March 17th, 2010, by MICHELLE ALEXANDER

This post was first published at TomDispatch.

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.” Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.

Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit, yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.

Most people don’t like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In the “era of colorblindness,” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:

* There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

* As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

* If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

Excuses for the Lockdown

There is, of course, a colorblind explanation for all this: crime rates. Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime. We’re told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades — they are currently at historical lows — but imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the War on Drugs. Drug offenses alone account for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population and more than half of the increase in the state prison population.

The drug war has been brutal — complete with SWAT teams, tanks, bazookas, grenade launchers and sweeps of entire neighborhoods — but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought. This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth. Any notion that drug use among African Americans is more severe or dangerous is belied by the data. White youth, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, African Americans comprise 80%-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.

This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded that black men have higher rates of violent crime. That’s why the drug war is waged in poor communities of color and not middle-class suburbs. Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell. It has nothing to do with race; it’s all about violent crime.

Again, not so. President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising. From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially-coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing and affirmative action. In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicizing inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores and drug-related violence. The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.

The plan worked like a charm. For more than a decade, black drug dealers and users would be regulars in newspaper stories and would saturate the evening TV news. Congress and state legislatures nationwide would devote billions of dollars to the drug war and pass harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes — sentences longer than murderers receive in many countries.

Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs. In President Bill Clinton’s boastful words, “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.” The facts bear him out. Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the “new Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labeled a felon.

Facing Facts

But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn’t the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found? The answer is yes: in made-for-TV movies. In real life, the answer is no.

The drug war has never been focused on rooting out drug kingpins or violent offenders.  Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses. What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests. To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80% of the cash, cars and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.

The results have been predictable: people of color rounded up en masse for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses. In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five for sales. Most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity. In fact, during the 1990s — the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war — nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities as in the inner city.

In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time, a new Jim Crow system. Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.

Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers — not to mention president of the United States — causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come.

Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. Nearly a quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line today, approximately the same percentage as in 1968. The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries. And that’s with affirmative action!

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colorblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure — the structure of racial caste. The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.

This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. This is not the promised land. The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.

Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and the former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU in Northern California. She currently holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.

March 12th, 2010, by TRACI L. LEE

This is an excerpt from an article first published at BabyGirlz Magazine.

On a February 16, 2010 episode of The Tyra Show, there was a segment titled: “I’m 9 and I Hate my Face.” There were several girls featured, but the caption belonged to a young African-American girl that felt un-pretty based on negative comments that had been made to her by someone she thought was her friend. To feel pretty, she said, her preference was to have lighter skin and lighter eyes because in that way, she’d get more attention from boys — like her friends.

When I was 12, my “friend” and I were sitting on the stairs to our apartments. It was a nice sunny day and I was sitting a few stairs down from her — yet facing her — which meant, I was facing the sun. She looked at me and said, “You would be so pretty if you had light-colored eyes.” That stung. She would go on to tell me that if my complexion was lighter, I would be pretty. Basically, my brown skin was not enough to qualify for “pretty.” Wow. Two things that I could never change as I was born with both.

So, there it was, at the age of 12. If my own friends didn’t think I was beautiful, I couldn’t possibly be, right? Your friends know the most and tell you the truth about everything, right?

Not necessarily. Yet I believed it for years. For years, I died my hair because I believed that lighter-hued hair would give the facade of a shade not as dark as my own.

Then there were the boys. I thought I was in place to be Ronnie’s girlfriend. We spent time together outside with everyone else. Me, often with his arm wrapped around my shoulder, or him, holding my hand — nice moments. Until Angel moved into the neighborhood. Angel with the curly hair, light skin and green eyes. It was as though Ronnie never met me. His attention diverted to her…and there it remained. I was devastated. Further devastated when the same friend told me that, “He chose Angel because she has ‘good hair’ and those pretty eyes.”

Those were defining moments in my life — and moments that turned into years of me doubting that I was anywhere near pretty, beautiful, gorgeous — or if I would ever graduate from “cute.”

One day, I don’t remember quite when it was, things changed. I stopped dying my hair and a real friend said to me, “So, you are finally happy with the way you look?”

I hadn’t even realized. It was just something that kind of happened, I guess. I was happy when it did, but I can’t, with all honesty, say the exact moment. I do know it made me think long and hard about that road I’d just traveled. At some point, without even knowing it, I embraced ME.

Traci L. Lee is Editor-in-Chief of BabyGirlz Magazine, an online resource for young girls of color. She has also written for Moms of Hue.

March 9th, 2010, by
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (L.) greets Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (R.) during a March 8 press conference.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Afghanistan Monday on an unannounced visit and warned of hard days ahead as the U.S. implements a surge of 30,000 troops through the summer.

The U.S. military has been in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion and there are no plans to leave anytime soon, even as the U.S. scales back in Iraq.

The driving force behind and justification for staying in the fight in Afghanistan is that the Afghanistan war, from the beginning, was a war of necessity.

The conventional wisdom goes like this: The United States was attacked by al Qaeda terrorists, led by mastermind Osama bin Laden, who received support from and a safe haven in Afghanistan. We had to go after Osama bin Laden. We had to topple the Taliban. We are doing the right thing to protect ourselves and to fight for justice by continuing our military campaign there.

Here is an excerpt from a September 2001 article in The New York Times:

President Bush demanded tonight that Afghanistan’s leaders immediately deliver Osama bin Laden and his network and close down every terrorist camp in the country or face military attack by the United States…”From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime,” Mr. Bush said in a blunt warning that could encompass countries that the United States has previously identified as giving safe haven to terrorists, among them Iraq, Iran and Syria. The demands included an insistence that Americans be able to inspect every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan to ensure that they have been dismantled. The president declared that every nation must choose sides in the coming conflict against a terrorist network that he said involved thousands of people in more than 60 countries. He warned the nation to expect a long campaign that will be fought with the visible weapons of war and secret operations.

Even President Obama, who inherited the war from President Bush, said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, “The world rallied around America after the 9/11 attacks and continues to support our efforts in Afghanistan because of the horror of those senseless attacks and the recognized principle of self-defense.”

Well, here’s food for thought.

In a recent conversation with Tavis, Phyllis Bennis — writer, analyst and fellow at Washington D.C.’s Institute for Policy Studies and director of its New Internationalism Program — challenges the notion that the war in Afghanistan was one of necessity:

I think it was a war of choice at the time of 9/11. The attacks of 9/11 are horrific – a horrific attack, a horrific crime, a crime against humanity, and there were options…What we heard from the beginning was, “We’re going to go after these people and we’re going to kill them.” The problem was “these people” were already dead. None of the people who committed those terrible crimes were Afghans. They were Egyptians, they were Saudis. None of them lived in Afghanistan, they lived in Hamburg. None of them trained in Afghanistan, they trained in Florida. None of them went to flight school in Afghanistan; they went to flight school in Minnesota. So we went to war against a country across the world from us because we could, because it was something that looked like justice, when it was really about vengeance, it wasn’t about justice, and it was designed, I think, to lay the political basis for the war that would come later – the war in Iraq. So it wasn’t a war of necessity then and it certainly isn’t a war of necessity now.

Bennis goes on to say that it was President Bush’s paradigm of an international war on terror that got the U.S. into a military campaign in Afghanistan. She says, “as soon as you use that war framework, the paradigm of war means that only the military is going to be engaged.”

Bennis adds, “What we’re seeing now is that for every person we kill – we are killing civilians…What happens to their families? What do they start to think about these Americans that are killing them without any accountability? So it’s not making us safer, it’s putting us at much greater risk.”

What do you think? Is Afghanistan really a war of necessity? Is Bennis right when she says that it was really about vengeance? Should the U.S. military still be there? Share your thoughts with us below.

March 8th, 2010, by

When you think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., you probably think of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But what do you think about his “Beyond Vietnam” speech?

What’s that? You’ve never heard of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech?

Well, you’re not alone.

On Wednesday, March 31, the second installment of Tavis Smiley Reports explores the forgotten agenda of Dr. King by examining the “Beyond Vietnam” speech that he delivered at New York’s Riverside Church in 1967 and the subsequent loss of his popularity in the last year of his life.

The speech at Riverside not only joined the anti-war and civil rights movements, but it also included a searing indictment of U.S. foreign policy when Dr. King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Listen to the audio and read a transcript of the speech here. And be sure to tune in to “MLK: A Call to Conscience” on Wednesday, March 31. 

February 24th, 2010, by GABRIEL THOMPSON

The hardships that undocumented workers suffer, which I witnessed firsthand while reporting my book, has me thinking about a term that is frequently used in debates around immigration: “earned citizenship.”

The phrase is meant to highlight the fact that immigration reform wouldn’t just grant people amnesty, but force them to follow a path to citizenship that they must “earn” by paying fees, taking English classes, etc.

I understand the strategic purpose of highlighting this idea, but it still makes me want to punch the nearest wall.

The truth is that most undocumented immigrants have already demonstrated more chutzpah than people like me ever will, and have already sacrificed to the extent that the notion of making them “earn” anything is condescending.

When I was at the poultry plant, many of my coworkers were Guatemalan immigrants. In brief, my life story: I grew up in the suburbs, moved to New York City, and like to read and write.

Their life story: fled a civil war in which many of their friends and family were killed. Arrived in Florida to pick tomatoes for years in an area where slave labor still flourishes. Now they spend eight hours a day doing the highly repetitive work of poultry processing, sometimes suffering from carpal tunnel and other ailments. Half of my English-speaking orientation crew had left the job within weeks; many of the Guatemalans I worked alongside had stuck with the work for years.

When I’ve gotten to know the individual stories of undocumented immigrants, the last thing on my mind is that they need to “earn” something more in order to prove they are willing to make sacrifices to live in this country. Instead, I think about how lucky I am to have had such an easy life, which was only made possible because some very determined Finns and Norwegians took a big risk a hundred years ago and got on a boat.

Of course, back then we didn’t make my ancestors “earn” anything — if they were white and had the gumption to make the dangerous trek, they were granted legal status — so some things have certainly changed.

Gabriel Thompson is an award-winning investigative journalist, who, in 2005, traveled to Mexico to complete his book, There’s No José Here. His latest book, Working in the Shadows, chronicles his year-long experiment working undercover in the immigrant workforce. Check out his new book and become a Facebook fan.

February 10th, 2010, by

There has been discussion recently among black leaders and scholars about how President Obama, this nation’s first African American president, is handling race.

What do you think? Has President Obama done “enough” for African Americans? And what is “enough?” Has the president been too tepid on race?

Please share your thoughts and opinions below, and they may be included in an upcoming video blog.

February 10th, 2010, by DANIEL PINK

In the early 1990s, I had the good fortune to work for Robert B. Reich, then the U.S. Secretary of Labor. He taught me a simple (and free) tool for diagnosing the health of an organization.

When he visited companies and talked with employees, Reich listened carefully for the pronouns people used. Did employees refer to their companies as “they” or as “we”?

“They” suggested at least some amount of disengagement, and perhaps even alienation. “We” suggested the opposite — that employees felt that they were part of something significant and meaningful.

(VIDEO: Two questions to help you find your inner motivation.)

If you’re a boss — of a handful of people, an entire organization, or even your local church group — spend a few days listening to the people around you, not only in formal settings like meetings, but also in the hallways and at lunch. Then apply Reich’s pronoun test.

Are you a “we” organization or a “they” organization? The difference matters.

All of us seek intrinsic motivation. The thing is, “we” can get it — but “they” can’t.

Daniel Pink is the author of several bestselling books that analyze business and workplace trends, and his articles appear in The New York Times and Wired, where he’s a contributing editor. His latest book is Drive: The Suprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

February 3rd, 2010, by
Coretta Scott King leads a march in Memphis, TN five days after her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., was killed.

Now that we are a few days into Black History Month, there has been some discussion (see here and here) about the relevance or irrelevance of the month-long celebration.

What do you think?

Is it still necessary to designate an entire month to celebrate Black History? Does the election of Barack Obama as president somehow mean that Americans have learned the lessons about African American contributions to this country?

And is Black History Month still relevant? Why or why not?

Please share your thoughts and opinions below, and they may be included in
an upcoming video blog.

January 26th, 2010, by

Ahead of Wednesday’s State of the Union Address at 9 p.m. EST, we want to hear from you.

What is the one issue that you hope President Obama addresses Wednesday night?

Share your thoughts with us here, and come back after the speech to let us know what you thought of the address.

And if you still have more to say, YouTube has come up with a way to submit follow-up questions to the president at

January 26th, 2010, by MASON JAMAL

This post was first published at

unfortunately, is no different from the others. Tragedy strikes and the media
arrives in full occupying force. It’s the story of the moment. Everyone cares.
The information and images take up temporary residence in our collective
conscience. Our hearts go out. But, invariably, so do the lights. The bulbs
stop flashing. The cameras stop rolling. Heads stop talking. Then what?
Do we look the other way, as usual, and forget about the people of
Port-au-Prince and its surrounding provinces? Sadly enough, most of us will.

Prompted by the media, our attention and focus will turn
elsewhere; this way folks – on to the next story. Meanwhile, the death
toll will continue to soar and, for the survivors, so will the pain and
suffering. Haiti is haunted by the reality that it will be a country of
amputees for the foreseeable future, many of whom are orphaned children.

Relatively speaking, it wasn’t nearly as horrific, but the aftermath of
Hurricane Katrina provides a similar case study in media attention deficit
disorder. Nearly 2,000 people died, and countless more were permanently
relocated by the natural forces of the hurricane coupled with the economic
forces of government neglect. For the poor, it’s a one-two punch in the gut.
And even though media coverage bubbled over at first, it eventually fizzled out.
And with it so did public interest. If this is how American citizens were
treated and nearly forgotten, can we really expect anything different in Haiti?

Pardon my cynicism, but human tragedy is big business for the news industry.
It’s not that members of the media don’t have hearts. It’s rather difficult not
to, even for the most hardened journalist in a situation as catastrophic as
this. But while this story has legs for now, they too will be amputated soon
enough. And will the American public care as much then when the cameras stop
rolling? Most won’t. Just as we saw with the coverage of New Orleans and
all the talk about how America will never be the same, this too shall be out of
sight and out of mind. Then what?

Mason Jamal blogs for AOL Black Voices, as well as his own
You can also find him on Twitter @masonsays.

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