Shortly after Ronald Reagan promoted the “War on Drugs” in 1982, I met a young African American woman locked in jail in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She had been arrested in a drug sweep and charged with prostitution. In the background, cells clanged shut and women’s voices shouted. Thin and nervous, the woman chewed on a strand of her straight hair and spoke in a near whisper. “They took my daughter. They said my mother wasn’t fit to care for her. My daughter’s my life.” The young woman cried, then she paused, opened her eyes wide, and looked around. “They’re watching me. All the time. I can’t even go to the bathroom in private. I think I’m going crazy.”
I was ultimately unable to offer the young mother any help other than a few dollars for candy bars. A half-way house located her child, but by then she was placed in a foster home and the woman would have to go through a costly court fight to get any visitation. The young woman was trapped in what became almost a “total system,” a structure in which whatever way the woman moved, she would lose.
Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (2010) describes how governments use punishment as tools of social control. In fact, she says, “the extent or severity of punishment is often unrelated to actual crime patterns.” (7) Instead, punishment can be used as a way of disciplining and maintaining dominance over segments of the general population considered dangerous or needed to perform non-free labor. In the U.S. this control has been racialized, it is linked directly to the control of poor African Americans and other people of color.
This was the case during sharecropping and segregation in the South after the Civil War up until the old cotton plantation system broke down in the 1950s. During this period of the original Jim Crow, black families were trapped into living on white-owned land and working white-owned fields year round. They did so in exchange for life in a cabin and minimal food from their own garden. This system was maintained by government approved terror in the form of lynching.
Gradually, African Americans broke free, and many moved or escaped to urban centers in the North where they formed vibrant communities based on their own professional classes, service work, and factory labor. Recently, with the breakdown of manufacturing and the export of labor overseas, the economic base of those communities has been shattered.
At this point, the government instituted a militarized War on Drugs, sweeping vast numbers of the poorest people of color into incarceration and a lifetime of second class citizenship. The media helped by sensationalizing black crime. Alexander states that studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates, and “whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.” Still, “in some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.” (6-7)
The War on Drugs and the association of criminals with black men, developed when Republicans wanted to appeal to working-class whites from the South. It became even more militarized under Clinton. In fact, politicians compete in their desire to be “tough on crime.”
One of the frightening aspects today is that poor people of color are being warehoused in the incarceration system because they are considered disposable, people who can be “purged from the body politic.” (207) That leads us to ask the next question. To what extent might society go to get rid of such people?
Also, what about that young African American woman I met with at the beginning of the War on Drugs? Once labeled, did she ever break free of the system of mass incarceration? Did her child know her mother?
For the last six years, I’ve been working with young women caught in drug addiction and the bureaucracy of Child Protective Services. Michele Alexander’s book inspires me to ask a deeper question. How do I make a difference not only in their individual lives but also in the broader system that imprisons them in the first place?