The Rust Belt is no stranger to America’s drug war. Nor is the story of the three decade long mobilization against illegal narcotics a new one. However in her recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, former Stanford Law professor, civil rights lawyer, and current Ohio State University faculty member, Michelle Alexander convincingly paints the war on drugs as far more than just a failed multi-decade policy that has resulted in America becoming the prison capital of the world. Instead, she positions the drug war as part of a racial caste system that has imprisoned over a million African American men and disenfranchised even more. This system results in disproportionately large numbers of black men returning to places like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Youngstown, Detroit and other Rust Belt cities with little prospect of finding a job or making a positive contribution to society. Hence, while crime rates drop in many regions they remain high in the Rust Belt—a region already dealing with problems of concentrated poverty and the disappearance of work in inner city areas. Understanding and ultimately dismantling the drug war and the racialized ideas underpinning it will be crucial for the survival of Rust Belt cities, especially those with majority African American populations.
Drug arrests—eighty percent of which were for simple possession in 2005—have enormous consequences. Felony drug convictions can result in a variety of catastrophic punitive measures: one can be excluded from public housing eligibility for five years; be denied school loans, the right to vote or serve on a jury; discriminated against by potential employers; and be denied a professional license in a variety of fields. These costs are disproportionately being born by African American males. Existing evidence does not support the notion that black males are more likely to commit drug crimes—far from it. Instead, whites use illegal drugs at much the same rates as blacks. (National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2002) Young whites are in fact more likely to sell drugs than are young black males. (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) Still, the war on drugs is almost entirely fought in poor neighborhoods inhabited by people of color. In 2000, African Americans and Latinos made up over three fourths of all those sent to prison for drug offenses. According to Alexander, “blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at rates from twenty to fifty seven times greater than that of white men.” The end result is that one in fifteen African American males is currently incarcerated and that’s not including all those on parole or at some other stage of the penal process. For these men the chances of obtaining any kind of adequate employment, or even shelter, are often highly problematic.
For the cities in America’s former manufacturing belt, most of which have substantial numbers of African Americans, if not outright majorities, the New Jim Crow is a catastrophe of monumental proportions. As of 2009, in Ohio—a state with several distressed cities containing substantial populations of African Americans—there are more black men in prison then there are in universities. Fifty Percent of the nearly 8,000 drug arrests in 2008 in Ohio were cases of possession and not trafficking. Black men are nearly six times more likely to be arrested in Ohio for drugs than are white men. Black males make up twelve percent of Ohio’s population but constitute half of the state’s prisoners. In Akron, Ohio, the inner city is literally crumbling under the assault of the drug war. The Akron Beacon Journal recently interviewed prominent members of the black community concerning the deleterious conditions in the central city. They described the cause of rising crime and neighborhood deterioration: as “ the relentless increase in the number of black men with criminal records and the mounting pressure they face getting jobs.”
Similar scenarios have played out in other former manufacturing cities. During the 1990s, studies showed 93 percent of all those on trial for drug felonies in Wayne County Michigan were black. Dr. Jerome Miller, author of Search and Destroy and an authority on the corrections’ industry, found African Americans in Baltimore were arrested six times more often then whites. Of those arrests, nearly 95 percent were non-trafficking related. In smaller cities like Gary, Flint, Youngstown, Newark, and Trenton, the drug war is permanently disenfranchising large segments of the potential work force. A term called “Cradle to Prison Pipeline” accurately describes the life trajectory of many African Americans in cities like these.
As I write this, a war is being waged in poor black communities across the Rust Belt. While policy makers debate which revitalization strategy is more likely to attract business to their city, SWAT teams are smashing down doors and conducting raids with military-styled equipment. The thousands of largely black men who are caught up in these dragnets will disappear into prisons (many of which are increasingly run by for profit corporations) and even from census counts; prisoners are counted as part of the population in the area they are imprisoned by the US Census Bureau. For declining Rust Belt cities already experiencing population loss, this is a disaster. What is to be done though?
As Michelle Alexander rightfully points out, we can start by dropping the idea that this is a color- blind system we are confronting. Statistics and studies refute any notion that people of color are more likely to violate drug laws. What we are instead dealing with is a caste system. Alexander writes “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. These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.” Jim Crow has in many ways been reborn with the rise of the prison industrial complex and the war on drugs. Dismantling it will call for far more than ending this war. It requires a fundamental examination of how a democratic society can continue to replace one racial caste system with another: slavery, Jim Crow, and now the prison industrial complex.
Martin Luther King once said, “law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” Far from upholding a moral order, the prison system allows for the upholding of racial systems of power. New movements must arise to challenge this system. There is no place better for this to start than in the Rust Belt, for the New Jim Crow will ultimately counter any attempts we make to democratically revitalize industrial cities. We cannot and should no longer erect prisons and ghettos to hold those who are dispossessed by economic and social forces beyond their control. We must not become a morally bankrupt as well an economically bankrupt region.
This post was contributed by Youngstown’s Sean Posey.