This article in AlterNet makes a compelling case for a new American racial caste system built on the back of the drug war. Where Americans comfort ourselves that we are a post-racial society due to affirmative action, black CEOs, and Obama, in reality the average black person is at a far higher risk of being imprisoned than the average white person.
In fact, as of 2004, more African American men were unable to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws than in 1870, when the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids laws limiting voting based on race, was passed. Admittedly, some of that is due to population growth, but the fact that the situation hasn’t improved any is certainly an indictment against the racist American society.
If you take into account prisoners, in some urban areas a majority of African American men are felons– in the Chicago area nearly 80%. These men can be denied the right to vote, to serve on a jury, and to equal access to housing, employment, education, and public benefits.
And make no mistake: this is a gender issue, as well as a race issue. While women of color are more likely to be imprisoned than white women, men of color are vastly more likely to be imprisoned than any other group. The prison-industrial complex and the drug war are not only systematically directed against black people, they are systematically directed against black men. When the average white person imagines a scary threatening black person, are they imagining the person as male or female? When the average white person imagines a drug dealer or an addict, do they imagine them to be male or female?
Exactly my point.
And that sort of racist and sexist stereotyping has a tremendous effect on young black men. While young white people are slightly more likely to use drugs and have three times the rate of drug-related emergency visits, black people are overwhelmingly more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for drug crimes– in some states they are 80-90% of those imprisoned for drug crimes, and most of them are men. Even when crime rates decline, the rate of imprisonment soars, mostly because of these young black men being imprisoned.
But really, can you blame the police? They get to play with all kinds of shiny toys, like SWAT teams and tanks and grenade launchers! It’s like their own action movie! They get federal funding if they arrest lots of drug offenders, even if it’s just for possession! Drug forfeiture laws mean that they can keep the majority of the cash, cars, and houses they get from drug suspects!
Never mind all the lives being ruined. Because it’s not simply about imprisonment– although the imprisonment is bad enough. And it’s not simply about the effects on the men themselves, although call me a radical, but I believe that once someone has served their sentence, they should have the rights that any other full member of society does, especially if their crime was “having cocaine” instead of something that actually matters. I mean, how exactly do you expect someone to take non-criminal jobs if no one wants to give a job to a felon? Christ.
It’s about the community. Because men are important. They’re half of the potential workforce in a community, and with the rates of unemployment for felons they either are forced into a life of crime or face being more of an economic drain than a boon. As children, they were invested in (however poorly, given the quality of many inner-city schools), but ended up not amounting to much more than fuel for the prison-industrial complex. The consequences of missing men affect more than just themselves.
Perhaps most tragic is the consequence of missing fathers. While all families can be good families and a good single parent is certainly better than a bad or abusive nuclear family, children are a lot of work and generally need multiple people to take care of them (where “take care of” includes providing as well as more conventional forms of caregiving). Unfortunately, a black child’s chance of growing up with two parents today is less than their chance during slavery, in a large part because of the drug war. Who knows how many good, caring fathers are now in prison, separated from their children? We can’t know.
Men matter. We cannot use a generation of black men as food for racist ideologies. They deserve more than that.