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.
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.
Come back with the argument that what they did shouldn't be against the law, and for every person who agrees, another one can't get past a sense that selling and possessing drugs should be illegal. And that includes a lot of black leaders.
This is why I think we have to be more cynical here. Here it goes: The way we can move America as a whole to reduce our prison population and reform the legal system that put them there is to propose that ending the war on drugs will end the idea of black people as a problem.
It will, as I have argued here and elsewhere. No drug war would mean no black market serving as a tempting substitute to legal employment for men who went to lousy schools, and therefore would end the ongoing march of these men to long-term prison stays, keep them home to help raise their kids, give incentive to spending more time in school, allow generations of inner-city blacks to grow up without thinking of the cops as an enemy and much more.
This should be motivation enough for black people to advocate against the war on drugs — but we can make it as urgent to whites. However, the idea must be sold as benefiting them more concretely than moral absolution. We must put it that ending the war on drugs will mean they don't have to feel guilty about black people anymore.
Yes, I know that's not the prettiest thing. But the question is whether it will work, and whom it would hurt if it were tried.
And while we're on this unpretty part, I suggest something else. We should focus more on the drug war than the imprisonment rates. That is because the drug war resonates more widely — you hardly have to be poor and black to understand its folly. A debate on who deserves to be in prison for how long and why, even as perfectly presented by Alexander, cannot help being a much blunter weapon. We need to prioritize.
I think of a column on slavery reparations by Charles Krauthammer that got around 10 years ago. He argued that black people should get reparations, but with the understanding that this would mean an end to calls for affirmative action.
The column, which was widely discussed by white movers and shakers back then, was notably often distorted in the transmission — "operator"-game style — as a meaner piece than it was, cited as calling for an end to all forms of black grievance and special treatment.
What struck me was a certain relish in how many whites, of assorted political stripes, discussed this "operator" version of the piece — they took it as something to think about. I wonder if we could tap that sentiment — for practical reasons.
Alexander warns against the nakedly "practical" here, writing that solutions to our problem should not be ones that "avoid discussions of 'fairness among groups and the historical legacy of racism,' " and to be sure, I have just made exactly that kind of suggestion. I have done so for the sole reason that I believe it will help more people faster.
Some might be uncomfortable with the idea of solving our problems without whites seeing the light in some way. But agitating against the war on drugs as effectively anti-black would require seeing some light. And besides, since when did we need white guilt to feel good about ourselves? When someone like Shelby Steele accuses the black community of exactly this addiction to white guilt, most hotly object. Well?
The number of black men incarcerated today is a tragedy. Perhaps it is also tragic that the elucidation of this fact will not move America to fix the problem. But our job is to get past that tragedy — by seeking what we want through, yes, practical channels.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.