Every morning when I was in elementary school we would stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance “to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
These days I vacillate about whether the phrase “liberty and justice for all” is an illusion or a lie.
The American prison-industrial complex is so suffused with racism that it effectively recreates the racial caste system that civil-rights-lawyer-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander calls the “new Jim Crow,” ensuring that there is no such thing as justice for those in a certain caste.
“Mass incarceration,” Dr. Alexander writes, “operates with stunning efficiency to sweep people of color off the streets, lock them in cages, and then release them into a permanent inferior second-class status.”
Richard Nixon was elected by launching a “southern strategy” that made white southerners afraid of crime. Ronald Reagan put his actor’s touch on it and stirred hatred against so-called “welfare queens” and criminal “predators.” This fear-mongering allowed Reagan to cut funding earmarked to investigate white-collar crimes and, instead, pour the money into his war on drugs, which began to fill prisons with low-level drug addicts.
This is not a partisan issue, however. Bill Clinton vowed never to be out-toughed by a Republican. On the eve of the 1992 New Hampshire primary, then-Governor Clinton flew home to Arkansas for the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man so mentally impaired that he asked that the dessert from his last meal be saved for the next morning.
After the execution, Clinton commented, “[N]o one can say I’m soft on crime.” Indeed, his administration saw the largest increases in state and federal prison populations in American history.
Although the rate of drug use is as great among whites as among blacks, where do you think the most arrests are made for drug possession? What part of town do you think has the most people pulled over for rolling through a stop sign or making an illegal turn?
The war on drugs is the single most important cause of the incarceration explosion in the United States, from 300,000 in 1980 to more than 7 million behind bars, on probation, or on parole today. Nationwide, most drug users and dealers are white, but three-fourths of those imprisoned on drug charges are black or Latino. One out of every three black boys will spend time in prison and one of every seven Latino boys.
The drug war has become a cash cow for police departments, whether through forfeiture of assets or federal grants, and for the for-profit prison-industrial complex, which is sold on the New York Stock Exchange.
Justice is an illusion or a lie so long as it is guided by racism and greed.
Rev. Michael Piazza