top of page

Looking at the War on Drugs through The New Jim Crow

By Jane Hornsby

On a playground in Minneapolis with my young cousins, we chase each other around laughing. The two of them catch me, pretend to put me in handcuffs, and shove me behind a bench, telling me I’m a bad guy and I’m now in prison. Having just read several chapters of The New Jim Crow, I pause in my laughter to think whether or not to say anything. Do I halt the game to sit a 3 and a 4-year-old down on a bench and explain to them the capitalist-driven race-based hierarchy that finds fertile ground for oppression in the national criminal justice system? How do I begin to challenge their strong convictions that prison is a place for those who are somehow morally corrupt? How do I communicate, in language that they understand, the stunning tragedy of it all? Or do I stay behind the bench and just accept that we socialize our children to think of police as good guy, hooded black man as bad? I walk home thinking about how long it will be until my cousins realize how beautiful it is that they have control over their own life and fate, that they have options and resources, and that that is a blessing that far exceeds the word privilege.

Safe to say, reading The New Jim Crow—which, if you haven’t heard of it, is Michelle Alexander’s gorgeous, best-selling take-down of the prison industrial complex—I’ve been thinking about the War on Drugs a lot lately. But I don’t think I fully understood how connected the US caste system is to international dynamics of power until I began immersing myself in the politics of Plan Colombia, the Merida Initiative, and the daunting reality of US imperialism through a rhetoric of safety, security, and goodwill towards Latin American communities plagued by the violence of the Drug War.

In “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander discusses the US prison system and the domestic war on drugs through the lens of race and class discourse in the US. She explains how, by disproportionately targeting the black community, this apparatus functions, quite like Jim Crow, as an oppressive structure which at its core is designed to disenfranchise and disempower certain demographics. With the Civil Rights Movement and the end of the formal Jim Crow era, the white elite were terrified by the threat of a liberated black population shaking up the economic and social order in the US. Thus, she says, the prison system gained strength in its covert way of justifying discrimination in the name of safety. Alexander refers to this as a “well-disguised system of racialized social control” and offers an alternative definition of criminal justice structures, saying that historically speaking they have functioned—and continue to function—more as ways of controlling the economy and maintaining a certain social order or class system than as agents of safety. All of this—the discussions of safety, the class systems and discrimination, bares a striking resemblance to the Drug War in Latin America.

It’s essential to realize that this policy system she discusses causes ripples not just in every corner of life in the US, but throughout the hemisphere. Alexander’s framework also helps us to understand the role of the United States in a drug war that is crippling Latin America. Just as the U.S. government pumps money into a domestic system that militarizes police and incarcerates huge proportions of minority communities, they have also exported this exact model in an effort to tackle the Drug War in Mexico and Colombia. This system of social control proves useful not only for reinforcing domestic hierarchies based in race and class, but also in buttressing a global order defined by US hegemony. As a system of social control, the war on drugs functions in Latin America, as it does in the US, to systematically disempower, dehumanize, and silence populations that threaten the mainstream capitalist order by fighting for their own rights and humanity as a lower class, or merely by living their lives. The war we’re fighting with our billions of dollars to Latin American police forces is a way of exporting a system of social control that favors the white, the rich, the capitalist.

And this is at its core an economic strategy; it is a war that’s designed to be endless, not only in how it creates a self-sustaining market for US weapons and other industries, but in how it systematically divides social classes to secure a proletariat-bourgeoise model that continues to benefit the elite. Just as we see with the exploitation of Latin American workers by international corporations, this strategy by Washington completes its fundamental goal to, as Alexander says of the US, “reestablish a system of control that would ensure a low-paid, submissive labor force,” and “protect [the wealthy’s] economic, political, and social interests.” Economically, the structures present in both the prison system and the War on Drugs have profound class implications—but US involvement in the Drug War has manifested itself in profoundly racialized ways as well. Research has shown that just as the War on Drugs in America is primarily a battle against black communities, those affected by the Drug War abroad are disproportionately Afro-Latin American and indigenous communities.

This model does not exist because it is the only solution, or even because it’s a solution at all. Research has shown this aid to be largely a failure in truly fighting the violence of the Drug War. This is partly because so much of the drug war comes from issues of domestic demand that are not being made a priority here in the US, being placed on a back burner relative to this futile militarization of Latin American police forces. Militarization and mass imprisonment increase the likelihood for violent crime rather than decrease it, and, while we’ve seen that access to drug treatment is the most effective way to reduce demand, we’re ignoring that approach entirely. Why? Because we’re simply not interested in truly solving the drug problem. We know how to fight this war but it’s in the interests of US elites and businesses to continually disadvantage the lower class. Thus, Alexander’s caste system becomes not merely a national one, but an international one.

Realizing how inter-connected it all is is a scary moment. But it’s a motivating one. It means that fighting against militarization, mass incarceration, and imperialism in one place will make a difference in another. Maybe it will be a while until my baby cousins realize the intensity of class and racial oppressions throughout their nation and  the globe, but I know that, when they do, they will have the energy and the empathy, the heart to shake things up and make a change.


bottom of page