This past Monday, the nation celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King's legacy of non-violence and equality still resonates in a country which has come a long way, but which still has a long way to go, in confronting and overcoming prejudice and discrimination on the basis of skin color. For many, Dr. King's birthday is a day of pride and of hope. But for those who are advocating and carrying out America's drug war, it ought to be a day of great shame.
African Americans comprise approximately 12% of the population of the US, and account for about 13% of drug users. Despite this fact, African Americans make up more than 50% of all new prisoners in the US, the highest percentage in the nation's history. It is no secret that the bulk of those entering the system are jailed on drug charges.
There are several reasons why the war on drugs disproportionately impacts African Americans. First, it must be remembered that the laws against many currently illegal substances were written specifically to impact racial minorities. During congressional testimony at the time, it was claimed that both marijuana and cocaine caused Black men to rape white women. Opium was originally outlawed because it was said that Chinese immigrants, high on opium, could work interminable hours, thus giving them an unnatural advantage over white workers.
In the years between the implementation of anti-drug laws in the early part of the century, and today, those laws, written with the full intention of "controlling" feared minorities, have been used toward precisely those ends.
Another reason for the current disparity in the drug war's impact is that it is far easier to enforce drug laws in poor neighborhoods. The dearth of legitimate economic opportunities tends to bring the drug trade front and center in the local economy. Policing in these communities is often far more aggressive than in whiter, wealthier areas. It is common, for example, for "drug sweeps" to be instituted in which virtually everyone on a block is made to lay on the street while searches and questioning are conducted. Tactics such as this would cause considerable outrage, and no small legal backlash, if conducted in more opulent, if no less drug infested locales, such as Wall Street.
There are other harms perpetrated on African American communities in the name of the War on Drugs. One of the most destructive and pernicious is the widespread use of informants. "Whatever little you gain by this practice" argues Jerome Miller, a long-time corrections administrator and author of the book Search and Destroy: African Americans and the Criminal Justice System, "you lose a great deal more in terms of social cohesion. You create a Stasi-like system where no one can be trusted." Miller says that with long mandatory minimum sentences in place for prosecutors to hang over the heads of minor players, there is incentive for young, frightened arrestees to exaggerate and make things up in order to get themselves off the hook.
"Aside from the psychological damage that this does to a community, it has the additional effect of creating random violence. If the word gets out on the street that someone is a snitch, their lives aren't worth all that much. And it doesn't even have to be the truth. Also, often you'll see people committing horrendous acts just to prove that they're not working with the police. Several years ago in Washington DC, for instance, a young man walked into a police station with a gun, opened fire, killed a number of officers, and then shot himself. The story behind that incident, which went nearly unmentioned in the press, was that the police had put the word out on him in an effort to pressure him into cooperating with them. He did it to prove that he wasn't a rat."
Perhaps the most ironic and troubling aspect of the war's effects on African American communities is that there is still very little protest against Prohibition coming from this most victimized segment of the population. The government has done a good job of selling the idea that it is drugs themselves, rather than economic factors and Prohibition, which is causing crime and violence. This absence of critical analysis of the larger issue of Prohibition is by no means confined to African American communities. In fact, the majority of Americans have bought the prohibitionist rhetoric, but it is in the black community where the War is being carried out in earnest.
Cheryl Epps is a former Assistant District Attorney. She prosecuted narcotics cases in Manhattan. She is also an African American. "There is an enormous amount of destruction being done by substance abuse in poor communities" she says. "A lot of that stems from economic hopelessness, and some is the result of a lack of available resources to deal with mental health issues. So when Black folks look around their neighborhoods, it's quite natural for them to point to the drugs and say 'whatever you have to do, get rid of this.'"
"In addition, the Drug War model is the only alternative that has been presented, the only strategy anyone has seen. The people who are profiting from the mass incarceration, and the politicians that they pay to put in office, have led America to believe that as bad as things are now, any change in the status quo would lead inevitably to anarchy. It's therefore very difficult, politically, for the leaders of these communities to start talking about 'we need to legalize drugs.' This is true all over America, of course, but the problem is magnified in communities of color. The fact is, though, that with one out of three young African American males already caught up in the criminal justice system, the drugs are still there, and they're not going away. How many more young Black lives is the country willing to sacrifice?"
And there are still more problems. The drug war, and the covert nature of the drug trade under Prohibition, has succeeded in casting large segments of the poor population, most notably the young, as suspects in the eyes of the police. A young black male runs the risk -- in fact the near-certainty -- of being accosted by the police simply for being young and black. The overwhelming majority will be arrested or detained at least once before the age of thirty, regardless of how law abiding they might be. All of these factors, of course, have bred disrespect for the law and for those who are paid to enforce it, and have created the cultural view of the police as an invading army. This view inevitably reveals itself in the popular culture. These cultural media, whether songs, movies or videos, are in turn blamed by opportunistic politicians for being a causal, rather than symptomatic aspect of urban problems.
Dr. King's dream, that one day the color of a man's skin would be of no more importance than the color of his eyes, that a man would be judged solely on the content of his character, is certainly closer to reality in America today than it was on the day he lost his life. But in the context of America's domestic war, a war being carried out with a vengeance against African Americans, it is quite clear that the color of a man's skin means everything.
So the next time you hear a politician talking about "getting tougher" in the "War on Drugs," remember that it is really a war on people of color. And when they talk about the war "protecting our children," remember that it is harmful to our children, but it is most definitely protecting the profits of the enormous and growing prison- industrial complex. And then, take a moment to remember Dr. King. And ask yourself whether it is time to put his dream into practice.
Adam J. Smith