Addressing Systemic Racism in the U.S. and the Mass Incarceration of People of Color

The brutal killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police has catalyzed a groundswell of action against racism and police brutality across the country. We stand in solidarity and believe it is our duty to demand and work for systemic change to end racial injustice and inequality. We must root out the deep unconscious racial bias and white supremacy that permeates our culture, and end police violence and all abuses of police power. To this end, we must support anti-racist policy reform at the state and federal level.

Though systemic racism permeates many of our institutions, it is most entrenched in our criminal justice system, including in how the “War on Drugs” is waged inside communities of color. Just as the Jim Crow era of legal segregation replaced the institution of slavery as the main form of institutional racial control in the U.S. from the Civil War through the sixties, so has the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people—via the “War on Drugs” and otherwise—replaced Jim Crow since. Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” lays bare how systemic racial control operates institutionally via the criminal justice system in our society today:

In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

The United States has 4% of the world’s population but 22% of the world’s prison population, in significant part because of the brutal “War on Drugs.” Despite using drugs at the same rates as whites, Black and Brown people are much more likely to be targeted by police, arrested and incarcerated. As Kassandra Frederique, incoming Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance relayed by email:

Time and time again, drugs are used as a justification to target, harass, assault, arrest, incarcerate and kill Black people by law enforcement. George Floyd drew his last breath after one police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes and another taunted “don’t do drugs, kids” to the gathered crowd. Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her own bed by Louisville Police in what was a baseless warrant in a drug investigation
 We must fight to remove drug involvement as a cover for disregarding the dignity and sanctity of human life.

Reforming the racist “War on Drugs” is a critical piece of fighting against systemic racism, and that is why we focus energy and resources as a company to support legislation that treats addiction compassionately, not criminally. People who are addicted to drugs should receive the help and treatment they need in a way that doesn’t further destroy their and their families’ lives. Since 2001 Portugal has showed the way, implementing expanded treatment programs in place of jailing low-level drug offenders and addicts, while continuing to criminalize trafficking and distribution of drugs.

One of the ways we are engaged this year is through strongly supporting the Yes on 44 campaign in Oregon for the “Drug Addiction, Treatment  and Recovery Act,” now gathering signatures to get on the November ballot. We have pledged $250,000 to this campaign. Instead of arresting and jailing people for drugs, this initiative would use some existing marijuana tax money to pay for expanded addiction and recovery services, including supportive housing, to help people get their lives back on track. Victory in Oregon will blaze the path for the rest of the country to follow, and we call on our allies to likewise support this campaign. For those of you who live in Oregon, we encourage you to sign the petition today to put this on the November ballot.

Let’s work together to reform systemic racism however it manifests institutionally in our society, whether in police practices or government policies. Together, we are All-One or None! All-One! Black Lives Matter!

Author Profile

David and Michael Bronner

David and Michael Bronner run Dr. Bronner's together with their family. They view the company as an activist vehicle and donate both time and money to causes they believe in.

See all stories by David and Michael Bronner