November 29, 2011

Modern Jim Crow: Racial profiling has reached its peak

By Ryan Considine–

Life is hard as a convicted felon. Once released from prison, discrimination in employment, housing, education and public benefits usually follow. In addition to discrimination, ex-convicts can be denied the right to vote, excluded from jury service and be marked ineligible for food stamps. According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, nearly 70 percent of released prisoners return to jail within the first 3 years of being released. Immediately upon release they are seen as social outcasts and are automatically assigned a social stigma: one who is incapable of holding a steady job. If you can’t receive a job flipping burgers at McDonalds and are unable to receive food stamps, how are you supposed to survive?

“We have not ended racial caste in America. We have simply redesigned it by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and discriminating against communities of color,” says Alexander. “More African Americans are under correctional control today, in prison or on probation than were enslaved in the 1850’s, a decade before the Civil War began.” She compares the Jim Crow era of the 1850’s to a modern day racial caste system, but this makes her argument unfair.

Comparing contemporary racial injustices to the Jim Crow era is illogical. Black people are still discriminated for the same issues, but the punishments are not as severe.

She will lose a large portion of her audience by using this approach. Although this method is used to raise awareness, this connection is too extreme. Her message is attempting to provoke a revolution that began in the 1960’s and has since declined. It’s a shame to think about the amount of support she may be losing.

Crime rate has fluctuated back and forth over the last 30 years, yet our imprisonment rates sore higher than ever before. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world at 743 out of every 100,000 people. The second highest country isn’t even close; Russia has 577 out of every 100,000 people.

The United States imprisonment rates have risen substantially over the last thirty years, but it is not because the crime rate has risen. The War on Drugs has targeted African Americans in poor communities as criminals, sky-rocketing our prison rates to the highest they’ve ever been.

So far, the War on Drugs has yet to do anything productive; one million Americans have been arrested each year since it took effect. Drug arrests for marijuana account for about 225,000 people, and it is the fourth most common cause of arrest in the United States according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“In the 1990’s, the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war, marijuana possession convictions accounted for nearly 80 percent of the increase,” stated Alexander during a press conference last year. “In less than 30 years, the United States penal population has increased from 300,000 to more than 2 million.”

Instead of convicting people for murder and rape, people are being arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana, many who have no history of violence or selling activity. The penalty for possession as a misdemeanor can result in a maximum of one year in jail and a $2,000 fine. According to Alexander, four fifths of our drug convictions are for possession and only one fifth are for sales. If law officials were taking down major drug lords, this may be a different story since their activity is prone to cause more violence.

Unfortunately, black people are the ones who suffer the most from drug convictions. Alexander revealed in her research that in some states, blacks account for 80-90 percent of all drug convictions. Drug dealers are stereotyped as young black males in the ghetto with their hoods pulled up over their faces and their pants sagging down to the ground. Truth be told, white people are just as likely to be dealing or possessing drugs, but black people are more prone to being arrested.

As Americans, we need to break the cycle of racial discrimination and allow every single American the rights they deserve. We can do this by educating ourselves about the War on Drugs and the racial discrimination that is involved with it. If you see racial injustice, don’t be afraid to speak out against it. Avoid labeling people according to their past; people make mistakes and everyone has violated the law at one point in their life. Nobody should have to suffer for our ignorance.

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Photo: Flikr/Miller_Center

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