My friends at Project South, a member of the South to South collaboration, shared this video with me, a project of the Brave New Foundation. Together, these groups are working toward shutting down the school to prison pipeline as part of their effort to lead a new Southern Freedom Movement. I hope you check it out.
As you do, consider this:
Rates of illegal drug use are consistent across race. Approximately the same percentage of whites and blacks, for instance, use illegal drugs. But there were 223.5 million white people and 39 million black people in the U.S., according to the 2010 census. That’s almost a 6:1 ratio. So if approximately the same percentages of black and white people consume illegal drugs, there are almost 6 times as many white illegal drug users. At more than 6 times the number of users, whites are the primary drivers of the illegal drug trade.
Largely as a result of the war on drugs, our prison population now numbers more than 2 million. About 60% of those incarcerated are people of color, and the majority of them are black. Meanwhile, the vast majority of drug users are, as I pointed out, white. But they aren’t being targeted by the war on drugs because that “war” is really an effort to manage black and brown communities, and that makes the war on drugs a war on civil rights and civil liberties that were instituted to protect all of us.
Unless these rights protect everyone, they aren’t rights at all. They are privileges, and just as privileges can be arbitrarily granted, they can also be just as arbitrarily taken away.
But there’s more.
In wars, there is always a certain amount of collateral damage. Innocent civilians get hurt. Economies are destroyed. Communities are torn to pieces. In the drug war, that collateral damage is suffered by those who are caught up in the system, many of whom will lose their voting rights, not to mention the ability to pursue certain types of employment, and even the right, in some cases, to live in public housing, and receive certain kinds of public assistance. And they will forever live with the stigma of a past criminal conviction, turning a mistake made by many as teenagers into lifelong burdens.
But it doesn’t stop with those who are imprisoned. One in 15 African American men is incarcerated. Many were once wage earners, even bread winners. More than one in three black men will be jailed in his lifetime, creating an environment in which the experience of prison and the damage it does to the loved ones of those incarcerated is normalized.
Collateral damage can be measured in dollars and cents, in terms of lost incomes, future unemployment, eroding property values, decimated tax bases, poor schools. But to stop there would be to ignore the damage that is done in terms of hopelessness and despair, loneliness and alienation.
And the downward spiral will continue as the conditions that lead to crime are reproduced and worsened by the same systems and institutions that are supposed to prevent crime.
In Brownsville, East New York, the neighborhood most targeted by the New York Police Department’s stop and frisk campaign, 80% of residents have been stopped and questioned by police. The residents of Brownsville are, in the majority, American citizens. We share citizenship with them by law but not in fact. In fact, the residents of Brownsville are being treated like the rights guaranteed to them by our Constitution are simply privileges that have been withheld from them for arbitrary reasons having nothing to do with their criminal status or citizenship.
We are paying the price for mass incarceration. We foot the bill when we pay our taxes. Worse, we simply rob Peter to pay Paul and foot the bill in terms of lost public investment in basic infrastructure and services. And we pay the price in terms of lost freedoms. Some of us may not feel the the loss of those freedoms as acutely as others, but, believe me, none of us are free when any of us can be arbitrary targeted, our rights ignored, simply for the sake of politics.