Monday, January 28, 2008

War On Drugs VII

The thing that makes the war on drugs so insidious to me as a black man is not the fact that it has increased the number black felons or that it has turned our neighborhoods into war zones. No to me the one factor that has caused the most damage to us as a people is how it has removed us from the process of democracy. I think that this was its original intent and it has not failed to deliver. The United States is the only democracy in the world that does not allow its citizens the right to vote after they have served their sentences. In America, it is once a criminal always a criminal. To understand the racist nature of these laws all one has to do is to examine their historic beginnings.

Felon disenfranchisement was sometimes used as a tool by the states to disenfranchise blacks. Some Southern states passed laws disenfranchising those convicted of what were considered to be "black" crimes, while those convicted of "white" crimes did not lose their right to vote. For example, South Carolina disenfranchised criminals convicted of "thievery, adultery, arson, wife beating, housebreaking, and attempted rape," but not those convicted of murder or fighting. Mississippi modified its broad, earlier law--which disenfranchised convicts of "any crime"--to specifically target "black" crimes.[1]

The laws allowing for the disenfranchisement of criminals can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and first appeared in America as early as the 1600’s. So for anyone looking to disenfranchise a group of citizens the groundwork was already laid. If felons forfeited their constitutional rights all one would have to do is to construct and create laws to make more felons and then through a bias application of the laws exclude the majority population while ensnaring the targeted group. This of course is a broad statement and on its own proves nothing. In order to verify its validity there would have to be a statistical anomaly between the number of people in the criminal justice system from the targeted group and the percentage of that group in the national populace that cannot be explained by happenchance. Is there such an anomaly?

Although the incidence of crimes committed by blacks has not increased, the number of black prisoners has tripled since 1980. Approximately 13% of black males have lost their right to vote due to felony convictions, or around 1.4 million persons (Sentencing Project, 2000). The primary theoretical tool used to explain LFD legislation is the racial threat thesis (Behrens et al., 2003). The idea is that the presence of a high proportion of African Americans creates a threat that can be temporarily reduced by sentencing a large number of blacks to prison...Yet we will demonstrate that through policies that have been explicitly and are now "implicitly racial, state institutions organize and enforce the racial politics of everyday life" (Omi and Winant, 1986: 77).[2]

I would say a tripling of black inmates is such an anomaly. Are we to believe that the increased number of black inmates is due to better police tactics or that more blacks are committing more crimes? No, there has been a concerted effort to marginalize black men and exclude them from the democratic process. In a democracy people must have free access to its instruments to affect effective change in their lives and in the lives of their children. The black man has never been given full access to those instruments. The results of that denial of access can be seen in the deterioration of the black community. If you can’t vote, you have no voice in the direction of your community or its resources. If you can’t vote you can’t elect people who are accountable to your interests. You in effect become invisible. And that is what we have in America millions of invisible black men, who are only seen when their faces are flashed on the television screens on the nightly news. They are never heard from, they have no voices.

I believe that the rise in hip-hop and “gangsta-rap” is a direct consequence of that loss of voice. If your voice is not heard through traditional methods, if your concerns are ignored then you are left with few choices. We have millions of young black men who have never voted and never will vote, ever. They have no concept of the democratic process because it does not apply to them. They have seen no improvements through traditional methods. The violence of the past to acquire the right to vote has no influence on them, they could care less. They don’t care because for many it is a “right” they will never get to exercise.

The following is a representation of Florida, multiply these numbers across the country and you begin to see the pattern.

Recent interest in LFD laws springs in great part from the experience in Florida (Johnson v. Bush). Florida's disenfranchisement law kept in excess of 600,000 citizens with felony convictions from voting in 2000 (Rapoport, 2003), of whom one-third were black (Wagner, 2001). Thus, Uggen and Manza (2002) argue that the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, as well as of several other presidential elections and U.S. Senate elections, would have had different outcomes if disenfranchised ex-felons would have had the vote. Florida's part in the 2000 presidential election has become infamous since the Supreme Court proclaimed George W. Bush as president. Before the election, state officials waged a $4.3 million campaign to purge Florida's felons from the voter rolls (Palm Beach Post, 2001).[3]

You may have noticed that I have not used the “C” word or mentioned Republicans, because it isn’t just them. Unfortunately, there are some Democrats who allow these injustices to take place. It not only helps the Republicans to disenfranchise so many blacks, it also helps some white Democrats as well. If you live in a city with a substantial black population and you are a white politician it would be in your interest to suppress the black vote regardless of your Party affiliation. Remember, all politics are local and in local elections it isn’t always good to have a large bloc of voting blacks, especially if they are independently minded. We all know that these laws are disenfranchising millions of black voters, so why have they not been repealed? This is the question that the Dems have to answer as well as the Republicans.



Anonymous said...

Sir, with all due respect, you may not have looked hard enough for the connection between the use of felony disenfranchisement, the war on drugs and the incipient racism behind both. May I suggest you look here for that connection? You may find it as infuriating as you will enlightening...

Anonymous said...

You may also find this of interest: an interview with the author of the book, "Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs".

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