Pubdate: Mon, 28 Jun 2010
Source: Birmingham News, The (AL)
Copyright: 2010 Miami Herald
Author: Leonard Pitts
Note: Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Miami Herald columnist.


Michelle Alexander was an ACLU attorney in Oakland, preparing a
racial-profiling lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol. The
ACLU had put out a request for anyone who had been profiled to get in
touch. One day, in walked this black man.

He was maybe 19 and toted a thick sheaf of papers, what Alexander
calls an "incredibly detailed" accounting of at least a dozen police
stops over a nine-month period, with dates, places and officers'
names. This was, she thought, a "dream plaintiff."

But it turned out he had a record, a drug felony - and she told him
she couldn't use him; the state's attorney would eat him alive. He
insisted he was innocent, said police had planted drugs and beaten
him. But she was no longer listening. Finally, enraged, he snatched
the papers back and started shredding them.

"You're no better than the police," he cried. "You're doing what they
did to me!" The conviction meant he couldn't work or go to school, had
to live with his grandmother. Did Alexander know how that felt? And
she wanted a dream plaintiff? "Just go to my neighborhood," he said.
"See if you can find one black man my age they haven't gotten to already."

She saw him again a couple of months later. He gave her a potted plant
from his grandmother's porch - he couldn't afford flowers - and
apologized. A few months after that, a scandal broke: Oakland police
officers accused of planting drugs and beating up innocent victims.
One of the officers involved was the one named by that young man.

"It was," says Alexander now, more than 10 years later, "the beginning
of me asking some hard questions of myself as a civil rights lawyer. .
What is actually going on in his neighborhood? How is it that they've
already gotten to all the young African-American men in his
neighborhood? I began questioning my own assumptions about how the
criminal justice system works."

The result is a compelling new book. Others have written of the racial
bias of the criminal injustice system. In The New Jim Crow, Alexander
goes a provocative step further. She contends that the mass
incarceration of black men for nonviolent drug offenses, combined with
sentencing disparities and laws making it legal to discriminate
against felons in housing, employment, education and voting,
constitute nothing less than a new racial caste system. A new

She has a point. Yes, the war on drugs is officially race-neutral. So
were the grandfather clause and other Jim Crow laws whose intention
and effect were nevertheless to restrict black freedom.

The war on drugs is a war on African-American people, and we
countenance it because we implicitly accept certain assumptions sold
to us by the news and entertainment media, chief among them that drug
use is rampant in the black community. But. The. Assumption. Is. WRONG.

According to federal figures, blacks and whites use drugs at a roughly
equal rate in percentage terms. In terms of raw numbers, whites are
far and away the biggest users - and dealers - of illegal drugs.

So why aren't cops kicking their doors in? Why aren't their sons
pulled over a dozen times in nine months? Why are black men 12 times
as likely to be jailed for drugs as white ones? Why aren't white
communities robbed of their fathers, brothers, sons?

With inexorable logic, The New Jim Crow propounds an answer many will
resist and most have not even considered. It is a troubling and
profoundly necessary book.

Please read it.