Good afternoon. Thank you, thank you so much
for having me here today. It’s really an honor to be here. And I’m thrilled to
see so many of you here, eager to join in
meaningful dialogue, meaningful conversation
about this system of mass incarceration
in the United States– a system that has decimated
so many of our communities, destroyed so many
families, and literally turned back the clock on racial
progress in the United States. It seems fitting that this
dialogue would be taking place during Black History Month, a
time when many Americans pause to consider– if only
briefly– our nation’s racial history,
our racial present, and our collective future. And this year marks
the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation
Proclamation. [BRIEF APPLAUSE] And so it seems more than
appropriate to reflect on the meaning of that
proclamation, indeed the meaning of emancipation in
this era of mass incarceration. And this year also marks the
50th anniversary of the March on Washington. 50 years have passed since
Dr. King delivered his soaring “I Have a Dream”
speech. “I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted
in the American dream.” And so, in reflecting
on where we stand today, 150 years after the Emancipation
Proclamation and 50 years after the March
on Washington, I’m going to take Martin
Luther King Jr.’s advice and tell it straight. As Dr. King put it quite bluntly
just months before his death. After the Civil Rights
victories had already been won, after the Civil Rights
bills had already been passed, he said, quote, “I do
not see how we will ever solve the turbulent
problem of race confronting our nation until there is an
honest confrontation with it and a willing
search for the truth and a willingness to admit the
truth when we discover it.” And so, in that vein,
I’m going to do my best to tell the truth, the whole
truth about race in America today. It is a truth that many
Americans will deny, just as they were eager to
deny the truth about slavery and Jim Crow in their days. But the truth is this– we as a
nation have taken a wrong turn in our stride toward freedom. We’ve betrayed Dr. King’s dream. And perhaps nowhere is it
more obvious than right here in the city of Chicago. In this great city– President
Barack Obama’s hometown– a vast new racial
undercast has emerged, though their plight is rarely
mentioned on the evening news. Occasionally, we hear about
the homicide rate, the violence that has been spinning out
of control– not everywhere, but in certain spaces,
certain places, certain communities defined
largely by race and class. 108 young people were killed
in this city last year alone. Hundreds more were
killed with scarcely any notice in the media, just
another black man gunned down, another body in the street. When Hadiya
Pendleton was killed, though, the national media took
notice, at least for a moment. She was a 15-year-old
girl in the wrong place at the wrong time,
according to the police. The killing of Hadiya Pendleton,
an honor student shot dead just days after she performed at
President Obama’s inauguration became a symbol of the city’s
stubbornly high homicide rate and something of a pawn. She became something of a
pawn in the national debate over gun control. Now, I am very grateful that
we are having a national debate about gun control. And for the moment, at least,
politicians in the media are paying attention
to the deaths of black and brown
school children, not just white children killed
by deranged mass murderers. But I am deeply disturbed
that, in this national debate about violence and
gun control, there is little honest
discussion of why– truly why– some communities are
war zones while others are not. For while I support gun
control and background checks and all the rest– let me be
very clear about that– I think we have got to admit that the
reason that some communities are war zones and some
are not is not, at bottom, about the number of guns
in those communities. After all, I live
in a community where I have come to learn that many
of my white neighbors own guns. But my neighborhood is safe. At bottom, what makes
a community safe is not the number of guns but the
number of good schools, the number of good
jobs, the number of educational
opportunities, the number of opportunities people have
for living a decent life. [APPLAUSE] Those are the numbers
that matter most when it comes to violence. And, in Chicago, as in
so many other cities and communities across America,
a choice has been made. It is a deliberate choice. And it is a choice
that has been made over and over and over again. Rather than good
schools, we have been willing to build
high-tech prisons. Rather than create jobs and
invest in the communities that need it most, we have embarked
on an unprecedented race to incarcerate that
has left millions of Americans permanently
locked up or locked out. William Julius Wilson has
written an excellent book about the changes
that have occurred in Chicago and other communities
around the country entitled, When Work Disappears. And in that book he cites
statistics showing that, when you control
for joblessness, the racial disparities in
violent crime disappear. In other words, if you
compare white jobless men with black jobless men,
rates of violent crime are roughly the same. Men who are jobless–
particularly chronically jobless– are more
likely to be violent. Now, joblessness does not
excuse violence by any means. Most people who are jobless
do not resort to violence. But what we know, and
what is no secret, is that communities
that are plagued by exceedingly high
levels of joblessness are likely to be violent. But a shift occurred here in
Chicago and in communities across America– urban
communities– beginning in the late ’50s, early
’60s, into the 1970s, where work disappeared. It used to be that
factories would be located in urban areas, near
segregated black communities so those factories could
have quick and easy access to cheap black labor. In fact, as late as
1970, more than 70% of all African Americans
working in the Chicago area held blue-collar
jobs, factory jobs. Almost overnight,
those jobs vanished. By 1987, the industrial
employment of black men had plummeted to 28% due
to deindustrialization, globalization, technological
advancement, factories closing down, jobs moving overseas. Hundreds of thousands of
people– overwhelmingly black men– found
themselves suddenly jobless, trapped in racially-segregated,
jobless communities– trapped. Economic collapse occurred in
urban areas across the country. Now, we could have
responded to this crisis, to this literal
depression occurring in cities like
Chicago and Baltimore and Philadelphia and
Detroit and beyond. We could have responded to this
crisis, this economic collapse, this literal depression
with an outpouring of care, compassion, and concern. We could have responded
with bailout packages, economic stimulus programs. We could have provided
job training, particularly to young people coming
up in these communities so they could make
the rough transition from an industrial economy
to a service-based economy. But no, we chose
a different road, a road more familiar when
it comes to matters of race. We chose the road of division,
punitiveness, and despair. We, as a society, ended
the war on poverty and declared the war on drugs. Black men found themselves
suddenly disposable, no longer necessary to the
functioning of the US economy, precisely at the same moment
that a backlash was brewing against the Civil Rights
movement, a backlash that made it convenient
for politicians to demonize black
men as criminals, as shiftless, as
unwilling to work. And so this war on
drugs was declared. And black men found
that they were no longer needed to work in the
fields, no longer needed to labor in factories. And they found
themselves scapegoats, pawns in political games,
the enemy in a new war, and were rounded
up by the millions, locked up, and then
permanently locked out. And now, decades later,
we stand back and say, what’s wrong with these people? Why are they killing each other? Why is there so much violence in
these communities that we have abandoned, communities where
good schools cannot be found but high-tech prisons
are a drive away? What’s wrong with them? I think the deeper question–
the more profound question– is, what is wrong with us? [APPLAUSE] Why have we been
silent for so long? Well, I’ve been asked to share
with you the thesis of my book, The New Jim Crow:
Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. And I think the
title of the book pretty much speaks for itself. [LAUGHTER] I argue that, today,
in the so-called era of colorblindness– and, yes,
even in the age of Obama, and even right here in
Obama’s hometown– something akin to a caste system is
alive and well in America. The mass incarceration of poor
people of color in the United States is tantamount
to a new caste system, one that
shuttles our children from decrepit,
underfunded schools to these brand new
high-tech prisons. It is a system that locks
poor people– overwhelmingly, poor folks of color– into a
permanent second-class status nearly as effectively
as earlier systems of racial and social
control once did. In my view, this new system
is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow. Now I’m always
very willing, very happy to admit that there was
a time that I didn’t think this way, that I rejected
this kind of talk out of hand, a time when I viewed advocates
and activists who were calling the drug war or mass
incarceration “the new Jim Crow”– I thought they
were exaggerating, engaging in hyperbole. In fact, there was a
time when I thought that people who made
those kinds of claims and those kinds of
comparisons were actually doing more harm than
good to efforts to reform our criminal justice system and
achieve greater racial equality in the United States. But I finally woke up. And I woke up after years
of working as a civil rights lawyer and advocate,
representing victims of racial profiling
and police brutality and investigating
patterns of drug law enforcement in poor
communities of color, and attempting to assist
people who had been released from prison as they faced one
closed door after another– one legal barrier to their supposed
“reentry” after another, trying to assist people
“reenter” into a society that had never shown much use
for them in the first place. I had a series of
experiences that began what I call my awakening. I began to awaken to the reality
that our criminal justice system now functions
more like a system of racial and social control
than a system of crime prevention and control. As I state in the
introduction, “what has changed since the
collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic
structure of our society than the language we
use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness,
it is no longer socially permissible
to use race explicitly as a justification for
discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we
use our criminal justice system to label people
of color criminals and then engage in
all the practices that we supposedly left behind. Today, it is perfectly legal to
discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways
in which it was once legal to discriminate
against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the
old forms of discrimination– employment discrimination,
housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote,
exclusion from jury service– suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely
more rights and arguably less respect than a black
man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended
racial caste in America. We have merely redesigned it.” But it took me a while
to get to that place. And like a lot of people,
I was in deep denial. Even as I was working
as a social justice advocate– as a
civil rights lawyer, I thought I knew
what was going on. I was disturbed, I
was even appalled by the high numbers of
black men cycling in and out of our prisons and jails. But I thought, well,
that can be explained by the high rates of
poverty and bad schools and broken homes, the
legacy of inequality. Somehow it didn’t occur to
me that black folks have been poor for a long,
long time and uneducated for a long, long time. But nothing like the system
of mass incarceration had ever existed before. Somehow, it was easy
for me to rationalize what I saw because
of the prevailing myths about the system
of mass incarceration that are fed to us
in countless ways; that I was fed, in many
respects, in law school; and that we’re fed
through the media. But I had one
experience that finally began to open my eyes,
that shook me to my core. It involved a young
African American man who was about 19 years old
who walked into my office and forever changed
the way I viewed not only our criminal justice
system but how I viewed myself as a civil rights
lawyer and advocate. And, at the time, I was
directing the Racial Justice Project for the
ACLU in California. And we had just launched
a major campaign against racial
profiling by the police. We called it the DWB campaign,
or the Driving While Black or Brown campaign. And we had created a
hotline number for people to call if they believed they
had been stopped or targeted by the police on
the basis of race. And we put this hotline number
up on billboards in Oakland and communities like
San Jose and Sacramento, urging people to call the
hotline number if they believe that they’ve been
stopped or targeted by the police on
the basis of race. And, in fact, within
the first few minutes that we announced this hotline
number on the evening news, we received thousands of calls. Our system crashed temporarily. We had to expand our capacity
to deal with the volume of calls that we were receiving. And so I was spending
my day interviewing one young black or
brown man after another who had called the hotline to
report discriminatory stops or searches or
abuse by the police. And it was very late in the
day and late in the afternoon. And I was getting
tired, not eager to go through yet another
round of interviews. And this young man walks
in carrying a thick stack of papers, about this thick. He had taken detailed
notes of his encounters with the police in Oakland
over about a nine-month period of time. He had descriptions
of every stop, every frisk, every time his car
was pulled over and searched. He had descriptions
of every encounter, as well as names of witnesses. Who was there who
could corroborate what the police said
and what they did? On top of that, he had names of
officers– in some cases, even badge numbers of officers. He just had an
unbelievable amount of documentation and
detail about this pattern of stops, searches, harassment
he had been experiencing by the Oakland police. And the stories he was
telling were corroborated by other stories we
had heard coming out of his neighborhood about what
the police were doing there. And so I started
to think to myself, well, maybe he’s the one. Maybe he’s the one. Maybe he can be our named
plaintiff in the class action we’re planning to file
against the Oakland Police Department alleging a pattern
or practice of profiling and discrimination. And so I started to get excited. And I started asking a bunch
of questions, more questions to get more details. And I was like, yes. He is a good looking young man. He’ll do well in the media. The jury will like him. He’s well spoken. He’s the one! And then he said something
that made me pause and say, what did you say? What did you say? Did you just say
you’re a drug felon? We had actually been screening
people with felony records. When people would call
our hotline number, we would send a form
to them to fill out asking them a bunch of questions
about their experiences with the police,
including, have you ever been convicted of a felony? We believed we couldn’t
represent someone as a named plaintiff in
a racial profiling suit if they had been
convicted of a felony because we knew that, if we did,
law enforcement and the media would be all over
us saying, well, of course the police should
be keeping their eye on him. He’s a felon. He’s a criminal. And we knew that we wouldn’t
be able to put someone with a felony
record on the stand as a named plaintiff in
a racial profiling case without them being
cross-examined for an hour in front of the
jury about their prior criminal history, thus distracting
the jury’s attention away from the law enforcement
conduct and turning it into a trial about a young
man’s prior criminal past. And so we had been
screening people with prior criminal records. And he had not marked
it on his form, checked the metaphorical box. And so I’m sitting there,
looking at him, saying, did you just say
you’re a drug felon? And he gets quiet. And he says, finally, yeah. You know, I’m a drug felon. But let me tell you
what happened to me. Let me tell you what happened. The police planted drugs on me. They set up me and my friend. They beat us up. They framed us. He starts telling me
this long story about how he’d been framed by the police. And the police planted
drugs on them, beat them up. And I’m just saying,
oh, I’m sorry. I am sorry. I’m not going to be
able to represent you if you have a felony record. And I tried to explain to
him why that was the case and how I could understand why
it would seem unfair or wrong. And he keeps trying to give me
more information, more details. Now he’s giving me the
names of those officers, their badge numbers, who
can corroborate that story. And I’m just like, I am sorry. I am sorry. I am not going to be
able to represent you. Then he starts insisting
upon his innocence. I’m innocent. I’m telling you, I
just took the deal. I just took the plea deal
because they told me, if I just took the deal
that I could just walk. I wouldn’t have to do a day in
prison if I just took the deal. I’d just get felony
probation, that’s it. It would just be felony
probation, and that’s it. I was innocent, but I
didn’t want to do the time. I was scared to go to prison. I just I just took the deal. But I’m telling
you, I didn’t do it. I’m telling you the truth. I said, I am sorry. I cannot represent you. And then he becomes enraged. And he says to me, you’re
no better than the police. You’re no better
than the police. The minute I tell you I’m a
felon, you just stop listening. You just can’t even
hear what I have to say. He says, what’s to become of me? What’s to become of me? He says, I can’t get a job
anywhere because of my felony record– anywhere. He said, I can’t
even get housing. It’s like, I can’t
even get access to public housing because
of my drug felony. Where am I supposed to sleep? He says, you know, I sleep
in my grandma’s basement at night because no where
else will take me in. He says, how am I supposed to
take care of myself as a man? He said, I can’t
even get food stamps. I can’t even get food
stamps to feed myself. What’s to become of me? He says, good luck finding
one young black man in my neighborhood they
haven’t gotten to yet. They’ve gotten to
us all already. And he snatches all
those papers up, all those notes and just
starts ripping them up into tiny little pieces. He’s throwing them in the air. It’s just snowing white
paper in my office. And he walks out,
yelling at me, you’re no better than the police! I can’t believe I trusted you. Well, several months after
that I’m doing a public access television show that
was broadcasting live out of his neighborhood. I was doing public
access TV because we were trying to organize several
thousand people to get on buses and go to the state capitol to
protest the governor’s refusal to sign racial
profiling legislation. And so we had been holding
town hall meetings up and down the state and been doing
a big media campaign. And it was just a couple of
days before the demonstration. And I was doing public access
TV in his neighborhood, trying to urge people
to get on the bus and go to the demonstration. Well, immediately after
that show goes off the air– it was broadcasting live. The minute it goes
off the air, he comes bursting into
the studio carrying this dirty potted plant. And he comes rushing up to me. And he’s emotional,
on the verge of tears. And he comes rushing
up to me, and he thrusts this plant in my arms. And he says, I’m just here
to tell you I’m sorry. I’m just here to
tell you I’m sorry. I’ve been seeing on the news. I’ve been seeing you out there
trying to fight for people, trying to do the right thing. And I shouldn’t have
treated you like that. I shouldn’t have spoken
to you like that. He said, I would have
bought you some flowers, but I still don’t
have any money. So I snatched this plant off
my grandma’s front porch. [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE] He hands it to me. And then he turns
around and takes off. He goes running out
of the building. And I go chasing after him. He jumps into this broke-down
car and disappears. Well, several months after
that I’m in my office. I open up the newspaper. And what’s on the front page? The Oakland Riders’
police scandal has broken. It turns out that a
gang of police officers, otherwise known as
a drug task force, had been planting drugs on
suspects, beating folks up in his neighborhood. And who’s identified as one
of the main officers charged with planting drugs on
suspects and beating folks up? Well, it was the officer
that he had identified to me as planting drugs
on him and beating up him and his friend. And it really was only then–
I’m embarrassed to say, but it was really only then
that the light bulb finally started to go on for me. And I thought to myself,
he’s right about me. I am no better than the police. The minute he told
me he was a felon, I just stopped listening. I couldn’t even hear
what he had to say. that was the beginning
of me asking myself some hard questions of myself
as a civil rights lawyer and advocate. How am I actually
replicating the very forms of discrimination,
marginalization, exclusion I’m supposedly fighting against? And I also started
asking some questions about the system itself. Why was it that we
hadn’t been able to find a single black man from his
neighborhood they hadn’t gotten to yet? What was really going on? And that was the
beginning of my journey of asking myself and others
a lot of hard questions, doing an enormous
amount of research, and listening more carefully
to the stories of those cycling in and out of our prison system. And what I learned
in that process was that my great crime
wasn’t in refusing to represent an innocent man. My great crime was in
imagining that there was some path to racial
justice that did not include those we view as guilty. And I also learned some
facts that blew my mind. I learned 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. I learned that, as of 2004, more
black men were disenfranchised than in 1870, the year the
15th Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly
deny the right to vote on the basis of race. Now, of course, during
the Jim Crow era, poll taxes and
literacy tests operated to keep black folks
from the polls. Well, today, in
some states, felon disenfranchisement
laws accomplish what poll taxes and literacy
tests ultimately could not. A black child born
today has less of a chance of being
raised by both parents than a black child
born during slavery. And this is due,
in no small part, to the mass incarceration
of black men. The first article to appear
in the mainstream press, I believe, about this was in
The Economist magazine, entitled “How the Mass Incarceration of
Black Men Harms Black Women.” And in the article,
it was explained that the majority of
black women in the United States– including about 70%
of black professional women– are unmarried and that
this is due largely to the mass incarceration of
black men, which takes them out of the dating pool
at the years they would be most likely to commit
to a partner, to a family. But what’s worse is
that, by branding them criminals and
felons at early ages– often before they’re
even old enough to vote– they’re rendered
permanently unemployable in the legal job market
for the most part, virtually guaranteeing
that most will cycle in and out of
prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Now, this isn’t
a phenomenon that affects just some
small segment of the African American community. No, to the contrary, in major
urban areas in the United States today, more than half
of working-age African American men now have criminal
records and are thus subject to legalized
discrimination for the rest of their lives. It was reported
a number of years ago that right here
in Chicago, if you take into account prisoners,
if you actually count them as people– and, of
course, prisoners are excluded from poverty
statistics and unemployment data. You know, that’s masking the
severity of racial inequality in the United States. But if you actually
count prisoners as people in the
Chicago area, nearly 80% of working-age African American
men have criminal records and are thus subject to
legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These men are part of a growing
under caste– not “class,” “caste”– a group of people
defined largely by race relegated to a permanent
second-class status by law. Now, I find that today,
when I tell people that I now finally believe
that mass incarceration is like the a Jim Crow– a new
caste-like system– people react with this
shocked disbelief. They say, how can you say that? How can you saw that? Our criminal
justice system isn’t a system of racial control. It’s a system of crime control. And if black people just stop
running around, committing so many crimes, they
won’t have to worry about being locked
up and then stripped of their basic civil
and human rights. But therein lies the greatest
myth about mass incarceration, namely that it’s
been driven simply by crime and crime rates. It’s just not true. Our prison population quintupled
within a 30-year period of time– not doubled or
tripled but quintupled. Within a 30-year
period of time, we went from a prison
population of roughly 300,000 to now having an
incarcerated population of well over two million– the
highest rate of incarceration in the world. But this can’t be explained
simply by crime or crime rates. During that 30
year period of time when our incarceration
rates quintupled, crime rates in the
United States fluctuated. They went up. They went down. They went back up
again, went down again. And today, as bad as crime rates
are in places like Chicago, nationally crime rates
are at historical lows. But incarceration rates
have consistently soared. Most criminologists
and sociologists today will acknowledge that
crime rates and incarceration rates in the United States
have moved independently of one another. Incarceration rates– especially
black incarceration rates– have soared regardless
of whether crime is going up or down in any
given community or the nation as a whole. So what explains the sudden
explosion in incarceration rates, the birth of a prison
system unprecedented in world history if not simply
crime and crime rates? Well, the answer
is the war on drugs and the get-tough
movement– that wave of punitiveness that washed
over the United States. Drug convictions alone–
just drug convictions alone– accounted for
about 2/3 of the increase in the federal prison
system and more than half of the increase in the state
prison system between 1985 and 2000, the period of our
prison system’s most dramatic expansion. Drug convictions have
increased more than 1,000% since the drug war began. I mean, to get a sense of how
large a contribution the drug war has made to mass
incarceration, consider this. There are more people
in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses
than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980. [CROWD MAKES DISAPPOINTED
NOISES] Now, most Americans violate
drug laws in their lifetime. Most do– you don’t
have to raise your hand. [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE] But the enemy in this war
has been racially defined. Not by accident,
this drug war has been waged almost exclusively
in poor communities of color even though studies have
consistently shown now for decades that, contrary to
popular belief, people of color are no more likely to use or
sell illegal drugs than whites. That’s right, or sell. Now, that defies our
basic racial stereotypes about who a drug dealer is. If you picture a drug dealer
in your mind, who do you see? There was actually
a study conducted on this subject in the mid
1990s, a national survey. People were asked,
close your eyes. And picture in your
mind a drug criminal. More than 95% of respondents
pictured an African American. Less than 5% pictured someone
of any other race or ethnicity. So when Americans think of
drug crime and drug criminals, they typically think
of black folks. But the reality is that people
of all races and ethnicities use and sell drugs. In fact, where significant
differences in the data appear, some studies suggest
that white youth are more likely to engage
in illegal drug dealing than black youths. [APPLAUSE] Drug markets are fairly
segregated by race. Black folks tend
to sell to blacks. Whites tend to
sell to each other. Drug markets are even
segregated by class. University students sell
to each other, right? [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE] Drug dealing happens in all
communities of all colors. But those who do
time for drug crime are overwhelmingly
black and brown. In some states, like
Illinois, 80% to 90% of all drug offenders
sent to prison have been one race–
African American. Now, I know that many
people, when they actually see the disparities– see
the data– will say, yeah, that’s a shame. That’s a shame, but, you know,
we need to get tough on them, them in the hood
because that’s where the violent offenders are. That’s were the
drug kingpins are. We need a war on them. In fact, in my
experience, many people seem to imagine that
the war on drugs was declared in response to
the emergence of crack cocaine in inner city communities
and the related violence. In fact, for a long
time I believed that. But it’s just not true. The current drug war was
declared by President Ronald Reagan in 1982,
before crack began to ravage inner city communities
and spawn a wave of violence. President Richard Nixon
was the first to coin the term “a war on drugs.” But President Ronald Reagan
turned that rhetorical war into a literal one. And at the time he
declared his drug war, drug crime was actually on
the decline, not on the rise. And less than 3% of
the American population even identified drugs as the
nation’s most pressing concern. So why declare an
all-out war on drugs when drug crime is actually
declining, not on the rise and the American public isn’t
too much concerned about it at the moment? Well, the answer
is, from the outset, the war on drugs had
relatively little to do with genuine concern
about drug addiction or the harms of drug abuse
and much to do with politics– racial politics. Numerous historians and
political scientists have now documented
that the war on drugs was part of a grand Republican
Party strategy known as the Southern
strategy of using racially-coded, get-tough
appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor
and working-class whites, particularly in
the South, who were anxious about, resentful
of, fearful of many of the gains of
African Americans in the Civil Rights movement. Now, I think, to
be fair, we have to acknowledge that poor and
working-class whites really had their world rocked by
the Civil Rights movement. You know, wealthy whites
could send their kids to private schools,
give their kids all of the advantages
that wealth has to offer. But poor and working-class
whites– many of whom were themselves struggling
for survival, many of whom in the South were
themselves illiterate– they faced a social demotion. It was their kids
that might get bused across town to go to
a school that they believed was inferior. It was their kids and
themselves who were suddenly forced to compete on equal
terms for limited jobs with this whole
new group of people they’d been taught their
whole lives to believe were inferior to them. And then, to make matters
worse from their perspective, affirmative action programs
created the perception that black folks were now
leapfrogging over them on their way to Stanford, Yale,
Harvard, University of Chicago. [CHEERING] And off to corporate America. And this state of affairs
created an enormous amount of fear, anger,
resentment, anxiety. But it also created an
enormous political opportunity. Pollsters and
political strategists found that
thinly-veiled promises to “get tough” on them, a group
not-so-subtly defined by race, could be enormously
successful in persuading poor and working-class whites to
defect from the Democratic New Deal coalition and join the
Republican Party in droves. It was part of the effort to
flip the South from blue to red with coded racial
rhetoric and getting tough on crime and welfare. In the words of H.R. Haldeman,
President Richard Nixon’s former Chief of Staff,
he described the strategy this way. Quote, “the whole problem
is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system
that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Well, they did. And a couple years after
the drug war was announced, crack began to ravage
inner-city communities. And the Reagan administration
seized on this development, actually hiring
staff whose job it was to publicize inner-city
crack babies, crack dealers, the
so-called crack whores and crack-related violence. Many people in here may be too
young to remember that there was a time when our television
sets were saturated with news about crack babies and crack
dealers and images of black men in handcuffs and orange
jumpsuits in court rooms as communities were
swept and raided. The “demon drug”
crack hit the news. And as drug crime and blackness
became conflated in the media, a wave of punitiveness swept
over the United States. Legislators started passing
harsh, mandatory minimum sentences for
minor drug crimes– sentences harsher
than murderers receive in many other
Western democracies. And soon Democrats began
competing with Republicans to prove they could be
even tougher on them than their Republican
counterparts. And so it was
President Bill Clinton who escalated the drug
war far beyond what his Republican predecessors
even dreamed possible. And it was the
Clinton administration that championed the laws
banning drug offenders from federal financial
aid for schooling upon release, banning
drug offenders and people with criminal
records from public housing. It was the Clinton
administration that championed the federal law
denying food stamps to people with drug felonies. To a large extent, so many
of the rules, laws, policies, and practices that constitute
the basic architecture of this new caste
system were championed by a Democratic administration
desperate to win back those so-called
white swing voters, folks who had defected from the
Democratic party in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. But of course, there were more
than a few black politicians and black voices that were
saying “get tough,” too. The crack epidemic,
in particular, had created violence that
was spinning out of control. And fear was sweeping
many communities about what this drug was doing. And one thing that has
become abundantly clear to poor communities of
color is that, if you ask for good schools, you
aren’t likely to get them. If you ask for jobs or
economic investment, you won’t get that either. But what we’ve learned
is that the one thing poor folks of color can ask for
and get are police and prisons. [APPLAUSE] But it seems we got more
than we bargained for. For now, here we are decades
later with millions of people cycling in and out of prison,
trapped in a perpetual under caste. Now, I find that,
still, many people who are familiar with
this racial history will say, well,
that’s a shame, too. But we still need to get tough
on them, declare a war on them because that is where
the violent offenders are and the drug kingpins. What people don’t realize is
that this drug war has never been focused primarily
on rooting out the violent offenders
or the drug kingpins. Federal funding in this war has
flowed to those state and local law enforcement agencies that
have boosted the sheer numbers of drug arrests. It’s become a numbers game. State and local law
enforcement agencies have been rewarded in
cash through programs like the Edward Byrne
Memorial Grant Program for the sheer numbers of people
arrested for drug offenses, virtually guaranteeing that
law enforcement will go out looking for the so-called
low-hanging fruit– stopping, frisking, searching as
many people as possible to boost their numbers up. And there results
have been predictable. The overwhelming majority of
people arrested in the drug war have been arrested for
nonviolent, relatively-minor offenses. In fact, in the
1990s– the period of the greatest escalation
in the drug war– nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests
are for marijuana possession, a drug less harmful than
alcohol or tobacco and at least, if not more, prevalent in
middle-class white communities and on college campuses,
as it is in the hood. [APPLAUSE] But by waging this drug war
almost exclusively in the hood, we’ve managed to create
a vast new racial under caste in an astonishingly
short period of time. Now, where is the US Supreme
Court been in all of this? Well, far from resisting the
rise of mass incarceration, the US Supreme Court has
eviscerated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable
searches and seizures. The US Supreme Court has
granted the police license to stop, frisk, search just
about anyone anywhere as long as they get “consent.” And what is consent? Well, consent is when a
police officer walks up to a young man. The officer has one hand
on his gun and says, son, will you put your arms up
in the air so I can frisk you, see if you’ve got
anything on you? Kids says, mhmm. That’s consent. And that young man just
waved his Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable
searches and seizures. The police do not have to
have a shred of evidence, no reasonable suspicion,
no probable cause, nothing to engage in that search,
in that encounter. And while that may seem
like no big deal, just an inconvenience, momentary
humiliation, that gets played out over and over
and over and over again. The New York Police
Department reported that, in one year
alone– one year alone– they stopped and frisked
more than 600,000 people, in one year alone,
overwhelmingly black and brown men. But the US Supreme Court,
through a series of decisions– beginning with McCleskey versus
Kemp and then Armstrong versus United States– has ruled
that we cannot challenge these racial disparities,
now, in a court of law. The court has ruled
that it does not matter how overwhelming the
statistical evidence might be of discrimination. The court has ruled
explicitly that it does not matter how severe the
racial disparities are. Unless you can offer proof of
conscious, intentional bias tantamount to an admission
by an officer they acted with discriminatory
intent, you can’t even state a claim for
race discrimination in our criminal
justice system today. So many of the racial
profiling cases that I was bringing
10 years ago or more can’t even be filed today. The court has closed
the courthouse doors to claims of racial
bias at every stage of the criminal justice
process from stops and searches to plea bargaining
and sentencing. This has made it
virtually impossible to challenge bias
in our system today because, after all,
in this so-called era of colorblindness,
most officers– like the rest of us– know
better than to state our racial biases out loud. Most police officers know
better than to say, well, yes, your honor. I stopped him, I frisked
him because he was black. [LAUGHTER] Most police officers
know better than to state their stereotypes
or their biases or their racial
motivations out loud. But, more importantly, so many
of the biases and stereotypes that drive law enforcement
decision making today operate on such an
unconscious level that many well-meaning,
well-intentioned officers can’t even admit to
themselves their biases. A well-meaning officer trying
to do right, do his job, sees a group of young black
kids walking down the street. Their pants are
sagging a little bit. Officer thinks to
himself, I’m going to jump out, frisk them, see if
they’ve got anything on them. They’re thinking
they’re doing their job. The same officers see a
group of young white kids walking down the street
in their neighborhood. It would never occur of them
to jump out, frisk them, have them lying spread eagle
up against the wall– never occur to them. Now, that officer
may not be meaning those black kids any harm. But those discretionary biased
decisions play themselves out over and over again, hundreds
of thousands of times, guaranteeing huge racial
disparities in our system, which the US Supreme Court has
ruled we cannot even challenge in a court of law. But of course, being
swept into the system with little hope of challenging
the bias that got you there is only just the beginning
of the odyssey for so many because, once you’re branded
a criminal or a felon, you’re ushered into a parallel
social universe in which many of the basic civil
and human rights supposedly won in the
Civil Rights movement no longer apply to you. Discrimination is
legal, countless aspects of your daily life. For the rest of
your life, you’ve got to check that box on
employment applications asking, “have you ever been
convicted of a felony?” It doesn’t matter how long ago
that felony may have happened. It doesn’t matter if it was
weeks, years, decades ago. For the rest of
your life, you’ve got to check that box,
knowing your application is likely going
straight to the trash. Many people say, oh, you’re
making excuses for people. You’re making excuses. I mean, when you get out
of prison, it may be hard. It may be tough. But if you really apply
yourself, you just hustle, get out there look for a
job, you can find a good job. I mean, you could get a job
at McDonald’s or something. Well, getting a job at
McDonald’s is no easy feat if you have a felony record. And in so many of
the communities to which people who are
branded felonies return, there are no jobs to be found
in McDonald’s or elsewhere. And some people say
to me, well, people could start their own
businesses or something, become entrepreneurs. [LAUGHTER] I say, well, most people
coming out of prison don’t have a whole lot of money
to invest in a new business. But even if they did, hundreds
of professional licenses are off limits to people who
have been branded felons. In my state– in
Ohio, you can’t even get a license to be
a barber if you’ve been convicted of a felony. Housing discrimination,
perfectly legal– public housing may
be off limits to you. Private landlords routinely
discriminate against people with criminal records. As I mentioned,
under federal law, you’re deemed ineligible
for food stamps for the rest of your
life if you’ve been convicted of a drug felony. Fortunately, many
states have opted out of this federal
ban on food stamps. But it remains the case
that thousands of people can’t even get food stamps to
survive because they were once caught with drugs. What are folks are released
from prison expected to do? You’re release your
prison, can’t get a job. You’re barred from housing. Even food stamps– food–
may be off limits to you. What do we expect them to do? Well, apparently, what
we expect them to do is to pay hundreds or
thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court
costs, accumulated back child support, which
continues to accrue while you’re in prison. And then, in a growing
number of states, you’re expected to
actually pay back the cost of your imprisonment. And if that isn’t
enough, well, get this. If you’re one of the
lucky few– the very few– who actually manages to get
a job straight out of prison, up to 100% of your
wages can be garnished to pay back all those
fees, fines, court costs, cumulative back child support. What are folks expected to do? I say, when we step back and
take a look at the system as a whole, what’s it
seem designed to do? It seems designed, in my
view, to send folks right back to prison, which is
what in fact happens the vast majority of the time. About 70% of people
released from prison return within a few years. And the majority of those
who return, in some states, do so in a matter of months
because the challenges associated with mere survival
on the outside are so immense. Now, most of the types of crimes
that land people back in prison following their release
are crimes of survival or, even less, infractions on
their parole or probation– failure to pee in the cup,
to meet with your probation officer on schedule. That can land you back in
prison, or crimes of survival, like theft, shoplifting,
passing bad checks, or crimes of despair like drug
addiction and drug abuse. But, of course, some people
who are released from prison also commit crimes of violence. Now, we claim to care a
whole lot about violence. And yet we have created a
system that virtually guarantees that millions of people
will be unable to work, will be locked out of
the legal economy, that will be set adrift. We create masses of jobless
people stuck in a perpetual under caste. And nowhere is that more obvious
than right here in Chicago. Chicago has been ground
zero in the drug war. It was recently reported
that more than 70% of all criminal cases in
Chicago involve a class D felony drug possession charge,
the lowest-level felony. To put the situation here in
Chicago in some perspective– and to put the violence here in
Chicago in some perspective– consider this. The parents of the young men
who are members of gangs today– the parents of those
young men were themselves targets of the drug war in
the 1980s and into the 1990s. In 1999, only 992 black men
received a bachelor’s degree from Illinois state universities
while roughly 7,000 black men were released from
state prison that year just for drug offenses alone. They are the parents
of the young men who now find themselves
trapped in the under caste, too often venting their rage
and frustration on one another. A 50-year-old
African American man told me, recently, a story
about when he was in prison. He was in federal prison. He had been sentenced to 18
years for a crack offense. And when he left, when he
left home he had young sons. And just as he was
preparing for a release for his federal
prison term, his sons began to join him behind bars. And it wasn’t just his sons
but the neighbor’s sons. All the boys on the block
were coming in, too. The generational cycle had
begun as father and son found themselves trapped,
cycling in out of the system. Now, we have millions
of people trapped in the system, estimated
more than 60 million people with criminal records
in the United States today, cycling in and out. What do we do? Where do we go from here? Now, my own view is that, if we
are serious about ending this– if we are serious about
dismantling mass incarceration, dismantling this entire
caste-like system that views people as disposable–
if we’re serious about this, nothing less than a major
social movement will do. And if you’re
tempted to believe– [APPLAUSE] Yes. [APPLAUSE CONTINUES] If you’re tempted to believe
that something less will do– that we can tinker
with this machine somehow and get it
right, a few reforms here are a few reforms there and
get this machine humming back on track again– consider this. If we were to return to
the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s
or early 1980s before the war on drugs and the
get-tough movement kicked off, we’d have to release four out
of five people who are in prison today– four out of five. More than a million
people employed by the criminal justice
system would lose their jobs. Most new prison
construction has occurred in predominately white rural
communities, communities that are quite
vulnerable economically. Now, many of these
communities have been sold on prisons as an
answer to their economic woes. And, very often, the
benefits that prisons provide these communities
are grossly exaggerated. In some communities,
prisons have turned out to be a net loss. But nonetheless, communities
across the America have now come to believe
that their economy depends on prisons. They need the jobs. Those prisons across America
would have to close down. Private prison companies now
list on the New York Stock Exchange, doing quite well. They would be forced
into bankruptcy. This system is now
so deeply rooted in our social, political,
and economic structure that it’s not going
to just fade away. It’s not going to
just downsize out of sight without a major shift
in our public consciousness, an upheaval, a fairly
radical shift on our part. Now, I know there’s many people
who say this is just dreaming, pie in the sky. There is no hope of ending
mass incarceration in America, just as many people
were resigned to Jim Crow in the South and
said, yeah, it’s a shame. But that’s just
the way that it is. I find that many
people of all colors view the millions cycling in
and out of our prisons and jails is just an unfortunate
but unalterable fact of American life. Well, I am quite certain that
Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, Dr. King, Malcolm, and
the many others who risked their lives
to end earlier systems of racial
social control would not be so easily deterred. [APPLAUSE] So if we are going
to honor them, we have got to be
willing to pick up where they left off and do
the hard work of movement building, the hard work
of movement building. Movement building,
I believe, must be on behalf of poor
people of all colors. In 1968– [APPLAUSE] –Dr. King told
advocates that the time had come to shift from
a Civil Rights movement to a human rights movement. He said meaningful equality
cannot be achieved through civil rights alone. Without basic human
rights– the right to work, the right to housing,
the right to quality education– without basic
human rights, he said, civil rights are
an empty promise. So in honor of all
those who labored to end earlier systems of
racial and social control, I hope that we will
dedicate ourselves to building a human
rights movement to end mass incarceration; a
movement for education, not incarceration; for jobs, not
jails; a movement that will end all these forms of
legal discrimination against people labeled
criminals, discrimination that denies them their basic
human rights to work, to shelter, and to food. Now, what do we need to do to
build this movement, to build upon the work that
is already being done in so many communities,
including here in Chicago? Well, I think we have got
to insist upon telling the truth, the whole truth. We’ve got to be willing to admit
out loud that we, as a nation, have managed to rebirth
a caste-like system in this country. And we’ve got to
be willing to tell this truth in our
churches, in our schools, in prisons, in reentry centers. We’ve got to be willing
to tell this truth so that a great awakening can occur
because, unlike the old Jim Crow, there are no
signs alerting you to the existence of
this new caste system. [APPLAUSE] The whites-only signs are gone. The whites-only signs are gone. But there’s new signs
that have popped up on employment applications,
housing applications, letting you know who the unwanted,
who the untouchables now are. But that lack of signs,
the lack of visibility poses a real problem for
us in movement building because prisons are out
of sight, out of mind. If you aren’t directly
impacted by this system– if you don’t have a
loved one behind bars, if you’re middle class,
live in a good neighborhood, you’re white– you can
live your whole life and have no idea of
what is really going on. I lived my life, as a civil
rights lawyer, not fully understanding what was going on. So if we are going to
engage in movement building, we have got to make visible
what is hidden in plain sight. We have got to pull
back the curtain and help others to
see what we have been willingly blind to for so long. And that means
consciousness raising. It means having difficult
conversations in churches, in schools, in all kinds
of settings, forcing people to deal with, reckon with what
we as a nation have done again. But of course, just a lot of
talk isn’t going to be enough. We’ve got to be
willing to get to work. And, in my view,
that means being willing to build an Underground
Railroad for people released from prison, an
Underground Railroad for those who are trying
to make a genuine break for real freedom–
opening our schools, opening our doors of
employment, opening our homes, opening our hearts to people
who need– desperately need– not just support finding
work and housing and food– and they need
that– but who also need love, who also
need acceptance, who need to know that
we believe in them and are willing
to stand with them as they make a genuine
break for real freedom. But of course, just building
an Underground Railroad is not going to
be enough either. Shuttling a few to
freedom one by one– just as in the
days of slavery, it wasn’t enough to just build
an Underground Railroad and usher a few to freedom. You had to be willing
to work for abolition. I believe that,
today, we have got to be willing to work
for the abolition of this system of mass
incarceration as a whole. [APPLAUSE] And that means ending the war
on drugs once and for all. Just end it. We have spent a
trillion dollars now, waging this drug war since it
began– a trillion dollars! We’re constantly being told
we don’t have enough money to pay our teachers. We don’t have enough
money for job programs, for economic investment in the
communities that need it most. But apparently we had a
trillion dollars to blow. And we spent it locking
people up rather than investing in the communities
that needed it most. So it’s time to shift
to a public health model for dealing with drug
addiction and drug abuse and stop criminalizing what
is ultimately a public health problem for some. [APPLAUSE] And we’ve also got to
end all these forms of legal discrimination
against people released from prison,
discrimination that denies them basic human rights to
work, to shelter, and to food. But last but not
least, we have got to shift from a purely
punitive approach to dealing with violence and violent
crime in our communities to a more rehabilitative
and restorative approach. [APPLAUSE] Yes, one that takes
seriously the interests of the victim, the offender,
and the community as a whole. So we have got a
lot of work to do. And if it feels like too much
and it feels like it just can’t possibly all
be done, I think we’ve got to keep in mind
that all of these rules, laws, policies, and practices that
comprise the system of mass incarceration, they all
rest upon one core belief. And it is the same core belief
that sustained Jim Crow. It is the belief that
some of us are not worthy of genuine care,
compassion, or concern. And when we effectively
challenge that core belief, all of this begins to
fall like dominoes. A multi-racial, multi-ethnic
human rights movement must be born, one that
takes seriously the dignity and humanity of all people. And it’s got to be
multi-racial and multi-ethnic because, although
this war on drugs was clearly born with
black folks in mind, it is a war that has
destroyed the lives of people in communities of all colors. And the same racially
divisive get-tough politics and rhetoric that helped
to birth this drug war is now leading to another
prison-building boom, this time aimed at suspected
“illegal immigrants.” So we have got to
connect these dots and build a multi-racial,
multi-ethnic movement on behalf of all of us. But before this movement
can truly get under way, I believe a great
awakening is required. We have got to
collectively awaken from this colorblind
slumber that we’ve been in to the realities
of race in America. And we’ve got to be
willing to embrace those labeled criminals–
not necessarily all their behavior but
them, their humanness. For it has been the
refusal and failure to recognize the dignity and
humanity of all people that has been the sturdy foundation
of every caste system that has ever existed in
the United States or anywhere else in the world. It’s our task, I
firmly believe, to end not just the war on drugs,
not just mass incarceration, not just any one
policy or practice but to end this history
and cycle of creating caste-like systems in America. Thank you so much for
having me tonight. And I’m happy to
take any questions. Thank you. [APPLAUSE AND CHEERING]