From The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Given the resurgence this week, in the wake of the Zimmerman Trial verdict, of conversations about America’s on-going struggle with race-relations, I thought it might be appropriate to share some insights from Michelle Alexander’s powerful book on the racial dynamics of the criminal justice system.  So here, to begin with, is a passage from the book’s introduction:

The War on Drugs began at a time when illegal drug use was on the decline.  During this same time period, however, a war was declared, causing arrests and convictions for drug offenses to skyrocket, especially among people of color.

The impact of the drug war is astounding.  In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase.  The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those of highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran.  In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children.  In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000.

The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature.  No other coutnry in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities.  The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.  In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all of those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.  Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America.

These stark disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime.  Studies show that people of all colors use and sell 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 drug crime than people of color.  That is not what one would guess, however, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offenders.  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.  And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. (pages 6-7)

For those interested, Alexander cites several government studies as evidence for the above claims, including a series of studies from the US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration.  For example, the DHHS report titled Summary of Findings from the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Use revealed that 6.4 percent of whites, 6.4 percent of blacks, and 5.3 percent of Hispanics reported being current users of illegal drugs, numbers that have held steady throughout similar iterations of this report over the past decade.  A similar report from the DHHS in 2007 concluded that “African American 12th graders have consistently shown lower rates than White 12th graders for most drugs, both licit and illicit,” a claim collaborated by several US Justice Department reports concluding that black youth are less likely to engage in drug crime than white youth.

More to come:

Suggested Link From


The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness



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