Oct. 1, 2012 04:42

Rebuilding “Ground Zero”

Detroit’s Joe White fights his own war against racist drug laws


Joe White is on the verge of accomplishing something extraordinary: convincing the Detroit NAACP, African American churches and community leadership that the failed War on Drugs—not drugs or black folks—has decimated their communities.

African American communities have traditionally been supporters of the Drug War, but despite the fact that the national NAACP has released a statement affirming its support for ending drug prohibition (and legalizing cannabis), Detroit has resisted.

“The Drug War was sold to us as way to save our kids, but they are lying to us,” White tells CULTURE. “They are not protecting kids.”

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s landmark 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness, explains how the U.S. has created a system of social and racial control unparalleled in world history—and one maintained by the Drug War. Felons thrown back into community after mass incarceration are truly part of a caste system, no longer part of mainstream society, according to Alexander’s writing.

“When you remove jobs from the community, people have to pay their damn bills and feed their family, and that is the mentality right now in this city of Detroit,” White says. “I know because I have been here all my life. I’m not talking about this as an outsider, I am right here in the middle of this shit, over here on the east side.”

“If the War on drugs is a real war, then this is Ground Zero,” he adds. “The No. 1 employer in Detroit is drugs. Police, legislators, they all agree.”

Detroit used to have a confident middle-class, a high percentage of unskilled workers making good money at Ford, GM and Chrysler. “Then they were just thrown out,” White explains. “Corporations just walked away, leaving buildings scattered all over Detroit. What’s left is the drug trade.”

White is touring Michigan with a PowerPoint presentation based on The New Jim Crow that dives deep into the statistics, policies, history and impact of the Drug War and how it has impacted communities of color for the last three generations.

He used several studies for his presentation, including one from the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center that covers states that specifically researched crime, incarceration and length of prison stays in the 48213 ZIP code of Detroit—where 61-year-old Joe White has spent his entire life. The results are staggering: One in three black men are under correctional control, and this has had zero impact on drug trafficking and violence.

After White read The New Jim Crow, he called Alexander’s office in Ohio and was directed to the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (SDPC)—a lead agency out of Chicago that is part of the United Methodist Church (UMC). The UMC been active speaking out against the Drug War, and it developed a study guide out of The New Jim Crow, which White used to create his presentation.

He also helped facilitate hearings in September, through the SDPC’s newly formed Michigan Justice Commission, where citizens, activists and professionals gave testimony on incarceration and the Drug War.

And this November, Detroit residents will decide through a voter-initiated ballot question whether they want to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana within the city limits. Joe is pushing for that measure to pass, and praying the black communities of faith will hear this message loud and clear.


As the Jim Crow Flies

Ask Michelle Alexander, the author of 2010’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness, about racial justice and she’ll likely tell you that we have a long way to go. Among other things, Alexander makes a case for how little racial progress this country has made in light of several facts such as: there are more African American men in jail, prison, probation or parole than there were slaves in 1850, and our prisons are “overflowing with black and brown offenders,” she wrote in The Huffington Post two years ago. “This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream,” she wrote. “The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.”


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