” to downsize prisons because the U.S. can no longer afford to maintain a massive prison state without raising taxes “on the predominantly white middle class.” That shortsighted way of thinking fails to recognize the larger societal patterns that keep the U.S. cycling through various “caste-like” systems.

“If we're going to downsize these prisons and change marijuana laws and all that, in order to save some cash, but in that process to change these laws, we haven't woken up to the magnitude of the harm that we have done,” she said. “Ultimately, at least from my perspective, this movement to end mass incarceration and this movement to end the drug war is about breaking our nation’s habit of creating caste-like systems in America,” she said. She added that regardless of whether they’re struggling with addiction and drug abuse or have a felony on their record, people deserve to be treated with basic human rights.

“How were we able to permanently lock out of mainstream society tens of millions of people, destroy families?” she said. “If we’re not going to have a real conversation about that and ultimately be willing to care for ‘them,’ the ‘others,’ those ‘ghetto dwellers’ who’ve been demonized in this rush to declare war, we’re going to find ourselves years from now either still having a slightly downsized system of mass incarceration that continues to hum along very well, or we will have managed to downsize our prisons but some new system of racial and social control will have emerged again because we have not yet learned the core lesson that our racial history has been trying to teach us.”

Listen to the complete talk here.

By April M. Short

MORE FROM April M. Short

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Alternet Legalization Marijuana Mass Incarceration Pot War On Drugs Weed