It had been roughly three years since Professor Michelle Alexander of The Ohio State University published her groundbreaking The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. In her book, she makes the case that the so-called War on Drugs has become the means by which America is able to keep one segment of its population in bondage.
The New Jim Crow has sparked a variety of responses around the country, with several groups and institutions seeking to respond to Prof. Alexander’s findings. None, however, is as significant as the announcement on Tuesday that more than 175 celebrities and activists have sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling for a major shift in the focus of the criminal justice system.
The leaders of this coalition include NAACP President/CEO Benjamin Jealous, music mogul Russell Simmons and economist and author Dr. Boyce Watkins. The list reads like a Who’s Who in American entertainment. Their message is clear. As Dr. Watkins puts it, the intention is for the Obama administration to “develop productive pathways to supporting families that have been harmed by the War on Drugs.”
Professor Alexander’s treatise documents the devastation War on Drugs has caused in African-American neighborhoods, especially the wholesale imprisonment of black men, leaving their families without a male presence, giving them a lifelong stigma that prevents them from turning their lives around in any meaningful way – and, in some cases, denying them the right to vote even after they have paid their supposed debt to society.
There is little doubt that President Obama has the power to influence how this War on Drugs is being waged. After all, it owes its origins to another president, Richard Nixon, and its escalation has continued to be a presidential decision. So too can be its de-escalation. All Mr. Obama has to do is get his people to give him the statistics regarding who are in prison and he should get the message.
This is not a “black” thing he is being asked to do. It is the right thing.