08/07/19 Michelle Alexander

Century of Lies
Michelle Alexander
Drug Policy Alliance

This week we hear from Michelle Alexander about building the movement for racial justice and drug policy reform. Michelle Alexander is a highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar, and the author of The New Jim Crow. She delivered a keynote address at the Drug Policy Alliance's International Reform Conference.

Audio file


DECEMBER 10, 2017


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Michelle Alexander is a highly-acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar. She's the author of The New Jim Crow, and at the 2017 Reform Conference, Drug Policy Alliance's international drug policy reform conference, Michelle Alexander delivered the opening keynote address. Let's give a listen.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And yet, at the same time, in the same very moment, we face an unprecedented drug crisis in this country. Drug overdoses are at a record high, making the crack epidemic seem somewhat mild by comparison. A recent report by the Police Executive Research Forum revealed that drug overdose deaths totaled more than 64,000 last year, a 21 percent increase over 2015.

About three quarters of all those deaths involved opioids. America has four percent of the world's population and 27 percent of the world's overdose deaths, and many experts predict that we haven't seen the worst of it yet. Already drug overdose deaths are more numerous than HIV deaths were in 1995, the worst year ever of the AIDS epidemic.

Drug overdoses last year alone outnumbered American fatalities during the entire course of the Vietnam War. And yes, there is outcry over the opioid crisis, but it's relatively muted considering the magnitude of the crisis at hand.

And I know that I am not alone in being struck by the drastic difference between the two recent drug epidemics that have swept this nation, opioids and crack. Now the crack epidemic killed just a tiny fraction of those who are dying of opioid overdoses today, and yet a literal war was declared on poor people of color, a purely punitive, militaristic response prevailed.

And today, even though the opioid crisis is much, much worse, there's no wall to wall media coverage demonizing and shaming opioid users and dealers, there's no live TV coverage of drug addicts and dealers rounded up in mass raids or parading into courtrooms. There are few politicians blasting the mostly white opioid addicts, portraying them as people worthy of care and compassion, not despicable scum of the earth that have to be gotten rid of by any means necessary.

Things are very, very different this time around, and we all know why. Whiteness makes a difference. If the overwhelming majority of the users and dealers of opioids today were black, rather than white, we wouldn't have police chiefs competing with each other over whose department is showing more compassion to people struggling with drug addiction or drug abuse.

Now, I am glad, I want to be clear that I am very glad that the Police Executive Research Forum is actually bragging in its recent report that many police departments are sending officers to the home of addicts to pay them kind visits and invite them to treatment and offer support.

But I'm not as optimistic as some of my friends about the future of drug policy in this country. I'm told that this newfound tolerance and compassion for white users and abusers of illegal drugs will translate into a permanent ceasefire in the drug war, and that the shifts in law and policy will inevitably benefit people of all races and classes in the long run.

I have my doubts about this. Now, clearly, the victories for marijuana decriminalization and legalization have benefited people of all colors, as arrest rates have declined dramatically in many states, even though severe racial disparities do remain. Discriminatory enforcement hasn't changed much, but at least the total number of people arrested and criminalized has declined, a positive development for all people of all colors.

Now, my concern lies elsewhere. I'm concerned about the cyclical nature of reform and retrenchment in this country, particularly with respect to race. The great legislative victories to legalize marijuana in several states did not occur in a vacuum. They occurred on the very same night that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, an election that was made possible in no small part by deliberate, explicit appeals to white racial resentment and anxiety.

Now, some have said this is a very, very strange paradox, progressive drug policies sweeping the nation at the very same moment that Donald Trump is elected president of the United States, and a fierce drug warrior is appointed attorney general. How do we explain this crazy state of affairs?

Yet, from where I sit, there is no paradox, no mystery at all. There's a common denominator underlying both the drug reform victories and the election of Donald Trump. It's called whiteness.

It's called whiteness. Over and over again, throughout American history, our nation has unleashed a wave of punitiveness whenever drugs came to be associated with black and brown people, and then predictably, you can set your watch to it, when the color of drug users and dealers fades to white, our nation suddenly reverses course, often quite abruptly. Attitudes change, policies change, compassion bubbles to the surface of the public discourse. Numerous historians have documented this unmistakable pattern.

And by the same token, throughout our nation's history, there has always been fierce, overwhelming backlash against even the appearance of great racial progress. Always. You can set your watch to that one, too.

And while some might argue that the racial justice gains offered by Obama's election were mostly symbolic, the symbolism was powerful, and deeply disturbing to millions, helping to incite an electoral backlash that we should have seen coming.

Now, of course, I don't mean to suggest that the presidential election and the drug policy victories last year were solely about race. But at the same time, can we honestly imagine that the drug reform victories last year in all those states would have been possible in the midst of the crack epidemic?

Just for a moment, try to imagine our nation legalizing any drug of any kind in the middle of any drug epidemic that was affecting primarily black or brown people. Imagine pot being legalized near the peak of the crack epidemic. And then try to imagine that all of the new legal drug empires that are being launched are being led by young black men with wild Afros and tattoos rather than hipster white men with cute ponytails and beards.

No. It wouldn't happen. It wouldn't happen, just no. Changing attitudes and policies became possible in recent years in large part because the media was no longer saturated with images of black and brown drug dealers and addicts. The color of drug users and dealers got whiter in the public imagination, and so we as a nation got nicer.

Now that's not to say these changes were inevitable. That's not what I'm saying at all. An enormous amount of hard work, blood, sweat, and tears went into those victories. I just am asking us today to pause long enough to absorb the truth that the white face of medical marijuana in the media, and the white male face of legal pot entrepreneurs, and the white male face of drug users and abusers in this current opioid epidemic, and the white face of drug heroes in the media, such as those featured in Breaking Bad, made it possible for mainstream white voters to feel a kind of empathy that was utterly lacking for black and brown folks just 20 years ago.

Again, my point isn't to minimize these legislative victories in any way. Rather, it's my hope that we'll interrogate these victories, and consider what they might teach us about the future of our movement. As I see it, this movement, this movement convened right here in this room, stands at a critical crossroads. What path we take in the months and years to come will likely determine whether our movement succeeds or fails in the long run.

And I don't think it's an overstatement to say that the path that we ultimately choose may have enormous implications for the success and failure of our democracy as a whole. I hope it's not controversial to say, in this room, that our democracy is in a state of crisis. The gravity of the situation can be overwhelming, and it's tempting at times like this to narrow one's focus, and to think small. To think narrowly and very, very pragmatically, even defensively, about what can be done to advance a single issue in this complex and worrisome political environment.

But I want to challenge all of us here today to think big. To go big, or stay home.

We're going to go big. And now, I certainly don't mean let's be reckless, or let's throw reason to the wind, no, not at all. When I say think big, go big, I mean we must begin to think bigger. Much, much bigger, beyond drug policy, and consider more carefully how drug policy fits in to the bigger picture of American democracy.

We must think big enough so that our victories truly become victories for all of us. All of us, or none. Yeah.

As I see it, any victory that is dependent on whiteness, in whole or in part, is truly not a victory for us all. Black and brown folks may benefit so long as the face of drugs is white, but the minute that changes, all bets are off.

Now you know, when The New Jim Crow was first released, and nobody was reading it except Dorsey, and a few other folks, I had a meeting with a very influential leader and thinker in the drug policy reform movement. And he said to me, you know, I've read your book, and I agree with just about everything you say here, but, you know, there's one thing that bothers me. It seems like you're arguing here that we need to end racism in order to end the war on drugs, and you know, I don't think so. I think we can win this war on drugs without ending racism, and I don't think we're going to end racism in our lifetime, and I intend to end the war on drugs with or without ending racism.

Shortly after Trump was elected, and a drug warrior was appointed attorney general, amidst a white supremacist attempted revolution, I sent an email to this individual, and I said, well, remember when you said we didn't have to end racism in order to end the war on drugs? What do you think now?

Now, I was, you know, half joking. I'm not so naive as to think we're going to end racism just by having better organizing strategies, or by waving a magic wand, but I do believe that we must be committed to placing race and racial justice at the very center of the drug policy reform movement, at the very center. Yeah.

DOUG MCVAY: You're listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. This week we're listening to the keynote address delivered by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, at the Drug Policy Alliance's 2017 International Drug Policy Reform Conference, which was held in Atlanta, Georgia. Let's get back to that.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Lately, I find that when I talk to drug reformers and say things like that, racial justice must be central to our movement building and advocacy, people nod and say, oh yeah, oh yeah, that's so right. Oh yeah. And for a while I was just really encouraged by these platitudes, until I started asking some follow-up questions. And then, I discovered that this newfound commitment to racial justice was a little thin in practice.

For some advocates, making race central means quoting a lot of racial disparity data and press releases. It means posting to social media the latest horrific thing that Donald Trump said. And I'm not a fan of this approach. Nearly all of the available research suggests that merely sharing racial disparity data without a great deal of political and social and historical context and lots of storytelling only confirms pre-existing racial stereotypes and bias, especially about blacks and crime.

There's a deeper problem lurking here, and the deeper problem has nothing to do with what doesn't work to change people's minds. The bigger problem is what does work, and people do change their minds when the victims of drug policy are white. That's a fact, and people do become far more punitive when the face of drugs or crime is black or brown. That's a fact.

And these facts are not merely inconvenient. The implications are profound. Taken together, these facts mean that so long as the progressive public consensus about drugs is rooted in compassion for white people, the consensus will not last for long. Why? Because sooner or later, the face of drug abuse will change. It always has. No racial group has ever had a permanent monopoly on drug addiction, and the minute the color of addiction changes, that so-called consensus will begin to unravel, and we'll be back to full-out war.

Now this dilemma is not limited to drug policy, of course. In every area of public policy, there is the risk that progressive gains that are made with white people in mind will vanish the minute black and brown people become the primary beneficiaries. Yep, that's right.

You know, research shows that white people are more generous and forgiving with each other than those who are perceived as others. Cognitive science teaches us, they can't help it most of the time. We're all primed to value and prefer those who seem like us, though the preferences white have for themselves are remarkably greater, no doubt due to centuries of brainwashing that have led them to actually believe, often unconsciously, that they are in fact superior.

Now, Mark Mauer in this excellent book Race To Incarcerate cites data showing that the most punitive nations in the world are the most diverse. The nations with the most compassionate or the most lenient criminal justice policies are the most homogeneous. You know, we like to say that diversity is our strength, but it may actually be our Achilles Heel.

Researchers have reached similar conclusions in the public welfare context. The democracies that have the most generous social welfare programs, universal healthcare, cheap or free college education, generous maternity leave, on and on, are generally the most homogeneous. Socialist countries like Sweden and Norway are overwhelmingly white. But when those nations feel threatened by immigration, by so-called foreigners, public support for generous social welfare begins to erode, often quite sharply.

It seems that it's an aspect of human nature to be tempted, to be more punitive and less generous to those we view as others. And so in a nation like the United States, where we are just a few generations away from slavery and Jim Crow, where inequality is skyrocketing due to global capitalism, and where demographic changes due to immigration are creating a nation in which no racial group is the majority, a central question we must face in this movement is whether we, the people, are capable of overcoming our basic instinct to respond more harshly, more punitively, with less care and concern, for people we view as different.

Can we evolve? Can we evolve morally and spiritually? Can we learn to care for each other, across lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality, and all forms of difference, in times like these? Clearly, these questions are pressing in the age of Trump. But they're also the very questions that we must be asking no matter who is president.

On the home page of the Drug Policy Alliance website, the mission statement says, the first sentence says, we believe drug policies should be based on science, compassion, health, and human rights, not fear and stigma. Now I read that mission statement as challenging us, as a nation, to alleviate each other's suffering rather than multiplying it. To respond with reason and compassion rather than fear and stigma, and to honor basic human rights. It's a mission statement that points to something bigger, much bigger than just drug policy reform.

Now let me cut to the chase, because I know my time is running short. The fate of our democracy depends in no small part on what happens in spaces like this. Whether and how we learn to build movements that re-imagine ways of seeing, and relating to one another, will determine the future not only of drug policy, but the future of our democracy.

And in so many ways, the fate of the global community hangs in the balance. Now the good news is that drug policy presents incredible opportunities for re-imagining what our democracy and global community can and should be. We have the opportunity in this movement to educate people of all colors about how our ugly racial history harms us all.

White folks today would have a much better public health infrastructure and more treatment options available to them if it wasn't for the birth of a racist drug war. Many white folks are suffering and dying today because of a drug war declared with black folks in mind.

Thousands of immigrants are being locked up, warehoused in private detention centers that would not even exist today but for the anti-black racism of the drug war, which gave birth to the private prison industry. Yeah. That industry is a hungry beast with an insatiable appetite.

We have the opportunity to demonstrate, through our movement, how the same forms of racially divisive politics that helped to birth the drug war and mass incarceration are playing out all over again in a strikingly similar fashion, this time leading to a system of mass deportation on a scale rarely seen in human history. We can do that through this movement.

And few issues, few causes, few movements, provide a better opportunity to practice reparations. And yes, I say practice. Because we have a lot to learn as a nation. We don't have a lot of practice at repairing historical harms that have been caused to poor people and to people of color. But we can get started in a real way, in this movement, right here and right now.

And I think it's fair to say that this movement, as much as any other, provides an extraordinary opportunity for us to practice with one another and with the communities we serve what it means to show care and compassion across lines of race, class, and difference. People of all races and backgrounds are losing loved ones to this drug war, some to fatal overdoses, others to addiction, and millions more to prison and jail cells.

Finally, this movement gives us a chance to talk about capitalism in a way that's long overdue. We have a chance to raise important questions about global capitalism, our culture of ruthless competition and individualism, and its possible role in creating so much of the despair that makes the United States the world leader in drug addiction as well as incarceration.

By interrogating capitalism in the context of drug policy reform, we can also ask important questions, such as, what really does a fair market look like when some groups have been systematically denied access to markets and capital? How should we structure opportunity in this new trade or in this new business? And when, if ever, should the free market be trusted, particularly when dangerous drugs are the commodity?

These essential questions regarding race, capitalism, economic justice, criminal justice, and reparations, are all bound up in drug policy reform debates, making this movement extremely fertile ground for beginning to re-imagine what kind of democracy and global community we aim to co-create.

Now, none of this will be easy, as Maria said, and I won't pretend to have the answers to many of the most vexing questions. But what I do know is that simply citing racial disparity statistics and retweeting racists won't build a sturdy foundation for a truly transformative movement. Nor will efforts to capitalize on the empathy for white folks in the midst of an unprecedented drug epidemic.

Now, if we choose to think big, really big, and deliberately align our drug policy with the work, the larger work, of building a thriving multiracial, multiethnic democracy that truly honors the lives of all of us, a whole new world of possibilities begin to emerge.

Suddenly we're not just fighting isolated drug policy reform battles anymore, but we're steadily, brick by brick, building the foundation for a new way of life, a new way of life together, for our democracy.

Now if we go down this revolutionary road, and it is a revolutionary road, we're going to have to build a multiracial, multiethnic, multifaith, multigender, grassroots movement from the bottom up. There's no way around it. We're going to have to learn to reach across the lines that have divided us, not just for decades, but for centuries. And we're going to have to learn to listen to each other and argue with each other and work together to build this sturdy foundation, and we're going to have to learn to listen, and accept leadership from, the people who have been most harmed, most stigmatized, most discarded, in the wars that we have waged upon them.

But no matter who you are, or where you find yourself in this work today, I hope that you will eventually come to see this beautiful vibrant raucous movement as being about much more than drug policy, because it can, if we let it, become a movement that is fundamental to the remaking of our democracy.

I hope and pray that one day, when the history of this movement is written, that it will be said that we, those of us in this room today, vowed to do more than win kinder, fairer, more compassionate drug policies. Instead we committed ourselves to a revolution, to placing racial justice at the center of our work, to re-imagining our democracy and our economy, and birthing, with all the courage and strength we can muster, a new America. Let the movement begin. Thank you.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, she's a civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar. And that's it for this week. Thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. IÔÇÖm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

The executive producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programs are available via podcast, the URLs to subscribe are on the network home page at DrugTruth.net.

The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give its page a like and share it with friends. Remember: Knowledge is power. Follow me on Twitter, I'm @DougMcVay and of course also @DrugPolicyFacts.

We'll be back next week with thirty more minutes of news and information about the drug war and this century of lies. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.