Even a cursory look at the statistics about the US prison population tells an obvious story: Something isn't working. We lock up more people than any other country in the world, including ones with larger populations and more autocratic regimes. And much of it has to do with failed Reagan-era policies, above all the War on Drugs.
But don't take my word for it: Listen to Jay Z. In a new video op-ed for the New York Times, illustrated by artist Molly Crabapple and produced by filmmaker and journalist dream hampton, Shawn Carter succinctly narrates the story of the War on Drugs. In the video, he describes the ways that policy decisions beginning with President Nixon have caused the prison population to swell by 900 percent, disproportionately affecting black and Latino people.
"Drugs were bad. Fried your brain," Jay intones, describing the mindset that led to the expansion of government policies that targeted young men (like him) and led to their arrests at record rates. "The sole reason neighborhoods and major cities were failing. No one wanted to talk about Reagonomics and the ending of social safety nets, the defunding of schools and the loss of jobs in cities across America."
He goes on to point out the enormity of the US prison population relative to countries like Russia and Iran, as well as to explain the racial disparities involved in enforcement, both during the crack cocaine era and with marijuana today. "Even though white people sold and used crack more than black people, somehow it was black people who went to prison," he points out. Today, meanwhile, marijuana legalization is promising to make venture capitalists with the right connections in the right places rich, even as poor low-level dealers continue to be sent to prison elsewhere.
"There is no compassionate language toward drug dealers," Jay Z observes. He concludes, "Rates of drug use are as high as they were when Nixon declared this so-called war in 1971. Forty-five years later, it's time to rethink our policies and laws. The War on Drugs is an epic fail."
It's an awesome and important political statement from one of music's most prominent voices, and it's absolutely worth your consideration, especially right now as prisoners are fighting for their most basic human rights. Watch the full segment below or via the New York Times.
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