My generation grew up after segregation based on race — most commonly referred to as Jim Crow — was no longer legal. Most of us have lived lives where belief in or acceptance of a racial hierarchy would be considered obscene.
As overt racism became taboo in most areas of the country in the ’70s and ’80s, “the drug war” started taking root. Today, the mass incarceration of black and brown men due to the “war on drugs” is the new legalized segregation.
While Gov. Paul LePage doesn’t recognize the fact, the war on drugs has failed. Treating drug use as a crime, rather than treating drug abuse as a health condition, has helped create a nationwide permanent underclass subject to legal discrimination.
Here in Maine, arrests for drug use violations from 2003 to 2012 “increased by 8.4 percent because of the arrests for possession,” according to a report by The Muskie School of Public Service.
Using the drug war to establish legalized segregation seems a stretch in Maine, where 95 percent of the state is white. However, only about 87 percent of the prison population is white. In fact, The Sentencing Project reports that black residents of Maine are more than seven times as likely as whites to be incarcerated in a state prison. Nationally, there is no doubt that the war on drugs has really been a war on black and brown men.
The war on drugs is just one factor driving mass incarceration. As Michelle Alexander writes in her book “ The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” the improvements after the fall of Jim Crow were notable. However, the new “color blind” cultural norms and the related “racially sanitized language” actually make possible the national acceptance of what Alexander describes as “racialized social control by the justice system.”
Through careful planning, beginning with Nixon in the early ’70s, politicians and the media began the continual association of crime with black men. Studies have shown that the association is so pervasive, even black people are affected. We all tend to associate words such as crime and criminals with pictures of black men.
Despite an upbringing where fighting for social justice was highly valued, if I hear a statistic such as 80-90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison are black I might think, “My God, the system is obviously racist, that’s disgusting,” and leave it at that. In the back of my mind, as I discussed in an earlier column, the deeply ingrained stereotypes and associations in my mind make it easier to dismiss the statistic as if it were probably and mostly about actual crimes associated with poverty. I’ve seen “The Wire,” after all.
The fact is, there is a sophisticated system that created and maintains a permanent underclass of people with no way out. While it may not be news to everyone, many of us have been willfully ignorant of the new Jim Crow.
States and localities are given more funding for each person arrested, creating an incentive to arrest more people. Just looking at arrest rates for marijuana possession, it’s clear that black people are targeted much more intensely when we consider the very similar rates of marijuana use among white and black people.
Beyond the horrifying rates of incarceration, trying to survive while on probation — or parole in other states — destroys individuals and damages the already devastated communities in which they live. The social stigma alone has significant consequences.
In the age of “colorblindness” and rejection of overt discrimination, people are all too willing to talk about “criminals” as if they are less than human. During probation and parole, Alexander writes, “Laws operate collectively to make ex-offenders unable to integrate into white society.”
Even without overt acts of racism, by staying comfortable and ignoring the fact that millions of black and brown men are now under community and corrections supervision — where housing and jobs are essentially impossible to access, and where discrimination is entirely legal — we play a role in supporting legalized segregation even more powerful and effective that Jim Crow ever was.
If you’re interested in learning more, there will be an event at Bowdoin College, “ Race, Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice in a Colorblind Society: Issues for Maine Communities” at 7 p.m. April 9.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.