Thursday, May 8, 2008

Drug Wars VIII

Sometimes writing these essays are a chore and seem demanding, then there are other times when they seem to write themselves, this is one of the latter. I have written extensively about America’s war on drugs and all the ills and problems that it has caused. First of all let me state that I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do not believe that racism is involved in every aspect of life in America, at least it hasn’t been in my life. However, there are times when it plays a major role in how we interact with one another. The war on drugs and the death penalty are probably two of the most egregious ways in which racism does play a role in America. The recent results of a couple of studies highlight the disparity in our criminal justice system that can not be explained by any other means.

More than two decades after President Ronald Reagan escalated the war on drugs, arrests for drug sales or, more often, drug possession are still rising. And despite public debate and limited efforts to reduce them, large disparities persist in the rate at which blacks and whites are arrested and imprisoned for drug offenses, even though the two races use illegal drugs at roughly equal rates.

Two new reports, issued Monday by the Sentencing Project in Washington and by Human Rights Watch in New York, both say the racial disparities reflect, in large part, an overwhelming focus of law enforcement on drug use in low-income urban areas, with arrests and incarceration the main weapon.[1]

Ok, here is the short course of racism in America. Drug addiction has no respect of person, it affects blacks and whites in similar numbers. It is not a black issue or a white issue. The difference is in how it is prosecuted in both communities. The drug war has always been depicted by the politicians and the media as a black inner-city issue, as if there were no drug problems in white suburbia. So if we are using drugs at roughly the same numbers then how can one explain that more than 50% of all persons sent to prison for drug crimes are black? These are not traffickers and distributors, these are mostly possession cases.

Here is how you devastate a community and destroy its future. You begin by arresting its young men for minor drug offenses in a depressed economy. Once arrested you prosecute them for felony convictions. Once they have been convicted or have pled guilty then you have sentenced that young person to a life of hopelessness. That young person has forfeited all rights to achieve any semblance of legitimate success. Once they have received a felony conviction they are no longer eligible for education grants, most government programs that target the poor, or be able to participate in the most basic form of citizenship by voting. One simple arrest by outside observation has actually removed this young person from competing in our society in any meaningful way in the future.

Two-thirds of those arrested for drug violations in 2006 were white and 33 percent were black, although blacks made up 12.8 percent of the population, F.B.I. data show. National data are not collected on ethnicity, and arrests of Hispanics may be in either category.

“The race question is so entangled in the way the drug war was conceived,” said Jamie Fellner, a senior counsel at Human Rights Watch and the author of its report.

“If the drug issue is still seen as primarily a problem of the black inner city, then we’ll continue to see this enormously disparate impact,” Ms. Fellner said.

Her report cites federal data from 2003, the most recent available on this aspect, indicating that blacks constituted 53.5 percent of all who entered prison for a drug conviction.[2]

By prosecuting the drug war in the way we are doing it, we are providing cover for racism to continue. We are spending 70% of our resources targeting inner-city and rural white neighborhoods as if these are the people importing the drugs from the foreign capitals and making the billions in profits. The people we are targeting for the most part are such major players in the drug trade most can’t even afford attorneys at trial. So where are all these drug profits going? I can tell you they are not being spent in my neighborhood, the occasional new pair of Jordan sneakers or chrome rims can hardly be presented as some large criminal enterprise.

Are drugs devastating our inner-city neighborhoods? Of course they are, but the solution is not to destroy the village to save it. Many in the black community are tired of the drug trade with its inherent crime and violence, but the way it is being combated today only creates more strife. We must develop alternatives to incarceration and the ruining of lives. The drug war has decimated the black community and has created an atmosphere of fear and distrust of those who are paid to protect us. All of us make mistakes especially during our youth, we mustn’t compound those mistakes by ruining their lives with felony convictions. While whites are offered diversionary programs to avoid felony records blacks are continually being placed in the system. We want crime reduced, but not at the expense of our future.

Where does it all begin and how does the ball get rolling. I read a story recently on the numbers of street stops being made by the NY city police and the numbers are staggering. There are similar numbers for traffic stops in communities across America. If we continue to target only one community then naturally the crime statistics are going to be skewed towards that group. The war on drugs has allowed this country to choose what group to prosecute and what communities to devastate under the cover of law and order. No one can argue the legality of what is being done, but what about the morality of it?

Street stops have gradually increased, to 508,540 in 2006 from 97,296 in 2002, according to departmental statistics. Because more than half of those stopped were black, the increases led some police critics to suggest that minorities were being unfairly singled out, though the police reject such claims.

“The numbers are troubling both because of the number of people stopped and because blacks continue to be, overwhelmingly, the ones who are stopped,” Mr. Dunn said. “Someone outside the Police Department, like the mayor’s office, the City Council or the Justice Department has now got to step in and demand a public accounting of the department’s stop-and-frisk practices.”[3]

The issue isn’t that blacks are committing more crimes despite the constant images being displayed on the nightly local news. The issue is that blacks are more likely to be stopped and searched than whites. If the police were to use the same tactics in the suburbs as they use in the inner-city I guarantee you the number of whites arrested would increase. And if they were sentenced in the same manner as blacks there would be a national outcry. Imagine if 50% of young white males were given a felony conviction in their early teens and were rendered useless from that point on. The war on drugs has allowed those with racist attitudes to institute those beliefs under the cover of legitimate crime fighting.


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