Let’s start this post with an exercise:
Do you think of someone you actually know? I picture a middle school classmate, the first person I knew sold drugs. He is a white kid in a flannel shirt with chin-length hair parted in the middle (à la 1994).
In the 1980s, as reported in a 1995 article in the Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education, ninety-five percent of the 400 individuals who were asked to envision a drug user pictured an African American.* Without access to the survey, I don’t know its methodology, the respondents’ racial makeup, or what percentage envisioned a wholly fictional person as opposed to someone they knew. However, the extremely high percentage who envisioned an African American suggests that stereotypes about race and criminality were at play.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, politicians capitalized on the stereotype of the “black criminal” to fuel the “War on Drugs.” I remember George Bush’s attack ads against Michael Dukakis — the revolving door and Willie Horton’s face — that reflected and reinforced the perception of African American men as criminals.
As Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow (2010), these images and related political rhetoric were part of a highly successful effort to maintain America’s long-standing racial hierarchy by replacing Jim Crow-era segregation with mass incarceration. Through the War on Drugs, which began before crack hit the streets, the government was able to use the criminal justice system as a nominally “colorblind” tool of racial control.
Draconian anti-drug measures and sentencing laws have resulted in an exponential increase in prison population rates with a disproportionate impact on people of color. As Alexander notes in the Introduction to her book: “One in three young African American men will serve time in person if current trends continue, and in some cities more than half of all adult black men are currently under correctional control — in prison or jail.”
Felons are essentially second-class citizens, even when their crimes are drug-related and nonviolent. Alexander writes:
Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.
There have been criminal justice reforms in the years leading up to and in the years since Alexander’s book — such as a reduction in penalties for many nonviolent drug crimes in April 2014, the release of 6,000 federal inmates in October 2015, and an expansion of voting rights for felons in some states — but, as Alexander argues, this type of progress does not address the heart of the problem. In Chapter 6, she writes:
Isolated victories can be won—even a string of victories—but in the absence of a fundamental shift in public consciousness, the system as a whole will remain intact. To the extent that major changes are achieved without a complete shift, the system will rebound. The caste system will reemerge in a new form, just as convict leasing replaced slavery, or it will be reborn, just as mass incarceration replaced Jim Crow.
Alexander does an excellent job of drawing the parallels between mass incarceration and Jim Crow without overstating the analogy.
As a public interest lawyer with an interest in racial justice, I found that much of Alexander’s argument matched my own established beliefs about our disingenuously colorblind society. It is one in which the government, employers, and public accommodations are often allowed to implement policies that produce a disparate impact on people of color (and other groups) as long as no one expresses their animus out loud.
Still, through Alexander’s book, I learned much more about mass incarceration than I ever knew before. I also may have learned something about myself — something unsettling.
There is a narrative out there that the War on Drugs was a benign effort to combat actual drug crime in minority communities. However, as Alexander explains in Chapter 3,
The truth, however, is that rates and patterns of drug crime do not explain the glaring racial disparities in our criminal justice system. People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than people of color.
I’ve heard that the rates of buying and selling drugs are similar across races before — and not only from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight episode on prisons. I also know people from many different backgrounds who use drugs. Nevertheless, I felt a slight jolt of surprise when I saw the facts written on my e-reader screen. Why hadn’t it ever sunk in before?
This is where implicit bias–bias we are not aware of–comes into the picture. I have taken implicit bias tests before (available here), and so far, none has indicated that I have a bias against African Americans. Still, my reaction to the facts around race and drug use suggest that the stereotypical beliefs about criminals that were ubiquitous in my youth still lurk somewhere inside me, beneath my liberal, non-white exterior.
Had I never met the person who has become my mental image of a drug user — a person who is white — would my mental image be a fictional person of a different race?
*Alexander mentions this survey in The New Jim Crow, saying that it was conducted in 1995. However, when I read the 1995 article she cited, I found that it was citing a National Urban League “runtafax” sheet from 1989 (I don’t know what a “runtafax” is). The 1995 article is Betty Watson Burston, et al, Drug Use and African Americans: Myth Versus Reality, J. of Drug Alcohol & Education (Winter 1995). I consider this a minor mistake that doesn’t detract from the overall argument of the book.