- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
When the head of the California division of the NAACP spoke out in support of that state’s Proposition 19 this summer, there seemed to be an equal amount of immediate praise and backlash. Alice Huffman labeled the drug war as a “civil rights issue” getting attention both on a state and national level and once again bringing the War on Drugs front and center in the national dialogue on race. Treading on unbroken ground in regards to the NAACP and calling on the legalization of marijuana, Huffman has used her position of influence and power to highlight what many have known for ages—that the War on Drugs is not a war on the powerful and wealthy criminal enterprises that are responsible for bringing drugs into the neighborhoods and lives of the people. Instead, it’s far too often a war on people of color.
Let me step back a moment to say that drug addiction is a serious problem, as are the crimes that arise as a result of addiction and drug culture. But, we as a country are not treating addiction as the health problem that it is. Instead we are treating people caught with small amounts of drugs in the same manner that we do those who are ultimately responsible for pushing and trafficking the drugs—as criminals. This largely ineffective approach has destroyed families and communities and it’s often racial minorities who end up suffering the brunt of the burden.
The War on Drugs didn’t start just twenty or thirty years ago as many people believe, though that’s when the blitzkrieg of mass incarceration began. It initially began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as opium gained relatively widespread popularity in the United States. Though the country has never seen an opium problem equal to the one that took hold back then, affecting citizens from all walks of life, its ultimate undoing had little to do with the dangers of addiction and more to do with racism and immigration issues. Ill will towards Chinese immigrants following their building of the railroad was what helped spur opium legislation. Campaigns showing Asian immigrants as the cause for opium problems created a “us vs. them” mentality and injected a racial agenda into the drug problem.
Also in the early 1900s, cocaine legislation was drafted and passed, largely in part to campaigning efforts showing “cocaine crazed Negroes” of the South. Believing cocaine was making southern blacks resistant to .32 caliber bullets, many police agencies actually changed over to more high powered weaponry to fight off the highly exaggerated problem of cocaine usage, this despite the largely accepted fact that white contractors were supplying their black workers with cocaine to make them work harder.
Later, in the 1930s, the status quo felt threatened by immigrants of another variety and used this mistrust towards Mexicans to fuel anti marijuana legislation. It was during the Great Depression that Mexicans were competing with many out of work white Americans. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was just one way of stifling what was being propagandized as a threat to the American way. With posters and materials showing race mixing and cannabis going hand in hand, pot from Mexico wasn’t just a threat to American jobs but to the white race.
The War on Drugs as a racial issue is nothing new—the War on Drugs was founded on ideals of supremacy and racial fears–and Ms. Huffman’s position that it is a “Civil Rights issue” is precisely correct. This War we have been fighting for over a century has served no purpose other than to create a nation plagued by broken families and criminal histories, an incarceration-nation fueled by both criminal prosecution of a “drug” largely recognized as no more harmful than alcohol and also by drug addiction that is never treated in a system that prioritizes punishment over public health.
Although marijuana legislation shaping up across the country has the potential to impact this ineffective war that we have so obviously lost, the issue is far deeper than Proposition 19. When President Obama signed The Fair Sentencing Act, reducing the glaring disparity in crack-cocaine and powder cocaine sentencing standards, he and lawmakers in Washington recognized a major issue that is a backdrop for so much current drug legislation and drug law enforcement– that the War on Drugs targets communities of color and is responsible for much of the huge racial disparities within the United States justice system. But reducing the sentencing from 100:1 to 18:1 doesn’t completely eliminate the problem and doesn’t touch the hundreds of thousands who are serving sentences based on the original standards.
Scholar Randall Kennedy has pointed to two causes of disparate representation of minorities within the criminal justice system: unequal protection and unequal enforcement. When applied to the War on Drugs it seems that this is never so true. Law enforcement targets low income and notoriously high crime neighborhoods, which just so happen to have large concentrations of minorities. Despite the fact that drug use rates are nearly equal across racial lines, the police can get more bang for their buck, so to speak, by spending their time in these densely populated areas.
While some, still stuck on a “just deserts” model, state that minorities wouldn’t be arrested more if they would just stop committing crimes and using or selling drugs, they are missing the point. Although there may be a disproportionate number of minorities involved in crime, much of this is caused by and directly traceable to “exposure to structural conditions of extreme poverty, racial segregation, changed law enforcement priorities, and modern legacies of racial oppression.” And so often, these impressions of minority crime are exaggerated by the media, leading to a continued culture of fear between the races that is typically unjustifiable.
In a Drug Policy Alliance study published last month, the unequal enforcement of drug laws is seen in the targeting of African Americans for marijuana possession. In the scheme of things, even those opposed to marijuana legalization see personal marijuana use as a relatively minor issue, particularly when compared to drugs like cocaine, heroin, or even prescription drug abuse. But, when one marijuana conviction can give you a criminal record, affecting your ability to obtain gainful employment and provide for your family, marijuana possession is far from minor.
According to their report, despite the fact that young blacks use marijuana at rates far lower than young whites, their arrests are typically double or even three and four times that of whites. In the 25 largest California counties, blacks represented 20% of marijuana arrests and only 7% of the population. Though their study only included figures from the state of California, there’s little doubt its results would be similar in other states across the country.
When two people commit the same act and one is more likely to be arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to a longer term than the other, there’s a problem. When the only difference between the two is their race, it’s a racial problem. Small steps towards the equal protection and equal enforcement of laws in regards to all races of Americans can slowly begin to change the culture of a system based in racist policies. Certainly no one is saying all cops are racists or that all laws were made with blatant racist intentions. However, the systematic culture of the criminal justice system is based on principles that do nothing to eliminate disparate outcomes and, in many cases, perpetuate them instead.