President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech unfortunately ignored the mass incarceration of our nation’s poor, America’s current human rights nightmare. It is particularly disappointing as his speech occurred on the day that our nation celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the President chose to ignore the fact that our nation disproportionately ensnares African American males in the criminal justice system, wreaking havoc in African American communities from coast to coast.
American’s Drug War has created a permanent second-class citizen that is denied many of the basic rights and liberties that other citizens enjoy. A drug felony can strip away the right to vote, eliminate the ability to find employment, prevent opportunities for housing, deny 2nd Amendment rights and deprive citizens food stamp benefits. The escalating prison costs are short-changing our educational system and even bankrupting states, threatening the most vulnerable in our society that depend upon an adequate social safety net.
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, does a great job describing how a “human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch.”
There are more African American adults under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. In major urban areas, like Chicago — Obama’s hometown — the majority of working-age African American men have criminal records are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. Millions of people in the United States, primarily poor people of color, are denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement: the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free from discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits. They have been branded “criminals” and “felons” and now find themselves relegated to a permanent, second-class status for the rest of their lives. They live in a parallel social universe, the Other America.
We, as a nation, are in deep denial about how this came to pass. On the rare occasions when the existence of “them” — the others, the ghetto dwellers, those locked up and locked out — is publicly acknowledged, standard excuses are trotted out for their condition. We’re told black culture, bad schools, poverty, and broken homes are to blame. Almost no one admits: We declared war. We declared a war on them. We declared a war on the most vulnerable people in our society and then blamed them for the wreckage.
And yet that is precisely what we did. We declared a war known as the War on Drugs. The war has driven the quintupling of our prison population in a few short decades. The vast majority of the startling increase in incarceration in America is traceable to the arrest and imprisonment of poor people of color for non-violent, drug-related offenses. Families have been torn apart, young lives shattered, as parents grieve the loss of loved ones to the system, often hiding their grief under a cloak of shame. Politicians claim that the enemy in this war in is a thing — “drugs” — not a group of people, but the facts prove otherwise.
With strong majorities in two states legalizing marijuana, opinion poll after opinion poll showing that a majority of Americans support ending cannabis prohibition and acknowledge that the Drug War has not been worth the costs, it is evident that the movement to end the Drug War is gathering unprecedented momentum. It is a shame that the President of the United States, who should know that an arrest during his time as a member of the Choom Gang would have ended many educational and employment opportunities he was afforded, has chosen to not lead on a human rights nightmare of our time. Fortunately, many others are leading on the issue and the leader of the free world will just have to follow us on this one.
Republished with special permission from the National Cannabis Coalition