Drug War or Civil War?

By Dirk Hanson 04/12/11

The crime rate doesn’t explain the skyrocketing numbers of black men in America’s prisons. But the Drug War does.

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Neighborhood rite of passage.
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Author Michelle Alexander does not mince words: “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.” Alexander, an Ohio State law professor and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, believes that current drug policy leads to a discriminatory legal system in which black men cannot win. “Growing crime rates don’t explain the skyrocketing numbers of black—and increasingly brown—men caught in America’s prison system,” she said last week at a reading in Pasadena. In fact, current U.S. crime rates are at historic lows in many categories. “Most of that increase is due to the War on Drugs, a war waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color,” she said. The result is a vicious cycle of repeat offenses, accompanied by loss of voting and educational privileges. Convicted felons are often denied loans and employment as well. A majority of black offenders will return to prison within two years, Alexander said.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]