Convincing Whites to End the War on Drugs

Raising moral issues about mass incarceration will not work. Let's argue that halting it will, at last, end their white guilt about the "black problem."

LAPD Gang Unit makes arrest (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Michelle Alexander wrote a beautiful piece in the New York Times last weekend. She argued that America has imprisoned far too many people, far too many of them black, and the nation must come to a new moral accounting. We must eliminate excessive sentences for low-level offenses, we must fight the vested interest that millions have in the construction and maintenance of prisons, and we must contest the war on drugs responsible for so much of this.

I fully agree. These are sterling arguments. What worries me is that I don't think they will work. Alexander, a member of last year's The Root 100 list, wants the right thing, and she is authoritative on how we got here, especially in her book, The New Jim Crow, on the drug war.

However, I cannot see how decrying our nation's rate of incarceration will create change. Notice: I didn't say the change shouldn't happen. I'm interested in what can happen -- and the overlap between should and can is often approximate.

I sense that Alexander, and others calling attention to our incarceration policies, would deny that they are waiting for a second civil rights revolution. So I won't put it that way -- but they are hoping for something that seismic. Alexander states that we need "a major shift in public consciousness" forged by a "recommitment to the movement-building work that was begun in the 1950s and 1960s and left unfinished." We know what this means.

I wonder if she is correct about that, though. An argument like Alexander's resonates with most black people, and with white people largely of the more educated stripe. However, who among us truly supposes that a commitment to getting brown people out of jail is going to take fire among ordinary Americans?

I'd like it to. But I, for one, can't see it happening -- and that goes especially for today's political class. I'm sure we agree that the gridlock, corruption and inertia in modern Washington suggests no chance for a repeat of the once-in-a-lifetime civil rights agenda that got through in the 1960s. Remember, that was once in 400 years -- and even then, only so much got through.

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What worries me about Alexander's articulate call, then, is that it risks being more about gesture than action. Not deliberately, but I, like all of us, am thinking about outcomes. I say, with great sadness, that I see no chance that a moral appeal of this kind can resonate today in a way that changes lives.

The moral calculus in the old days was much starker. To make whites see the injustice of legalized segregation and discrimination was one thing -- and even then, a challenge. But today we say, "There are too many people in prison," and an answer might be, "But those people broke the law."

Come back with, "They had no choice," and beyond college towns, NPR and bookstore crowds, you will never get more than a few people in the room. Most people see that for every person who went the wrong way in the hood, another one holds down a job.