Racist “War on Drugs
The U.S. Constitution once counted Black slaves as worth three-fifths of Whites. Today, Black per capita income is three-fifths of Whites. That?s an economic measure of enduring racism. The Latino-White ratio is even worse. One out of three Black men in there twenties is now in prison or jail, on probation or on parole on any given day. The comparable figure for Latinos is about one in eight, and for Whites, one in fifteen.
It is impossible to understand why so many people of color, particularly Blacks, have a record, and why so many more will get a record, without understanding the racially biased “war on drugs.” One out of three women state prisoners is serving time for drug offenses. More than twice as many people are arrested for drug possession as for trafficking. According to a Justice Department report, “drug trafficking has been elevated above almost every serious crime except murder,” including kidnapping, assault, arson, and firearms. Most drug offenders are nonviolent, and many are low-level offenders with no prior criminal records.
Three out of four drug users are White, but Blacks are much more likely to be arrested for drug offenses and receive longer sentences. Blacks constitute 13 percent of all drug users, but 35 percent of arrests for drug possession, 55 percent of convictions, and 74 percent of prison sentences. Almost 90 percent of people sentenced to state prison for drug possessions in 1992 were Black and Latino.
Drug arrests climbed for juveniles of color, while decreasing for White juveniles. The disproportionate arrests and media coverage feed the mistaken assumption that Black youth use drugs at higher rates than Whites
While many of the easily spotted street corner buyers are White, as well the big money traffickers and money launderers, you don?t have to be dealing or buying on street corners to feel the racial bias of the drug war. A 1990 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that drug and alcohol abuse rates were slightly higher for pregnant White women than pregnant Black women, but Black women were about ten times more likely to be reported to authorities under a mandatory reporting law.
The drug war has been used to justify the erosion of constitutional protections against unwarranted stops, searches and seizures, and the rollback of other civil liberties. The rollback has been especially severe for people of color. Racist self-fulfilling prophecy is evident in the use of racial profiling.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, Congress has enacted a growing number of harsh federal mandatory minimum sentences, with racist results. Whites are more likely than non-whites to be sentenced below the applicable mandatory minimum. The racial bias of the drug war is glaringly evident in the much harsher mandatory minimums for crack cocaine than powder cocaine. The federal mandatory minimum for possession of more than five grams of crack cocaine is five years in prison (five grams amounts to a teaspoon of crack). First offenders dealing 50 grams or more of crack cocaine (50 grams is less than two ounces) get a ten-year mandatory minimum, the same as for 5,000 grams of powder cocaine.
Low-level offenders are routinely treated more harshly than high-level offenders are because the low-level offenders can?t provide the kind of information or forfeited assets wanted by prosecutors in exchange for reduced charges and sentences. Political leaders foster the myth that American violence is largely the product of illegal drugs and inner-city gangs. The United States has had the industrial world?s highest homicide rates for some 150 years. The homicide rate for White American males, ages 15-24, was at least twice as high as the overall rate for males, ages 15-24, in 21 other countries, including Canada, Japan, Israel, and European countries. For women, the greatest threat of violent injury and death comes from so-called “domestic violence” by past or present boyfriends or spouses. In reality, the heavily advertised legal drug alcohol is the drug most linked to violence and death–excluding the highly profitable, deadly, addictive nicotine. Of all psychoactive substances, alcohol is the only one whose consumption has been shown to commonly increase aggression. For at least the last several decades, alcohol drinking by the perpetrator of a crime, the victim, or both–has immediately preceded at least half of all violent events, including murders.
Only a society heading toward chaos would continue filling more prisons while treating more and more people as disposable. Every day in the United States, the Children?s Defense Fund reports, “9 children are murdered, 13 children die from guns, 27 children, a classroom, die from poverty…101 babies die before their first birthday.” We must find a way to make sure the crimes of racism, scapegoating, and economic injustices no longer pay.
A&E Investigative Reports episode ?Seized by the Law,? FBI Crime statistics, U.S. Census Bureau statistics, and the books Smoke and Mirrors by Dan Baum, and The Crisis in Drug Prohibition edited by David Boaz.