Consider just how large and invasive our criminal justice apparatus has become. On the surveillance side, we all know by now of the millions upon millions of Americans being monitored in the name of fighting anti-American crime. Snowden’s leaks have shown that this system is more vast than we ever knew before. Yet even before Snowden’s leaks, we knew the National Security Agency was intercepting 1.7 billion electronic communications per day. We knew in the Bush era that Americans were being wiretapped without warrants — and that telecom companies would be immune from prosecution for participating in that program. And anyone paying attention knew the fear generated by 9/11 made it politically difficult, if not impossible, to reverse the growing surveillance state.
The fear that gives the government carte blanche on civil liberties is not unlike the fear that leads whites to reflexively see African Americans as a threat. Author Michelle Alexander has dubbed this fear “the Zimmerman mindset,” which long pre-dates George Zimmerman himself and “views black boys and men in particular as a problem to be dealt with, managed and controlled. This mindset has fueled a brutal war on drugs, a get-tough movement, and a prison-building boom unprecedented in world history.”
Richard Nixon fed this mindset during his 1968 presidential campaign, just as the civil rights movement was ending and politicians needed coded ways to exploit white racial resentments. He ran a TV ad showing an elderly white woman walking alone in the dark in an urban area. As she nervously puts one foot in front of the other, a narrator recites statistics about rising crime and ominously intones, “Freedom from fear is a basic right of every American; we must restore it.” The kicker is the slogan at the end of the ad: “This time, vote as if your whole world depended on it.” For many white Americans, it must have felt that way as privileges disappeared. Politicians like Nixon expertly tapped into that anxiety.
About half of the people incarcerated in the United States are in for nonviolent offenses.
Meanwhile, racial bias haunts the justice system. Blacks and whites use and sell drugs at roughly the same rate. Yet blacks are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned for a drug offense. For offenses overall, black men receive sentences that are, on average, 20% longer than white men who are found guilty of the same crimes.
In a country where racial fear has so thoroughly permeated our approach to crime, is it any wonder George Zimmerman was shaken at the sight of a young black guy wearing a hoodie?
And in a country where fear of terrorism is so prevalent, is it any wonder Edward Snowden would likely spend decades in prison if he returns to the United States?
Snowden fled because Americans fear terrorists. Martin died because Americans fear blacks. And ultimately, the consequences of these fears touch us all.
Lava is director at Beyond Bars, a media campaign that aims to inform and engage the public on mass incarceration.