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Is The War on Drugs Racist? Bestseller Fuels Debate

A bombshell new book argues that the drug war unfairly targets blacks.

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Professor Alexander's book tour has galvanized
debate on drugs and race. Photo via

By May Wilkerson

03/07/12

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African-American law professor Michelle Alexander has been touring her bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, across the US, often receiving standing ovations from packed auditoriums. As its title suggests, the book condemns the underpinnings of the American criminal justice system as racist, directly comparing the War on Drugs to the "Jim Crow" racial laws that were abolished in 1965. And it's clearly struck a powerful chord. As many as one third of black men in the US today will spend time behind bars. Alexander asserts that this mass incarceration is not a response to an actual surge in violent crime among the African-American community, but a calculated effort to offset the gains made by the civil rights movement—penalizing millions of African Americans behind bars, on probation or parole (mostly for non-violent offenses), and millions more with criminal records. Professor Alexander singles out the Nixon and Reagan administrations for particular criticism, for aligning the criminal justice system against the African-American community. “It’s easy to be completely unaware that this vast new system of racial and social control has emerged,” she says. “Unlike in Jim Crow days, there were no ‘Whites Only’ signs. This system is out of sight, out of mind.”

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