Adam J. Smith, Associate Director, [email protected]A report issued this week by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives shows that by the year 2000, the number of African American adults behind bars will reach one million. At that time, roughly one in ten black men will be imprisoned. Not since the days of slavery have so many people of African decent lived in shackles. And no other nation on earth, as far as anyone can tell, is keeping so large a percentage of any ethnic or racial minority locked up in cages.
Clearly, something is wrong.
Last week, Congressman Mark Souder of Indiana, who represents a district that is over 92% white, wrote of the drug war that "gross disparities in conviction rates (between blacks and whites) do not exist." Oh, but they do. Drug offenses are the largest single category of crimes for which Americans are serving time. And blacks comprise more than 55% of those convicted for those offenses, even while reliable studies show that rates of drug use among African Americans are proportionate to their numbers in society.
Congressman Souder, by virtue of the statement above, falls into one of two categories of American lawmakers. First, it is possible that he is wholly uninformed about the realities of a policy for which he is partially responsible. That he might not know the impact of drug prohibition on the Black community is understandable, but inexcusable. Souder comes from one of the most lily-white districts in America. The problems of African Americans are not the problems of his constituents. The majority of his constituents, in fact, probably do not come into much contact with black folks. Unfortunately for the nation, however, Representative Souder gets a vote on drug war legislation just like all the other members of Congress. Just as unfortunate is the likelihood that when Souder talks about drug policy back home, he talks about "zero-tolerance" and "toughness" and "sending a message" to a population who, through no fault of their own, will never have any better idea of the ramifications of such rhetoric than Souder does himself.
The other possibility is worse. That is, that Rep. Mark Souder knows very well that the drug war is being waged against people who don't look like him, who don't look like his constituents, and who don't vote in his district. It is possible that to him, prisons are less a place of residence to an enormous percentage of black people than they are a jobs program for prison guards, a boon to the construction industry, and an easy answer to the problems of poverty, illiteracy and substance abuse. There exists the possibility that Mark Souder does not want people to know that there is a gross disparity in conviction rates between blacks and whites under our drug policies, because then people just might want to know why.
Let us assume, however, that Representative Souder simply doesn't know. Let us assume that the fact that the United States is committing acts of war against black people in the name of protecting white children is something that he just never considered. That leaves us with a question. Would Representative Souder, and all of the elected representatives who continue to call for a tougher approach to the drug war, notice if ten percent of the white community were behind bars? Would "zero tolerance" sound so sweet if the doors being kicked in, the families being broken up, the opportunities being foreclosed, the extra-Constitutional tactics being used were happening in his district? How many junior high school students in Mark Souder's 92% white district are being stopped and frisked on the street? Are we to believe that his district is "drug free?" Perhaps we are not locking up enough of his constituents.
By the year 2000, one out of every ten African American males will be living in a cage. One million blacks in total will be behind bars. As of yet, no call for a re-examination of the wisdom of drug prohibition has gone up in Congress. No task forces have been created to study alternatives to our precious, vicious war. Perhaps our legislators, people like Mark Souder, are simply unaware of the damage that their policies are doing. Let us hope that they become aware before they imprison them all.