Michelle Alexander Urges “Victories for All of Us” - Complete Speech - Clergy for a New Drug Policy
MICHELLE ADDRESS: KEYNOTE ADDRESS TO DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA – October 12, 2017 It is really such an honor to be here with all of you. I look out and I see so many faces that I recognize, so many people that I deeply admire, people who have inspired me, whose work has guided me and challenged me in countless ways – (names obscured by applause) — the list could go on and on. People who have made such a remarkable difference in my own life. I’ve been giving some thought to what I might say here today, how I spend my short time that I have with you. I could spend all of it just singing the praises of the people in this room and celebrating the extraordinary accomplishments, the victories that have been won in recent years, as recently as yesterday. But I want to be more than a just cheerleader right now. I want to speak candidly as someone who, like many of you, considers myself part of this movement but also as someone who is concerned for its future. Standing here I’m filled with such an odd mixture of overwhelming gratitude and some trepidation. In so many ways this is the best and worst of times for drug policy reform. There has been an extraordinary tidal wave of extraordinary successes – mind-blowing victories for marijuana decriminalization and legalization, due in no small part to the brilliant and strategic advocacy of people in this very room. Public support for marijuana decriminalization and legalization have never been higher – at record highs. Last November marijuana legalization initiatives prevailed in four states, medical marijuana prevailed in another four states. It seems as though we have reached a tipping point. And yet, at the same time, at the same very moment, we face an unprecedented drug crisis in this country. Drug overdoses are at a record high, making the crack epidemic seem somewhat mild by comparison. A recent report by the Police Executive Research Forum revealed that drug overdose deaths totaled over 64,000 last year, a 21% increase over 2015. About 3/4th of all those deaths involved opioids. America has 4% of the world’s population and 27% of the world’s overdose deaths. And many experts predict that we have not seen the worst of it yet. Already drug overdose deaths are more numerous than HIV deaths were in 1995 in the first year ever of the AIDS epidemic. Drug overdose deaths last year alone outweighed American fatalities in the entire course of the Vietnam War. And, yes, there is an outcry over the opioid crisis but it’s relatively new considering the magnitude of the crisis. And I know that I am not alone in being struck by the drastic difference between the two recent drug epidemics that have swept this nation — opioids and crack The crack epidemic killed just a tiny fraction of those who are dying of opioid overdoses today. And yet a literal war was declared on the users of crack – a purely punitive, militaristic war. Today the opioid crisis is much, much worse. And yet there is no wall-to-wall media coverage, demonizing and shaming opioid drug users and dealers. There’s no live TV coverage of drug addicts and dealers rounded up in mass raids. (applause drowned out some words here). And there are few politicians portraying them as people worthy of care and compassion, not as despicable scum of the earth that have to be gotten rid of by any means necessary. Things are very, very different this time around, and we all know why. Whiteness makes the difference. If the overwhelming majority of the users and dealers of opioids today were black rather than white, we wouldn’t have police chiefs competing with each other over whose department is showing more compassion for people struggling with drug addiction. I want to be clear that I am very glad that the Executive Police Research Forum is actually bragging in a recent report that many police departments are sending officers to the home of addicts to pay them kind visits and invite them to treatment and offer support. But I’m not as optimistic as some of my friends about the future of drug policy. I’m told that this new-found tolerance and compassion for white users will translate into a permanent ceasefire for the drug war and that the shift in law and policy will ultimately benefit peoples of all races and classes in the long run. I have my doubts about this. Clearly, the victories for marijuana decriminalization and legalization have benefitted people of all colors as arrest rates have declined dramatically in many states, even though severe racial disparities still remain. Discriminatory enforcement hasn’t changed much. But at least the total number of people arrested and criminalized has declined. This is a positive development of all peoples of all colors. No, my concern lies elsewhere. I’m concerned about the cyclical nature of reform and retrenchment in this country, particularly with respect to race. The great legislative victories for legalizing marijuana in several states did not occur in a vacuum. They occurred on the very same night that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, an election that was made possible in no small part by deliberate and explicit appeal to white racial resentment and anxiety. Some have said this is a very strange paradigm – progressive drug policy sweeping the nation at the very same moment that Donald Trump is elected President of the United States and fierce drug warrior is appointed Attorney General. How do we explain this crazy state of affairs? Yet from where I sit, there is no paradox, no mystery at all. There is a common denominator underlying both this drug reform victory and the election of Donald Trump. It is called whiteness. Over and over again in American history, this nation has unleashed a wave of punitiveness whenever a drug came to be associated with black and brown people. And then predictably – you can set your watch to it – when the color of drug users and dealers fades to white – our nation suddenly reverses course. Attitudes change. Policies change. Compassion bubbles to the surface in the public discourse. Numerous historians have documented this unmistakable pattern. And by the same token, throughout our nation’s history, there has always been fierce, the overwhelming backlash against even the appearance of racial progress. Always. You can set your watch to that one, too. And while some may argue that the racial justice gains of the Obama election were symbolic, the symbolism was powerful, and deeply disturbing to millions, inciting an electoral backlash that we should have seen coming. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that the presidential election and the drug policy victories of the last year were solely about race. But at the same time, can we honestly imagine that the drug reform victories of the last year in all those states would have been possible in the midst of the crack epidemic? Just for a moment try our nation legalizing any drug, of any kind, in the middle of any drug epidemic that was affecting primarily black or brown people. Imagine pot being legalized near the peak of the crack epidemic. And then try to imagine that all the newly legal drug empires that are being launched are being led by young black men with wild Afros and tattoos rather than young rich white men with ponytails and beards. Drug reform policies became possible in these years because the media was no longer saturated with images of black and brown dealers and addicts. The color of drug users and dealers got whiter in the public imagination, so we as a nation got nicer. Now that’s not to say that these changes were inevitable. That’s not what I’m saying at all. An enormous amount of hard work, blood, sweat, and tears went into those victories. I’m just asking us today to pause long enough to absorb the truth that the white face of medical marijuana in the media, and the white male face of legal pot entrepreneurs, and the white male face of drug users and abusers of the current opioid epidemic, and white face of drug heroes in the media, such as those featured in Breaking Bad, made it possible for mainstream white voters to feel a kind of empathy that was entirely lacking for black and brown folks just twenty years ago. Again, my point isn’t to minimize these legislative victories in any way. Rather, it is my hope that we will interrogate these victories and consider what they might teach us about the future of our movement. As I see it, the movement convened right here in this room stands at a critical crossroad. What happens in the months and years to come will likely determine whether our movement succeeds or fails in the long run. And I don’t think it is an overstatement to say the path we ultimately choose may have enormous implications for the success and failure of our democracy as a whole. I hope it is not controversial to say that our democracy is in a state of crisis. The gravity of the situation can be overwhelming. And it’s tempting in times like this to narrow our focus and think small. To think narrowly, very, very pragmatically and even defensively about what can be done to advance a single issue in a complex and worrisome political environment. But I want to challenge all of us here today to think big, to go big – or stay home. Let’s be reckless, throw caution to the winds? Not at all. But I say think big. We must begin to think bigger. Much, much bigger. Beyond drug policy, and consider more carefully how drug policy fits into the bigger picture of American democracy. We must dig deep enough so that our victories truly become truly victories for all of us. All of us. As I see it, any victory that is dependent on whiteness in whole or in part is truly not a victory for us all. When my book The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, was first released, and no one was reading it, I had a meeting with a very influential leader and thinker of drug policy reform. He said to me, “I’ve read your book and I agree with just about everything you say here. But there’s one thing that bothers me. It seems like you’re arguing here that we need to end racism in order to end the War on Drugs. I don’t think so. I think we can win this War on Drugs without ending racism. I don’t think we’re going to end racism in our lifetime and I intend to end the War on Drugs with or without ending racism. Shortly after Trump was elected, and a drug warrior was appointed attorney general, with his white supremacist attempted a revolution, I sent an email to this individual: “Remember what you said you didn’t have to end racism to end the War on Drugs? What do you think now?” I was half-joking. I’m not so naïve to think that we are going to end racism just by having better organizing strategies or by waving a magic wand. But I do believe that we must be committed to placing race and racial justice at the very center of the drug policy movement. Lately, I find that when I talk to drug reformers and say things like that, racial justice must be central to our movement, people nod, and they say, “Oh yeah, oh yeah, that’s so right, oh yeah.” And for a while, I was just really encouraged by these platitudes until I started asking some follow-up questions. And then I found that whoever gave this new-found commitment to racial justice was a little thin in practice. For some advocates, making racial ... Read More