Where the War on Drugs Meets the War on Women
“Planters care for nothing but to buy Negroes to raise cotton & raise cotton to buy Negroes.” –an unnamed southerner to northerner Edward Russell c. 1854
Dr. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, teaches civil rights advocates to be on the lookout for the next movement that leads to, sustains, or enhances systems and institutions that equate to Jim Crow morally or in their direct or indirect outcomes. Led by conservative, powerful whites, these movements rally working class and poor whites behind a cause that appears race-neutral but that has the effects of permanently barring poor people of color from fully participating in all the freedoms granted to U.S. citizens and of masking classism by giving working class and poor whites the illusion of equality with elite whites.
I believe the personhood movement is one of, if not the, next wave in systematic oppression efforts. It relates directly to mass incarceration and can survive when The New Jim Crow ends.
Dr. Alexander writes,
“Rich and powerful people, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have invested millions in private prisons. They are deeply interested in expanding the market—increasing the supply of prisoners—not eliminating the pool of people who can be held captive for a profit.”
The best way to keep a prison full is to groom a person from birth to land there. Upon their release or parole, convicted felons return to the poor neighborhoods they came from. In these neighborhoods are girls and women whose eggs don’t hide from the sperm of convicted felons, and they have a baby. Mom foregoes her plans for education. She finds out children are expensive, and she has to work. Dad doesn’t contribute much financially because he has trouble finding a job because he’s a felon. He sells drugs to provide for his family and returns to prison.
As he goes through the recidivism cycle, nothing changes in his old neighborhood. No new investments in jobs or education. His block remains a target in the War on Drugs. And his ex is having more babies. Why? Because she lives in a state that outlawed comprehensive sex education, so she doesn’t have much information about birth control or STDs. Or her state declared that a fertilized egg is a person, and that outlawed the IUD she had planned to use to keep from having kids for the next 5 years. It also outlawed some forms of the Pill. Or she wanted to have her tubes tied after the last baby was born, but her insurance wouldn’t cover it because she’s too young. Or the hospital she goes to is run by the Catholic Church, so she couldn’t have gotten a tubal ligation while her body was open after the last C-section. She would have had to miss work again, go to another hospital and be opened for surgery again, which wasn’t affordable. Or she works for an organization that won’t cover birth control in its insurance plans, and she can’t pay for it.
Or she’s having babies because she had never thought very much about how having children could complicate her future plans. Or she has them because she wants them because, whether or not all else fails, making a child is an accomplishment.
And since nothing is changing in the neighborhood and it remains a target in the War on Drugs, the babies become juveniles and men who are incarcerated.
In an interview with Tavis Smiley previewing her story on mass incarceration tonight, Our America host Lisa Ling said she’s heard workers at private prisons apologize for the institutions not being full. As of 2008, 8.4 million people in the U.S. were in prison, on probation, on parole or under house arrest, and prison employees—who often are poor or working class whites because private prisons are built more often than not in rural areas—are worried there might not be enough people in prison for them to keep their jobs?
It reminds me of the quote at the top of this post. It’s found in the book Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, by Walter Johnson. It’s found in a section about how whites who may have started out poor measured their economic progress by their ability to purchase slaves. Buy some labor to plant and harvest the crop. Sell the harvest to buy more labor to plant a bigger crop. Harvest the bigger crop, sell it to buy more labor to plant a bigger crop…
Turn recreational drug users and addicts into criminals. Build more prisons to accommodate the growth in the number of felons. Create more felons to build more prisons, and build more prisons to house more felons, and keep black women breeding an endless supply.
Dr. Alexander thinks the mass incarceration system will fall, as all reincarnations of American slavery do. But another system starts. Even without the War on Drugs, the expense of children keeps women from educational and job opportunities. Women are still penalized in the workplace for having children, in part because employers don’t want to hire someone who will take off to take care of her household. When women can’t earn, they can’t move up. They can’t build wealth. Having too many children, wanted or not, keeps women bound to under-resourced neighborhoods. It keeps them from controlling their own destiny. In a way, it keeps them enslaved.
The way to freedom is to have more choice. And there are people profiting from having choice severely restricted.
Read excerpts from Dr. Alexander’s book here.
Learn more about race and social justice by visiting the Anne Braden Center for Social Justice. They brought Dr. Alexander to speak in Louisville, and we appreciate it.