Thursday, December 17, 2015

How I woke up to the Issue: #Blacklivesmatter

I just finished reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, and all I can do is wonder if there is a bigger problem, a bigger injustice, a bigger moral failing than the simple fact that Black Americans are incarcerated far more frequently for drug crimes than whites.

I verified the numbers myself. In 2013, a total of 88,500 whites were sentenced for drug-related charges compared to 117,300 blacks, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.1 Even though there are six times more whites in the general population, and rates of drug use are equal among whites and blacks, blacks are arrested and sentenced to prison MORE OFTEN than whites.

Like any statistic, there's more to this than simple numbers, and counterarguments and caveats are important. However, given the scale of this injustice, the burden of proof falls on those who would deny that this system is racist.

The simple conclusion is that the US drug policy discriminates according to race. If drug incarceration rates among blacks and whites were equal in 2013, then roughly 102,900 black Americans would have been spared prison.

That's 102,900 extra people behind bars, a year. That's 102,900 excess people taken away from their families, from the workplace, from their communities. That's 102,900 excess families laboring under the stigma of criminality. That's lost votes. That's lost public housing. That's lost dignity.

That's a humanitarian crisis. 

The criminal justice system is a foundational piece of our society, and it is systematically rounding up minorities and locking them in cages. How can black communities, already relegated to inner city ghettos and stigmatized by a white society, possibly reach any kind of parity in quality of life when their own government is so disproportionately heavy handed.

The book ticks off one head-shaking statistic after another, but Alexander's comparison to society's response to drunk driving is particularly compelling. In the 1980's, when drunk driving fatalities outnumbered drug related fatalities, a grassroots movement preceded a government intervention. For the population of largely white men, the focus on reforming drivers and keeping them in society resulted in a 50% reduction in drunk driving fatalities. Imagine if there was a War on Drunk Driving, stigmatizing white men and herding them into prisons by the millions while drunk driving went on unabated? 

Alexander is compelling when she traces the systematized oppression of blacks as a means to capture white voting constituencies, from the end of slavery to Jim Crow to the war on drugs and mass incarceration. 

She calls for what Martin Luther King called for, a human rights movement. 

I'm outraged, but I'm also embarrassed. How could I be an educated 36 year old physician and just now realize that I'm a tax-paying accomplice to a humanitarian crisis? We are hiding the truth from ourselves, we are deceiving ourselves. We are comforting ourselves that, since a black man is president, we are finally absolved from our legacy of oppression. 

I believe, as Alexander does, that like myself, most Americans genuinely abhor the thought of racism and would never characterize themselves as such.

If that's the case, then we have to get off our butts and do something about this. 

For a detailed look at strategy for effective engagement with this topic, please consider taking the time to read this strategy piece by the Open Philanthropy Project.

1- Appendix Table 4 page 30

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