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By Ronald B. Neal
For more than two decades rappers have been the unofficial spokespersons for America’s failed War on Drugs. From N.W.A. to The Notorious B.I.G. to Jay- Z to Trick Daddy to 50 Cent to T.I. to Young Jeezy to Gucci Mane and Rick Ross stories of nickel and dime street hustlers and cocaine kingpins have draped the sonic landscape of Hip Hop. Some rappers tell tragic stories of drug deals gone bad but most tell stories of prosperity, of “getting rich off cocaine,” to use the language of Rick Ross. The romanticized “dope boy” or the Mafia boss who lives “the good life” while escaping criminal prosecution is a staple of cocaine rap. These exaggerated stories of criminal success are testament to the fact that the illegal drug business thrives in America; that the legal consequences of the narcotics trade have not altered or impeded the sell, use, and distribution of drugs in the United States. Although cocaine rappers revel in tall tales of high drama, masculine fearlessness, and the love of money they too often betray the stark human and legal realities that haunt narcotics traffic in America. What most cocaine rappers don’t rap about and what most politicians, religious elites, and Americans in general avoid altogether is the other side of the drug game; that side of the illegal drug business where lives are lost, opportunity is denied, youth is plundered, and children are orphaned. Enter Michelle Alexander.
Last year, in a groundbreaking and highly publicized book on mass incarceration in America, legal scholar Michelle Alexander brought light to a disturbing and easy to ignore social phenomenon. In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander exposes the consequences of America’s so-called War on Drugs. She looks at the social costs of more than two decades of drug policies which have done more to create, rather than lessen, drug related social ills America. The greatest of these ills is an unreflective system of human warehousing—mass incarceration— which only exacerbates the social maladies connected to drug related activities. What is more, the War on Drugs has not addressed nor halted the consumer demand for illegal drugs. The consumer demand for illegal drugs is the single force that sustains the illegal economy in America. Sadly, this economy is tied to a harsh economic reality in America; that the illegal drug trade is a tragic and real economic alternative for men, women, children, and youth who have zero to limited access to the economic mainstream of the United States; that drug policies ignore the race, class, and gendered conditions that produce “dope boys” and “dope girls.” Tragically, the racism, classism, and sexism which so conditions America and is manifested in neglected public schools, limited social networks, and limited economic opportunities are hardly considered when drug policy is constructed and implemented. What is more, the worst effects of drug policy in America: excessive sentences, the prison business and social/legal discrimination suffered by ex-offenders have not prompted a change in direction where narcotics traffic is concerned.
The overall effect of the War on Drugs is the reinvention of race, class, and gender inequality. Old forms of discrimination have been recreated through its punitive aims. For this reason, Alexander labels this condition, The New Jim Crow. There are countless men, women, and young people who by virtue of criminal arrests and felony convictions are discriminated against—legally—for having passed through a fallible and prejudiced system of criminal justice. Drug policies have contributed to a neo-caste system in the United States, one that is comparable to the caste system that characterized the Jim Crow South. In very profound ways, men, women, children, and youth who participate in or are affected by the narcotics underground economy and its social consequences have the same status of poor blacks, sharecroppers, who lived in the South between the end of slavery and the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. These sharecropping blacks represented a peasant class who were stuck, permanently, at the bottom of American society. Their status was similar to the peasant class or “untouchables” in India. As inhabitants of a neo-caste system, those who are affected by the War on Drugs represent a devalued and unwanted class of citizens, a Third World nation. And jails, detention centers, and prisons are trash heaps and garbage cans that are reserved for them.
Tragically, the biggest losers in America’s War on Drugs are children. The children of drug dealers and the children of women and men who get caught up in drug related activities are the invisible causalities of the War on Drugs. Children whose mothers, fathers, and guardians experience incarceration are left to fend for themselves. Too often these children, who eventually grow up, become vulnerable to the very same forces that so negatively impact the ones who produced and were designated to care for them. Today, it is not uncommon to find mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, and generations within families and communities which have experienced incarceration and the criminal justice system in one form or another. The New Jim Crow ensures that these children have nothing, apart from incarceration, to look forward to.
Overall, Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow, is a strident and provocative critique of American democracy. It calls into question the belief in American democracy; that any person in our society can succeed regardless of the circumstances that shape their lives, including those who have passed through our system of criminal justice. The New Jim Crow is also a clarion call for those who are interested in “justice for all.” It calls for progressives of all stripes (feminists, liberals, etc.) to challenge this new system of legal segregation and discrimination. Alexander’s work is an invitation to say Hell No to the New Jim Crow! Future generations need not be lost to America’s failed War on Drugs. As long as it remains in tack, The New Jim Crow will ensure that America will remain a nation that fails to instigate opportunity for all of its citizens. As long as it remains in tack it will need voices such as Michelle Alexander and others who will denounce its deleterious effects with respect to our so-called democracy.
Ronald B. Neal holds a Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics, and Culture from Vanderbilt University. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His research and writing interests include: religion, gender, and culture, religion, ethics, and politics, modern and postmodern philosophy, Third World Studies, and popular culture. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Democracy in 21st Century America: Notes on Race, Class, Religion, and Region (Mercer University Press). He is currently at work on an untitled book on religion, masculinity, and hip hop.