EXCLUSIVE: Let My People Go! Essay by Teri Woods
The numbers are astronomical. According to Wikipedia, as of 2013:
- 2,222,300 people were incarcerated in the United States;
- another 4,751,400 were on probation or parole;
- another 651,000 were locked up in local jails and over 70% of these detainees hadn’t even been convicted yet — they either can’t make bail or weren’t given one. They are, I’m sure, impatiently waiting for trial;
- more than half of those incarcerated are non-violent offenders or drug trafficking offenders.
As a mother, wife and sister, I’m more than concerned. I’m angered that it continues and that more isn’t being done. I see the ‘war on drugs’ as no more than a political campaign used to hide behind another agenda: A War on Our Black Men. If no one has said it, then I certainly will, “Let my people go!”
The criminalization of drug use by people of color is so deeply rooted in the fiber and fabric of slavery, that criminal and negligent injustice is equally demonstrated on an everyday basis in America, as is racial injustice. This is not something that happened to us overnight. This racial, criminal and negligent injustice has been in place over 100 years and this systematic position of incarceration has been in the making quite some time as well. Let me explain.
Racist Roots of America’s Anti-Drug Policy
In studies published between 1871 and 1922, the typical drug addict in the early 20th century was none other than the middle-aged, middle to upper class, white woman. And even with the high rate of opium addiction at that time, it was considered a health problem best treated by physicians and doctors.
The first shift in policy was prompted by Chinese immigration. While White America used tonics and elixirs to get their doses of heroin, the Chinese were smoking it, and that was considered a problem. So, the nation’s first drug prohibition law was passed in 1909 when Congress outlawed the importation of opium for smoking.
In 1910, Dr. Hamilton Wright reported in the New York Times that U.S. contractors were giving cocaine to the Black employees to get more work out of them. Another article indicated that Blacks could shoot better from the effects of cocaine. The Literary Digest claimed that most of the attacks upon White women of the South were the direct result of the “cocaine-crazed, Negro brain.” When Coca-Cola removed cocaine from their popular soft drink, it was not solely out of concern for their customers’ health, but to appease their Southern market, which feared Blacks getting cocaine in any form.
By the 1920s and 1930s, marijuana was popularized by the Jazz scene. White and blacks were smoking together in “teahouses,” which caused major concern. Near the end of the Great Depression, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was enacted because the U.S. felt marijuana was a direct by-product of unrestricted Mexican immigration.
So, when did the black community start feeling the real effects of drug trafficking?
President Nixon Declares War
Published reports indicate that by the 1960s, President Richard Nixon declared a “New War on Crime.” The new war targeted and effectively criminalized urban minorities. (Not to mention this is around the time Blacks were heavily red-lined and denied the right to buy homes because they were black). The urban minority or youth of color that were criminalized were portrayed as purveyors of violence, traffickers of drugs and an overall danger to society. Police surveillance was NOW going to be focused on communities of color, immigrants, the unemployed, the undereducated, and the homeless, who continue to this day to be the principal targets of law enforcement efforts to fight the “war on drugs.”
The ’70s, brought an explosion of heroin use targeted and positioned amongst the black communities. Some believe it was to ‘quell’ the negro from all the rioting after the death of King and against social injustices that blacks were fighting for. Yes, ‘quell’ black power, black panthers, black everything! Get high, don’t think and no power never.
Then the ’80s and the explosion of the crack era, which again was targeted and positioned amongst the black community, only emphasized the need for more, tougher laws, tougher sentences, and yes…we went for it. I admit, I thought the war on drugs and tough crime laws that were adopted in the 1980s were needed to help make our communities safer, too.
The truth is, it was just another scheme to have a reason to lock up black men and persons of color, and now… no one seems to care, until it’s your son, your husband, your life that’s ruined. It’s been 30 years since the crack era first came to life and look at what has been done to all these men because of drug trafficking and targeting of minorities. Excuse me I’m sorry, but half of these men are non-violent, with twenty year sentences. Locking up black men is NOT the answer. Ten, twenty and thirty year sentences is NOT the answer. This stupid ‘war on drugs’ is NOT the answer.
Race War Wages On
Today, there are more black men incarcerated in America than the total prison population of India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, England, Israel and Finland combined. Wait…did you get that? America, land of the free, has more black men locked up, than all the people in prison in all those countries listed above. All that has been done to us as black people in this country is the result of intelligent effort, people. All that which is being done is to literally to enslave, oppress, and extinct black men and that is REAL. This enemy does exist, it is real and it is determined to oppress, and will never falter, will never tire, and will never give up until the black man is extinct or totally enslaved.
And every system is now in place needed to accomplish this task in America. These systems include the employment system, education system, welfare system, housing system, health system, but most importantly, the criminal and judicial systems and their systematic structure for taking black men and subjecting them to racial injustice, police brutality and mass incarceration. You think these things may be happening by accident or coincidence, but they are happening every day because of intelligent effort.
We must come out of our comfort zone and join forces just as intelligently to create a voice for those who have none. We must do more to fight this systematic structure for our men, our sons, and our future generations. If we don’t, I’m afraid we will lose, not just black men, but black as I know it to be. To me, I can’t even fathom how this is happening and how complacent we all are about it. I have two sons, they are black, they can’t be America’s prisons systems next victims. It’s NOT okay. And I hope that I have all that it takes not to fall short with the efforts that are needed. But I do know that by me standing up today, it might just save my children tomorrow.
Unlocking a Brighter Future for Black America
We seriously need to ask our government officials and political leaders why hasn’t the federal justice system been reformed and what’s the deadline for reform? Why hasn’t the mandatory minimum been abolished? Why haven’t these sentences been overturned and these men given their freedom? Why aren’t they using all this money for rehabilitation programs, job programs and education programs? Why are we not coming together to do more to get judicial reform and to get more programs for these men and for our communities? This has to be a priority for those that are still conscious. This structure is not in place to protect the community it serves. As it stands, it is taking our men, our sons, our husbands, and our families. And it is literally destroying us as a people — individuals, families and communities.
We don’t even realize it. We are that blinded, bamboozled and mislead. It costs eighty billion a year to cage and monitor inmates, who most of whom could be home with their families. But, maybe that’s the whole point, for us not to have black men to be a family with in the first place. That’s why slavery separated us in family and in love. Love and be sold away. That’s what it did and it’s ongoing, just now, we aren’t on a plantation, we are in federal, state and county prisons, having love and family ripped apart so that our children are fatherless, we are without husbands and black equals, no husband, no dad, and no family. The system knows what works. When you see their patterns, you can identify where we need to unite and strengthen. As a black woman, sister, and mother in America, I see the pattern clearly.
Now is not the time to throw in the towel, but now is the time to unite and stand together more than ever to help protect our children, our future and lend our hand and time to help free these men from the chains of judicial injustice that will be forever binding if change does not come. The President that is elected needs to have a strong stance on judicial reform and mandate sentencing reform and be willing to get laws pushed through that will be effective in all areas of criminal and justice reform. We need a President that will serve us and protect us and we need to be prepared to service one another and come together to raise a new generation of children. We must save the next generation of black men and all black men from the inequities of racial and judicial injustice. These men are not state issued numbers, they are human beings. They are our husbands, our sons and our forever brothers. They deserve more than this and they deserve our support for their lives. If ever was a time to echo the words amongst us and to the world, now is the time…
Let my people go! Let my people go!
Teri Woods is a pioneer in the urban fiction genre and the New York Times best-selling author of several books. Woods completed her first novel while working as a legal secretary for a law firm and juggling motherhood in Philadelphia, PA. After six years of shopping the project and being rejected by more than 20 publishers, she published “True to the Game” herself. In 1998, she took to the streets of Harlem selling copies hand-to-hand and went on to become the most successful African-American self-published author with several series and a dozen titles to her name. Film adaptations of her cult classics “True to the Game” and “Dutch” are in the works.