Tag Archives: war on drugs

The Durability of Race

5 Oct

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the death of racism. Many believe that as the global demographics change and Generation Y rises, racism will fade in significance. Some even suggest that what we are witnessing in the Obama backlash is just death throes.

That argument ignores history.

Here’s what I mean.

Neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the abolitionist movement were enough to end slavery. Slavery was defeated in a Civil War that was fought not over race equality nor just for the cuase of freeing slaves, but over federal authority. The cynicism at the root of the “war against slavery” is revealed by the fact that when legal race slavery was finally defeated in 1865, the culture of  white supremacy survived, both in the North and the South.

Southern state governments, determined to maintain white supremacy, pivoted after the war and took advantage of an exception in the 13th Amendment that allowed for the indentured servitude of criminals. They created a set of legal codes that criminalized Black people. Crimes included changing employers without permission,vagrancy, and selling cotton after sunset.

Once imprisoned, African Americans were subjected to neo-slavery in the form of labor camps and chain gangs. But the impact of neo-slavery was not just on those enslaved. The system terrorized Blacks throughout the South keeping them subjugated to white employers who in many cases were their former masters.

The federal government’s unwritten policy through this period was to turn a blind eye, allowing the system to continue unacknowledged for more than 70 years. While many attempted to fight neo-slavery, what finally ended it was World War II. Just days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Francis Biddle, Attorney General under FDR, issued Circular N0. 3591 acknowledging the federal government’s unwritten policy of overlooking complaints of peonage and slavery and directing federal law enforcement officials to enforce the 13th Amendment.

The move was driven by fears that the Japanese and German propaganda machines would use the federal government’s tolerance of neo-slavery to undercut support for the war effort among African Americans. The circular was issued, but it wasn’t until 1948 that federal criminal code was rewritten to explicitly outlaw slavery.

Of course, while neo-slavery was finally abolished, other aspects of Jim Crow survived, as did the culture of white supremacy. Through Jim Crow, white supremacy was exercised by means of legal apartheid, a system that not only held Black people separate and unequal under the law, but that accommodated white terrorism and vigilante violence to suppress resistance.

When Jim Crow fell, it wasn’t just the result of the courageous efforts of civil rights activists. The death of Jim Crow was also brought about by the Cold War, a conflict in which racism in the U.S. could be weaponized by the Soviet propaganda machine.

But even as Jim Crow fell, the culture of white supremacy survived. The federal government, under Richard Nixon, pivoted to maintain white dominance by targeting the War on Drugs at Black communities. Like the Black Codes before it, the War on Drugs and a broader War on Crime would attempt to criminalize Black people, popularizing the idea that the rising crime rates of the 1970s was the result of the alienation of a permanent Black underclass and not, as sociologists suggest, the result of the baby boom.

Whites and Blacks use illegal drugs at approximately the same rate. The sheer numbers of white people puts them in the drivers seat of the illegal drug market. Yet law enforcement efforts target Black and Latino communities with the result that over two-thirds of people in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

Just as neo-slavery affected far more than those who were imprisoned and enslaved, the War on Drugs is having a broad and devastating impact on communities of color. Prisons take wage earners out of families and parents away from children only to return them years later to suffer collateral consequences such as the loss of voting rights, bans against certain types of employment, and banishment from public housing and “drug-free zones” that may follow them for the rest of their lives. And, for some, just for carrying marijuana in their pockets.

That so small an offense could cost one so much also contributes to a climate of fear and a culture of fatalism. A Black woman married to a man in prison on a drug offense once asked me to imagine what it is like to be a parent of a child in a militarized zone. She said, “every day I tell my kids, ‘if you are stopped by the police be still, be polite, and keep your hands out of your pockets.'”

White supremacy is also adapting to a changing world. Today, the criminalization of race affects more than African Americans. Latino immigrants are reduced to a criminal act when we refer to them as “illegals.” We exploit racism to criminalize Muslims to justify a grab for geopolitical control of a resource rich region of the world. And if you doubt that the growing fear and hatred of Muslims is rooted in racism, imagine for a moment the face of the Muslim threat that lives in the mind of Michelle Bachman. I assure you, it doesn’t have white skin and blue eyes.

We can’t just wait for the culture of white supremacy to be swept away by demographic and generational change. History show us that the durability of race will require much more of us than patience.

The Party Of Lincoln

31 Aug

The Republican Convention played like conventions past, perhaps enriched by an unusual number of outright lies, but otherwise, pretty much par for the course. Planks of the platform controversial among undecided voters were avoided, attacks were launched, and the rest was pablum for the base.

So why watch? It’s a habit. I’ve been watching since the early 1990s when my work involved studying the political right wing. Keeping an eye on the GOP was critical to that work because it was then becoming and has since very much become the instrument of power of a right wing movement bent on resetting the social, political, and economic clock in America to a time when women were marginalized, the rich were beyond accountability, and overt racism and racial codes were business as usual.

Sound extreme? Hang in there with me.

The majority of the Republican activist base is made up of ideologically inflexible, overlapping rightist factions. They include the Tea Parties, the religious right, libertarians, white nationalists, anti-communist conspiracy theorists, and assorted more exotic white supremacists. That’s why the Republican primary played like a re-run of Barry Goldwater’s famously far right presidential campaign of 1964.

These various factions keep uneasy company with the GOP’s traditional base of old-fashioned economic conservatives. And while the radical factions may often seem at war with one another, they’re mostly unified in their racism and their hatred of liberals, and liberal ideas, including the notion that government, not the private sector, should be responsible for providing a social safety net. Moreover, for the sake of unity, they appear to have conceded to the baseline notion that anybody and anything not not in agreement with them is an enemy of the state.

How, you may ask, did the Party of Lincoln become home to right wing radicals? The answer is, they were invited.

The invitations started going out about 60 years ago. Back then, the GOP was in serious trouble. White Southerners were holding what appeared to be a permanent grudge against them over the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. The stock market crash of 1929 inspired a healthy cynicism of economic elites, and the GOP was rightly perceived as their party. We’d also successfully waged WWII under Democratic presidents, and all while Democratic policy appeared to have pulled the country out of a depression.

Moreover, the Republican elite were viewed as a bunch of aloof aristocrats and intellectuals whose theories were indecipherable and whose policies were all for the rich. Not exactly how they wanted to be perceived at a time when a burgeoning middle class dominated the electorate.

It appeared as though the GOP would have to permanently settle for a role as a pro-capital counter-weight to Democratic liberalism. But as the 1960s rolled around, the libertarian wing of the party started getting organized. They intuited that the cultural fault lines of the time, especially around religion and identity, could be turned into political battle lines. With that in mind, they began rebuilding the party using a dual strategy of 1) splitting liberal coalitions by raising controversial social issues, and 2) building their base by appealing to racism and religiously-based cultural conservatism.

Among the earliest appeals targeted racially sensitive white Southern Democrats. They learned about the power of racism as a political tool by analyzing the failed George Wallace and Barry Goldwater campaigns for president. Both the Wallace and Goldwater campaigns mobilized white Southerners across party lines and attracted more small contributions than any other presidential campaigns until that time.

The lists of both campaigns were used by rightists like Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation. Weyrich’s pioneering use of direct mail marketing became the fundraising template of many right wing institutions.

So the first invitation was to racists. They constituted a chunk of the early fundraising base for key rightist organizations and their continued importance to the success of the GOP explains all of that dog whistling in this campaign.

From an ideological standpoint, Goldwater in particular showed Republicans that racism is a powerful lever.  This except from a previous post makes the point –

He ran on a platform of turning Social Security into a voluntary program, and eliminating farm subsidies…But, because he ran against Civil Rights, he won Southern votes, even from white people for whom the programs he promised to destroy were the most popular.

Goldwater’s strategy turned race into a partisan issue. In 1962, a national poll asked which party would more likely ensure Blacks got fair treatment in housing and employment.  22.7% answered Democrat compared to 21.3% who said Republican. 55.9% said there was no difference. By late 1964, another poll showed that 60% of those questioned said Democrats were more likely to ensure fairness and 7% said Republicans, with only 33% seeing no difference…

In the 1950s, poor white Southerners were the third most liberal voters on issues of government intervention for full-employment, education, and affordable health care, right behind Blacks and Jews. By the early 70s, they did a values flip. When it came to poverty alleviation programs, they went from being liberals to being statistically indistinguishable from wealthy white Northerners, the traditional base of the GOP. Given the ongoing poverty of the South, this move was akin to poor white Southerners cutting off their toes for want of smaller shoes.

And as their values flipped, so did their party affiliation,

In a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the South, GOP voter rolls shot up from 49% to 76% in Birmingham, Alabama’s poorest white communities between 1960 and 1964… Macon, Georgia, went from 36% to 71%. Atlanta went from 36% to 58%, and so on.

The next invitation was to the born-again Christian movement, the fastest growing social movement in the world at the time. The evangelical movement was driven in part by backlash against the social liberalism of the 1960s, including a growing acceptance of women’s equality, free love, LGBT rights, and Black civil rights. As such, it was almost entirely white, straight, and socially conservative.

By aligning themselves with evangelical leaders such as Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, et al, the libertarian elites of the GOP formed an uneasy alliance the cracks in which are lately becoming more apparent. This alliance produced both a highly motivated base for the GOP and gave them legitimacy as an arbiter of family values. With this base and from this moral position, they launched a wedge strategy that involved raising social issues divisive to the Democratic coalition.

By attacking abortion rights as murder, they were able to peel Catholics off of the liberal coalition built by Kennedy. By attacking affirmative action as anti-white racism, they softened liberal whites’ support of civil rights. And by vilifying gays they split just about everyone else, and all while raising buckets of money for the non-governmental organizations of the movement. Issue by issue, they fractured their opposition until the evangelical base of the GOP rose to power as the most highly motivated and well-organized plurality (the largest minority) of voters.

The GOP also mobilized evangelicals and working class Southerners to win regressive tax reform. They did so in order to weaken government, especially in terms of its regulatory role, and got the help of rightists by claiming government had been taken over by feminists and the civil rights lobby. They attacked public schools as sources of secular liberalism, and preyed on the economic uncertainty caused by a changing economy to raise resentment against public employees whom they vilified as lazy clock-watchers.

But in order to get evangelicals involved in politics, they had to do more than touch on their issues. They needed to get them to commit to politics as an act of religion. To do that, some evangelical leaders turned to post-millennialism, the belief that there will be a 1000 year reign of godly men on earth before Jesus returns for the final judgement. The importance of post-millenialism is that it calls on Christians to engage in a takeover of all societal institutions, making politics a matter of life or death (or life after death) for certain evangelicals.

One of the principle ways that conservative evangelicals have served this mission is as Republican precinct captains, allowing them to achieve a bottom-up take over of many state GOP organizations. They also ran evangelicals as stealth candidates who focused on economic issues while hiding their radical social agendas. Stealth candidates went after every kind of office from judge to dog catcher in order to build the cadres of those with the political experience and name recognition to run for more influential offices (Rep. Michele Bachman, for instance).

These strategies are now the staple of Republican base building. Accordingly, Republicans reacted to the urban uprisings of the 1960s with a tough on crime campaign the centerpiece of which is the war on drugs, premised on the notion that America’s drug problem is a black people problem. They’ve attacked immigration, accusing immigrants of color of stealing jobs and government funded benefits. And they’ve attacked Muslims, equating Islam with Christian-hating and terrorism.

Lest we forget, of course, they’ve also accused liberals of being so limp-wristed when it comes to war and trade policy that in their hands the U.S. will tumble from it’s status as world’s number 1 bully and become the 98 lb weakling of the global schoolyard. That fall, I guess, is something to fear when you do in fact know you’ve been a bully, but I digress.

Because the architects of this movement were, for the most part, libertarians, they’ve all the while used the openings created by their various attacks to popularize a laissez-faire philosophy of capitalism that conflates freedom with commerce. Variants of the ideology of free enterprise as freedom live within nearly all of these factions, and for that reason they are able to hang, however loosely, together. And because of what holds them together, the Republican corporate elites have been tolerant of their more extreme views, including the views that we ought to build an electrified fence on our southern border, and that we should abolish all abortions, even in cases of incest or threat to the life of the mother, as just two examples.

The most recent guests to the Party are the Tea Parties. They’re a hybrid of all of the above, with a dose of anti-authoritarianism and distrust of large institutions in general thrown in for good measure. They weren’t invited guests so much as crashers until Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor extended the invitation.

And now that all of these factions have arrived, Reince Priebus, Mitt Romney, and company have a management problem on their hands. As ye sow, so shall ye reap, as they say, and they deserve every bit of their bitter harvest.

But while a little gloating over Priebus’s and Romney’s dilemma may be justified, never doubt that the movement is bigger than the Party. However the various factions entered the fray, they truly are a movement and they pose a very real threat to all of us.

Read This Book!

7 May

Today is my birthday. The passage of time has me reflecting a lot on the years behind me, especially as I’m looking down the barrel of 50.

Among the most frustrating yet inspiring experiences I’ve had over the years was the time I spent working on criminal justice reform. During those years I spent a lot of time in juvenile detention facilities, jails, prisons, and courtrooms. From that perch, the racism of the system seemed so plain as to be indisputable. Just as plain was the amazing resiliency of people caught up in the system, many of them non-violent drug offenders whose convictions as “criminals” erased their status as parents, siblings, sons and daughters.

But as close to it as I was, I always struggled for the language to describe the racism of our criminal justice system in ways that got more than a “yeah, that sucks” reaction. Now Michelle Alexander has written a book that’s changed that for me. If my birthday wish comes true, all of you will read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It’s just that powerful.

In just 261 six by nine inch pages, excluding end notes and index (both of which are very useful), the current paperback edition of The New Jim Crow relates the history of the drug war starting with it’s origins in the Nixon years all the way through the present.

In the present, one in 10 black males between the ages of 25 and 29 are in prison or jail, and the majority in the same age group bear the stigma of past convictions. That means they are limited in their ability to contribute financially to their families. Many are unable to live in public housing and may be separated from family members who do. Parolees are in constant jeopardy of being incarcerated again because of parole violations that include not associating with others who have been incarcerated which, I repeat for emphasis, includes an overwhelming number of their peers.Today, a black child is less likely to be raised by both parents than a child born in the age of slavery.

According to a 1998 report by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, 13% of black males lost their right to vote to felony disenfranchisement laws. In some states, as many as one in three lost their voting rights. The report predicted that if the trend continued, 40% of black men would lose their right to vote in states that disenfranchise felons.

In 2000, felony disenfranchisement in Florida very likely cost Al Gore the presidential election.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“Jarvious Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”

The shame of this reality should be enough to cause a society-wide revolt. Alexander helps us to understand why we have remained largely silent by describing the way racial caste manages to morph over generations, creating a “new normal” of civility that accommodates continued racism and the structural exclusion of African Americans from democratic decision-making.

Make my birthday wish come true. Read this book. Share what you learn. Don’t let yourself be part of the “new normal” that stands in the way of true democracy for all of us.

Blackness Is The Fulcrum

4 May

I’m often asked why I’ve focused so much more on anti-black racism than on Asians over the years. Some suggest I suffer from internalized racism.

That might well be true since who doesn’t suffer from internalized racism?  I mean, even white people internalize racism. The difference is that white people’s internalized racism is against people of color, and it’s backed up by those who control societal institutions and capital.

But some folk have more on their minds.  They say that focusing on black and white reinforces a false racial binary that marginalizes the experiences of non-black people of color. No argument here. But I also think that trying to mix things up by putting non-black people of color in the middle is a problem because there’s no “middle.”

So there’s most of my answer. I’m sure I do suffer from internalized racism, but I don’t think that racism is defined only in terms of black and white. I also don’t think white supremacy is a simple vertical hierarchy with whites on top, black people on the bottom, and the rest of us in the middle.

So why do I expend so much effort on lifting up the oppression of black people? Because anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.

A fulcrum is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the support about which a lever turns” or, alternatively, “one that supplies capability for action.” In other words, if you want to move something, you need a pry bar and some leverage, and what gives you leverage is the fulcrum – that thing you use so the pry bar works like a see-saw.

The racial arrangement in the U.S. is ever changing.  There is no “bottom.” Different groups have more ability to affect others at different times because our roles are not fixed.  But, while there’s no bottom, there is something like a binary in that white people exist on one side of these dynamics – the side with force and intention. The way they mostly assert that force and intention is through the fulcrum of anti-black racism.

Hang in there with me for a minute and consider this. Race slavery is the historical basis of our economy. Yes, there was/is a campaign of “Indian removal” in order to capture natural resources and that certainly is part of the story. But the structure of the economy is rooted in slavery.

Our Constitution was written by slave owners. They managed to muster some pretty nice language about equality, justice, and freedom for “men” because they considered Africans less than human. Our federal system is based on a compromise intended to accommodate slavery. Our concept of ownership rights, the structure of our federal elections system, the segregated state of our society, the glut of money in politics, our conservative political culture, our criminal codes and federal penitentiaries all evolved around or were/are facilitated by anti-black racism.

And this is not just about history.  Fear of black people drives our national politics, from the fight over Jim Crow in the 50s and 60s, to Willie Horton and the Chicago Welfare Queen in the 80s, and the War on Drugs, starting in 1982 right up to the present. Since 2001, the U.S. has spent about 1.3 trillion dollars on war. Since 1982 we’ve spent over 1 trillion dollars on the drug war.

About 82% of drug busts are for possession, while about 18% are for trafficking. Sound like an irrational way to wage a war on drugs? Not if it’s a war on black people.

According to Human Rights Watch, black males are incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of white males resulting in one in 10 black males aged 25-29 being held in prison or jail in 2009. The same report states:

blacks constitute 33.6 percent of drug arrests, 44 percent of persons convicted of drug felonies in state court, and 37 percent of people sent to state prison on drug charges, even though they constitute only 13 percent of the US population and blacks and whites engage in drug offenses at equivalent rates.

And why a war on people?  The war on drugs is the cornerstone of the “tough on crime” messaging campaign that is key to the Republican Southern Strategy. It suggests that extending civil rights to African Americans resulted in the crime wave of the 1970s (and not the baby boom as is suggested by sociologists) in order to drive white Southerners into the Republican Party.

And that “tough on crime” thing, that’s not just against black people.  It’s a propaganda war that is weakening civil rights and civil liberties for all of us.

There’s no hierarchy of oppressions where race is concerned, but anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: